My Story Part 2: Becoming a Bartender

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve thought about becoming a bartender. I even remember the first time that thought came into my head. I was around 15 years old and my parents had taken me out for dinner. I don’t remember much about the dinner, but I do remember the bar. And in particular, the bartender working that night.

The job wasn’t exactly glamorous. All he did was make a few cocktails, polish some glasses, and pour glasses of wine. It was what came with the job that made it so memorable. While he was making drinks & polishing glasses, he was chatting with the customers or flirting with the waitresses. The customers laughed, the waitresses giggled, and he was absolutely loving it. To an insecure 15-yr-old going through puberty, it looked fantastic!

Was it because I wanted to look cool and chat up attractive women?? Probably… All I knew was that I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to be able to regale customers with entertaining stories and confidently flirt with hot women. 

Bartending is Even Better than it Looks

Now, with 5 years of experience behind me, I know what it feels like to be that guy and it’s just as fun as it looked. But what I didn’t realise, was how much I’d enjoy the other aspects of bartending. Like crafting cocktails, recommending wine, and working a job that gives me the freedom and flexibility to travel the world.

There’s a lot more to bartending (and the hospitality industry for that matter) than meets the eye. Not only do you learn about people and the fascinating world of food & beverage, but you learn life skills that most other jobs won’t teach you.

If I could go back in time, the only thing I’d do differently would be to get into bartending sooner.

Tom with bartender he worked with

How to Become a Bartender

Becoming a bartender can be extremely difficult especially if you don’t have any experience. Yet, virtually every bartending job that’s advertised requires the applicant to have a minimum of 2 years experience… So the question is, how on earth do you become a bartender when you’re just starting out?

It’s a problem every aspiring bartender has to face and it prevents so many people ever getting started. Usually, it goes something like this: You want to become a bartender so you start looking for jobs. You either jump online or print off your resume/CV and hand it in directly to bars, pubs & restaurants.

However, you quickly find that it’s a lot more difficult than you thought. Your told you need experience to get an interview, let alone a trial. After a few unsuccessful applications, you conclude that it’s not possible and give up on the job hunt!

For 3 years, that’s exactly what I did. Every year or so, I decided that it was time to start my teenage dream of becoming a bartender. So I applied for a few jobs but never got past the interview stage. I got frustrated and gave up. It took 3 years before I finally broke into the industry as a waiter and then another year and a half before I became a bartender.

Key Takeaway: Don’t Give Up!

There are a number of different ways people break into bartending. Some people are lucky and just land the job straight away. Others have great connections and get into bartending through them. But, there’s only one way that’s reliable and accessible to everyone (and in my opinion, it’s also the best). And that’s by starting out in a lower position first, either as a barback or a waiter/server. I started out as a server.

Back to My Story

Setting the Scene

I had just turned 23, and I was getting ready to move my life to the mountains. 2 years earlier, my life couldn’t have looked any different. I was studying at university and had just landed a graduate job in accounting. My life was dull and I wasn’t happy with it. So I made the decision to move to France and travel around Europe.

That decision inspired a series of events that eventually led me to quit my accounting job back home, stay in France, and work a ski season in one of the most popular nightclubs in the French alps called Dick’s Tea Bar. 

It’s late Nov 2013 and I’ve just arrived at Geneva airport, Switzerland. This is where I’ll be meeting the rest of The Dick’s Tea Bar team. For the first time in my life, I’ll be working behind the bar. It took a couple of years and a trip across the world, but I’ve finally realised my teenage bartending dream. For a year and a half prior, I was working as a server getting experience in the industry. Now that I’ve paid my dues, it’s time to progress into bartending.

The French Alps Part 1

Meeting the Team

I got to Geneva airport about an hour earlier than the requested meeting time. I was one of the first to arrive, but it didn’t take long before I ran into a couple of the guys I’d be working with. John & Emmett were both English and they were part of The Dick’s Tea Bar security team. None of us had been to Val D’isere before and none of us had worked a ski season, so we had no idea what to expect. It was comforting to know that there were at least a couple of other guys in the same boat. In fact, I could have been in an even better position…. They hadn’t even been skiing before!

While we were waiting for the rest of the team, we sat down, grabbed a coffee, and got to know each other a little bit. We didn’t know at the time, but we were going to be roommates for the next 5 months. We’ve been great friends ever since.

About an hour later, everyone else had arrived. The team consisted of 6 security guys, 4 managers, 2 male bartenders, and 14 incredibly attractive female bartenders. More than half of them were Swedish…. It was going to be a good season!

My Story Part 2: Becoming a Bartender 1

Driving Up into the Alps

After we briefly introduced ourselves, we jumped on the bus and started making our way up into the mountains. None of us knew each other and we were all pretty nervous so it was an interesting bus ride. I even suggested playing ‘I Spy’ at one point, thinking it would break the ice. It didn’t…

But despite a couple of awkward silences, it was still one of the most exciting bus trips I’ve ever been on. We drove past frozen waterfalls, tiny French villages, trees buried under powdered snow, and old churches perched up on mountain tops.

