The move from fashion to bartending happened accidentally. I'd worked as a fashion editor on a Berlin-based magazine and as a freelance stylist. I started to think that I was getting too old for it. When you work for clients, you've got all these junior art directors fresh from university in their early 20s and you're in your late 30s. I briefly worked in PR, which was a nightmare. It didn't work out at all. At some point, I was really clueless about what to do.
I'd been friends with Jörg Meyer, the owner of upmarket bar Le Lion Bar de Paris in Hamburg, for more than 20 years—I'm the godfather of his youngest daughter. One day, I was talking to Jorg and he asked if I was looking for a job. I wasn't really looking really but he said, "Why don't you work for me?" I said, "What do you mean work for you?" and he told me as a bartender. I replied, "I love to drink, I love to get wasted at your place, I've known your place since the very beginning. But the only difference I can tell between drinks is Champagne and a beer." He told me I could learn.
I was very skeptical about it. We agreed on a three-week internship to see how bar life worked. Now, I'm the head bartender.
I learned everything from my former bar manager. We had training sessions twice a week where we'd get to know all the spirits and all the techniques. The first six months when I was working at the bar, you'd only do a little bit of service. You're not allowed to work behind the bar. After six months, you're allowed to do your first bar shift.
I remember that it was a Wednesday night, because Wednesday nights are very quiet at our bar. I was allowed to do some drinks and be at the back. But that night was packed—like packed as hell. I was sweating like a pig, I was so nervous. There's a classic cocktail called an Old Cuban, which is a Champagne cocktail with rum, lime, mint, and Angostura bitters. And every time I had to do an Old Cuban cocktail, I forgot something, whether it was the Angostura or the mint. My bar manager was laughing at it and saying, "Oh, you made an Old Cuban? But that's not an Old Cuban. There's something missing." There was always something missing. But after two years, I know how to do it.
When you talk about working hours, I have to tell you that night time is really my time of the day. For almost 20 years, I really hated being at the office at 9 AM and having a meeting at 9.30 AM. My brain doesn't work at that time of the day. You can give me coffee, whatever, but I can't make any decisions at 9.30 AM in the morning. I'm completely dead. Nowadays, working in a bar, my day starts at 3 PM or 4 PM, we open the bar by 5 PM, and I get the first clients by 5.30 PM. That's perfect for me.
My private life has completely changed since my job in fashion. Now I'm working when all my friends are off. But on the other hand, they all come and join me at the bar, so I have them around whenever I want.
What I like most about my job is that you are in constant contact with people, in comparison to the jobs I've done before. When you work in fashion as an editor or as a PR, when you produce something for a client, it always takes days or weeks to get the results. To get feedback, you have to wait for somebody's opinion. The good thing about working as a bartender is that you make a cocktail and you get the result and response instantly, whether they like it or not. And once the bar shift is over, your job is done and you can go home. There's nothing else to worry about.
Plus, it's such a gift to make people happy and to be honest, make them drunk.
When you work in fashion, it always takes days or weeks to get the results. The good thing about working as a bartender is that you make a cocktail and you get the response instantly, whether they like it or not.
There are some similarities between fashion and bartending. When you work for a client, you get a briefing but you can never predict how they're going to react at the result. I think that's a similarity to bartending. You talk about ingredients, you talk about whether people want a sweet or sour drink, or a strong one, and you can still surprise someone with the end result. My speciality is tequila and mezcal, which is quite tricky in Germany because people say they don't like tequila or mezcal. I always tell them that I'll do a cocktail and they'll like it. I think 99 percent of the time, I succeed.
I also think working in fashion helped my bartending career progress so quickly, having started just two years ago. If you want to succeed, it's a job like any other and you have to be professional. But you also have to keep an eye on detail—like I learned when I was working on bespoke suits. I'm going to represent Germany at the world semi-final of the Patrón Perfectionists Cocktail Competition next January, and to win the national heat, I was practising the cocktail on a daily basis. My colleagues went nuts. I would tell them the story of my cocktail over and over, and they all moaned that they knew it off by heart in the end.
I haven't worked behind the bar during fashion week but I attended many parties when I worked in fashion. During Milan Fashion Week about ten years ago, I was attending the aftershow party for the Gucci show when Tom Ford worked there. I was wearing a custom made jacket with a bright, neon Japanese dragon hand painted over the whole back. It was very flamboyant. I was standing by the bar and was really drunk. Someone standing next to me said, "I like your jacket" and I was like, "Er, thank you." Then I turned around and it hit me that it was Tom Ford! I just stood there was like, "Fuck, fuck, say something clever." Then he was off. I hated myself.
After the Gucci experience, I tried to avoid alcohol when I was attending fashion weeks. The Gucci story is the most tragic.
Dirk Jens Gueldner is the former fashion editor of Berlin magazine MAXIM and has also worked as a fashion stylist and PR. He is now head bartender at Le Lion Bar de Paris in Hamburg.