Interview: Colin Peter Field of the Hemingway Bar Paris
One of the world's most celebrated bartenders takes over NYC's The Mark Hotel
Enjoying a well-made cocktail is a sensory experience akin to consuming any other form of art. And yet, because of the ephemeral nature of food and drink, cocktails are often neglected when considering great artistic masterpieces. As such, so are their creators—for the most part. That can't be said of Colin Peter Field, however. The craftsman exists in the highest tier of the bartending world with only a handful of others—and for just cause. Back in 1994, Field took on the top spot at the Hôtel Ritz Paris' world famous Hemingway Bar. It was a hot spot at the heart of a historic hotel, and he really was a master of ceremonies.
The Hemingway Bar temporarily shuttered its doors in 2012 while the Ritz-Paris underwent renovations and will re-open in early 2015, but Field has kept very busy until he returns there. We met with the master at NYC's The Mark Hotel, during his guest residency (which will continue to 11 October 2014) inside the hotel's Jean-Georges restaurant. There, we had an opportunity to speak on what truly makes a good cocktail—and sample his exclusive menu.
"My most favorite drink in the whole wide world is called the Serendipity," he shares with CH. "It was created in September 1994." (In fact, it was Field who created it.) The Serendipity is one of the few modern cocktails that have become a new classic. The drink stood as the centerpiece of the Ritz-Paris' menu under Field, and was the most popular beverage served each night for almost two decades. Field refers to the drink as "France in a glass." The primary ingredients hail from the nation, with the base spirit being Normandy's beloved apple brandy Calvados and the topper being champagne. During the cocktail's heyday, the bars within the Ritz were using nine bottles of Calvados a day to prepare Serendipities. No small feat, seeing as the Hemingway Bar itself only sat roughly 34 people at a time. And while that drink may have become his signature, Field's mission extends beyond. "I want to make the head bartender a mythical figure," he explains. And he has gone about this mission by reading the people in front of him.
Making cocktails is not about making a cocktail. It's about who the person is in front of you.
People tend to be what's on Field's mind as he prepares a drink. "Making cocktails is not about making a cocktail. It's about who the person is in front of you. Why? You aren't making a cocktail for the cocktail. You're making a cocktail for a person," he shares. And in a flash, his mind sizes up the individual across and gets to work. "Why are you in front of me? Are you working or not working? How are you dressed? Where are we right now? We are in the same square meter. The same humidity. The same noise. And I'm on duty." Through intuition and conversation, Field then approaches creation, where even the garnish factors into what he will customize for the individual across from him. That allows for variation in each recipe, something he believes is a necessity. "Every cocktail is different. I can understand bartenders that want to use doses. They want every cocktail to be exactly the same. The Mark, The Ritz, we are in haute couture. It's the individual and not the masses. Every cocktail I make is for the person across from me." This belief and behavior is something that's defined Field, and something he believes has delivered him success.
Of equal importance, Field explains, "It's a performance every night." And that is what's to be expected at The Ritz when it re-opens, or anywhere he is behind the bar. "In The Hemingway Bar, we actually have curtains draped across the door. The doors will open at 6:30 on the dot. The curtains pull open and the performance begins." Field traditionally arrives 10 minutes prior, nervous for what's ahead. "I've got to say the right things. It's going to be a show. I must meet people, who I want to leave saying, 'Oh my God.' We must know what everyone is talking about. We have to understand what people are saying without them saying it."
Field spends his days teaching cocktail-making, but his true home is in hospitality. "Hotels are my life," he begins, "The Ritz is the only hotel in Europe that you walk into and realize you are creating history in your life. You know that the next 30 minutes, hour, will become history for you. It's a slow-motion matrix of actually creating history, and there's soul in there. You get the artist, the writer, someone in fashion. They come together and it's good fun. It's the cosmos." In that environment, Field thrives.
As for how he ended up in his current residency at The Mark, he says "Olivier Lordonnois (the hotel's General Manager) has been a good acquaintance of mine, if not a friend, for over 15 years. He used to come over to the Hemingway Bar some evenings after a day at the Costes and I would take care of him. He's a man of amazing elegance." The two would talk for hours, especially regarding hotels. When Field arrived in NYC this time around, unannounced he visited The Mark to pay a visit to Lordonnois. "We ended up drinking margaritas and talking and I said, 'We have to do something together.' The idea of doing something with Olivier after 15 years of knowing each other was irresistible."
Lordonnois proposed a takeover of the front bar, but Field found it bustling already and asked to be situated in the back. "I love long bars. A short bar is four people, lovely conversation, good fun—but my preference is long bars with a maximum amount of people, a maximum amount of show, where people can watch the presentation, see you shake, watch the way you pour things. There, you get the right people together." Field and his magnificent cocktail creations will be at The Mark through 11 October 2014.
Lead images courtesy of Hôtel Ritz Paris, The Mark Hotel image courtesy of Julie Glassberg and The Mark Hotel/Colin Peter Field signature cocktail images courtesy of Noah Fecks