When we finally got to the resort, we had no idea where we were. It was snowing and the sun had disappeared hours earlier. It was too dark to see anything. But we were welcomed with pizza, beer, wine, and champagne, which helped numb any anxieties. We spent the rest of the night getting to know each other over alcohol infused conversation. After a day spent at the airport and a few hours on a bus, it was the best welcoming we could have asked for.

Welcome to Val D’Isere

The next day, I woke up dazed and confused (and probably a little hungover). Where the hell was I?

I got out of bed and took a look outside. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, we were surrounded by mountains, and there was snow EVERYWHERE! I could see people skiing and snowboarding in the distance; there were people in the streets yelling and laughing in funny languages; everyone was decked out in ski gear, and I could hear a couple of English brutes snoring next to me. I couldn’t believe this is where I’d be living for the next 5 months.

Val D'isere ski resort

I felt completely overwhelmed for the first week. I’d wake up and eat breakfast on the balcony, then just sit there and take in the scenery. Then I would either grab my snowboard and hit the slopes. Or go hang out with The Dick’s Tea Bar team and walk around the resort looking for wifi. Then at night, we would hit the town and check out Val D’Isere’s nightlife.

Drinking, partying, socialising & snowboarding, it’s an incredible way to live. There was no stress, no worries, everything was within walking distance, everyone was friendly and everyone was there for a good time. We were on permanent holiday. It was like living on the island in the movie: The Beach. Except we could go snowboarding every day!

Bartending at Dick’s Tea Bar

To put Dick’s Tea Bar into context, it’s one of the most (if not the most) popular nightclubs in the French alps. People would actually travel from other Ski Resorts, London, Paris, etc, just to be there for the big nights. On a busy night, it would rival some the best nightclubs in Ibiza & London. In terms of physical size, it’s not huge, but it’s classy, professional and it puts on an amazing show. We were all extremely lucky to be working there, especially considering that most of us didn’t have any bartending experience.

Night out at Dick's Tea Bar

The first few nights I worked there, I was scared shitless! The club would fill up in about an hour and the bar would be 3 rows deep in no time. I’d never worked behind the bar before so getting thrown into the deep end like that was extremely stressful. People would ask me for strange drinks I’d never heard of, some customers were speaking in French, others in Swedish. It was so busy that girls would try and flirt with me, but I was too lost to even notice. That’s definitely a sign of bad bartending…

But it was the best way I could have learned. Even though it was stressful in the beginning, being thrown into the deep-end like that meant I was forced to learn fast. I didn’t have time to think about how bad I was. I just did what I could do as fast as I could. And by doing it over and over again, and learning from every mistake I made (there were a lot!), I quickly got a handle on the job.

Getting Promoted to Head Bartender

After a month of working under the pump, bartending became second nature. In between making drinks, serving customers, and wiping down the bar, I was dancing with Swedish girls, drinking beer, and having shots with my managers. I even started to notice when girls were coming on to me!

Despite it being a lot of fun, it was still hard work. There were kegs to change, cocktails to shake, floors to mop, vomit to clean up, broken glasses to pick up, and drunk customers to deal with. But the positives far outweighed the negatives and I loved it. And because of that, I worked my arse off and was promoted to head bartender half-way through the season.

Life in the Mountains

One of the downsides of living and working in a ski resort is that there isn’t that much to do. But that’s compensated with 1 huge upside. You can go skiing and/or snowboarding every single day! As soon as the lifts opened, I was in the mountains learning how to snowboard. And since I was practicing virtually every day, it didn’t take long to pick up. After about a month, I could board down every run in the resort.

The slopes weren’t just for riding. One of my most memorable days was when a group of us took a picnic up the ski lifts and found an amazing view overlooking Val D’isere and the mountain ranges in the distance. We just chilled out, drank beer, ate ham and cheese baguettes, and played around in the snow for hours. The sky was clear, the sun was shining, and it was warm (very rare in the alps). Half of us were wearing t-shirts for god’s sake!

Val D'isere group enjoying the mountain

Then there were the infamous apres ski bars. Bars specifically designed for skiers and snowboarders after they had finished riding for the day. And these bars were just as crazy as the bars people visited at night. The only difference was that they would go off in the middle of the afternoon and everyone was dancing in ski boots.

Then at the end of every day, we would ride back down the mountain, chill out, have another beer, watch a movie, play a game of cards, or take a quick nap before work that night. The days were even better than the nights, and the nights were nothing short of spectacular.

Finishing the Season

Snowboarding every day, bartending/partying every night, Ski Seasons are truly something special. And to think that if I didn’t buy my first plane ticket, I would have been back in Melbourne, wearing a suit, taking the train every day, and working a job that I didn’t enjoy. Instead, I was in the alps, working as a bartender, partying with Swedish girls, and snowboarding every day. It was exactly what I wanted when I first thought about moving my life abroad.

It was one of the best experiences I’d ever had and I wanted to do it again. So I asked my managers if I could come back and work at Dick’s Tea Bar the next season. And because I’d worked my arse off and actually enjoyed working there, they couldn’t have been happier. They invited me back as the bar manager… I accepted the position immediately.

