Bartenders, Drink

Erdem Kayalar, UK bars manager

Erdem oversees all our bars in London, Oxfordshire and Somerset. Here’s how he got here in his own words

I worked in a bar in Istanbul before I came to the UK, but that really was only pouring beer. My first job when I arrived in London was as an usher in Millbank Tower, which just meant standing in the lift and pressing the button to take people up. I lasted about four shifts before I thought, “Enough!” Next I worked at Mayfair residences and then five years ago I started here at Soho House as a bar-back.

I think Soho House is the best site of the whole group in terms of promoting from within. When I was at Soho House 40 Greek Street, the assistant general manager started off as a cleaner. I always say to staff who want to work their way up, “It’s not me giving you a job, it’s you taking a job. The job is there to be taken.” It was just good luck that I started out here, but that philosophy is what’s kept me here.

“It’s not me giving you a job, it’s you taking a job. The job is there to be taken.”

The first thing I ever drank was Efes beer, brewed in Turkey, when I was seven. My cousin poured it into my mouth. It was the bitterest thing I had ever tasted in my life. I hated it and I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to drink it. The next thing was certainly raki, which I sneaked a taste of from my father’s raki table when no one was looking.

The first drink I served was also Efes. When I was growing up in Turkey the government controlled the liquor industry and effectively owned everything except Efes. It’s been quite extraordinary to watch a free market for alcohol emerge in my lifetime.

I was doing a Masters degree in development economics when I came here, but I haven’t finished it. I followed my girlfriend – she’s now my wife – when she came to the UK to do a Masters at the University of Canterbury. It gives me a different perspective on where our ingredients come from – I have a good understanding of the importance of making certain products for small communities and producers all over the world and the networks that ultimately bring them to us to use here.

It’s a rare moment, but one I enjoy, when I see someone drinking a drink I’ve made and really appreciating it. It’s wonderful when you know someone is really going to like what you’ve prepared, that they’ve come to you for your expertise specifically.

Before Mad Men came out on television, if someone ordered an Old Fashioned you’d think, “Who is this guy?” But now people order them all the time. Jon Hamm came in and I couldn’t help myself, I had to make him one. I was amazed when I first watched the show – in the first few episodes there were Martinis, Gimlets, Mai Tais. I thought it was brilliant.

Jon Hamm came in and I couldn’t help myself, I had to make him an old-fashioned

The great thing about working here is that you get to serve some extraordinary people – but I’d love to make drinks for Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, sitting at the same table. In my head they’d just want neat, rough whisky.

I’m a bit old-school, so i like to go to classic bars like Nightjar in Shoreditch and sit at the bar and watch the bartenders at work.

If I was stuck on a desert island I’d want a nice bottle of single malt. That said, if there was watermelon and salty cheese, then I’d want raki. But raki is a social drink – you need a big table, other people and plenty of meze dishes to eat. So whisky might be more appropriate since it’s a more solitary drink.

I was excited to help out with the opening of Soho House Istanbul; the building is absolutely beautiful. Although, in 2000 some of my university friends and I did try to occupy it. It was the American consulate then, and on the day when the war started in Iraq some of my university friends and I joined a big march to occupy it and try and stop the war. We didn’t make it in of course, and we were kettled and teargassed by police. So it’s quite bizarre now to be able to walk in freely and order a Scotch.

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