The only question I had now, was what I would do with the next 7 months. So I decided that it was time go back home. It felt like I’d been away for years despite it only being a few months and I was genuinely surprised at how much I was looking forward to coming home.

After saying goodbye to Val D’isere and all my friends, I stopped off in Nice to catch up with my brother before spending the next 30 hours flying back home.

What was I going to do back home?

At the time I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that I enjoyed bartending and I wanted to keep doing it.

Moving Back to Melbourne

It was weird being back home. Other than the brief visit I made before my first ski season, I hadn’t been home for 2 years… I had lost contact with most of my friends, I was living with my parents again, and I had to drive everywhere to get anywhere. In Europe, I just had to walk down the street.

But other than having fewer friends, nothing had changed. The friends that I did stay in contact with were still doing the same thing, my parents were doing the same thing, my dog was doing the same thing, even my house was doing the same thing! It felt like I’d gone back in time.

I’ve since realised that feeling weird despite nothing changing, is a surprisingly normal emotion after a period of long-term travel. Because you experience so much in a relatively short period of time (in comparison to everyone back home), it feels like you’ve changed and everything and everyone, should have changed with you. But nothing has. While you’re off having an adventure of a lifetime, everyone is back home doing exactly the same thing. It’s an odd experience…

Looking for Work

One of the biggest differences between who I was before I moved my life abroad, and who I was 2 years later, was that I actually had a couple years of experience in the hospitality industry. That’s exactly what most jobs require of their applicants. It made looking for a job easier, but not as easy as you’d think.

People actually exaggerate how important experience is when you’re looking for work. Now that I’ve been a bar manager and hired my own staff, I’ve realised there are much more important things that managers look for. For example, I believe work ethic and social skills are more important than experience. If someone wants to learn but has no experience, I’d hire them every day of the week over someone who has experience but can’t be bothered to adapt to a new bar.

However, I will say this, it does help with getting your foot in the door, ie: for an interview or a trial. But if you’re no good and you don’t have the right attitude, it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve worked in hospitality.

Fortunately, I had the right attitude and I was good. I wanted to learn and I worked hard so within my first week of being back home, I’d landed 3 jobs. I took the job that was strictly a bartending position at a restaurant called Rococo. It seemed the most challenging, I’d learn a lot about coffee & cocktails, and it offered the most hours.

But to be honest, I didn’t think if would be that difficult for me… I thought that after my ‘extensive’ bartending experience (sarcasm intended), nothing would be more difficult than Dick’s Tea Bar. I was wrong…

Bartending in Melbourne

To put Rococo into perspective, it’s an extremely busy casual dining Italian restaurant in one of the edgiest areas in Melbourne. Despite it being casual dining, they prided themselves on their high levels of service. They held training sessions for the staff once a week, they had an extensive wine list, a fantastic menu, and a creative cocktail list. It was a serious operation and they were killing it. It was easily the most popular restaurant in the area.

Working as a bartender there, meant that I would make the drinks for the waiters and waitresses to take to the tables. I barely served customers, I was just making drinks, but not the drinks I was used to. Every now and then, I’d get the occasional Vodka Soda Lime, or gin & tonic. But the rest of the time was spent making crazy cocktails, smoothies, barista quality coffee, milkshakes, and decanting expensive wine.

My Story Part 2: Becoming a Bartender 2

It felt even busier than Dick’s Tea Bar except everything was more complicated. It took me longer than a month just to learn the cocktail list and that was by taking the recipe list home to study it. Then, it took another month after that before I was ‘allowed’ to make coffee for customers even though I was practicing every day. And the wine list always remained a mystery to me, despite the sommelier trying to help.

Getting Promoted to Bar Manager

The best part about working at Rococo was working with the Bar Manager, Josh. Josh had been working in the industry for over 10 years and had managed cocktail bars, nightclubs & restaurants, around Australia. He knew his shit and he was passing as much as he could onto me. He taught me the fundamentals of mixology, how to brew coffee and pour the perfect latte, how to taste wine & whisky, how to develop my palette, and he recommended several books for me to read.

Unfortunately, he didn’t stay there for as long as I’d hoped. He was moving on from the bartending world into a different industry. But before he left, he gave me one final gift. He recommended that I replace him as the bar manager. And to help me out, he stayed on for a month so he could teach me the fundamentals of managing a bar.

I’ve never learned so much in such a short period of time and I still can’t believe how lucky I was to work with him. He introduced me to a world I didn’t know existed. A world of craft cocktails, wine, whisky, beautiful coffee, and bartending as a potential career.

Of the 5 months I spent working at Rococo, 4 of them were spent managing the bar. That meant hiring & training staff, organising the roster, ordering stock, organising cleaning schedules, and most importantly, making sure the staff were doing their jobs! It was the best preparation I could have asked for before my second ski season.

But before heading back to Val D’Isere, I had some things I needed to take care of in the UK. So I decided to move my life to London…

Other Parts in the Series

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