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Studied to become a kitchen chef, became a bartender… the very good one – Denis Lungu #bartenderoftheweek

Denis Lungu / Motel One • Zurich- #bartenderoftheweek

Meet this amazing bartender and humble, super positive human being. His story can inspire many of You when You think that World has turned itself against You. Straight from Italy, born again in Switzerland, Ladies and gentlemen, I give You my this week`s #bartenderoftheweek – Denis Lungu from Motel One bar in Zurich.

1.How’s the bartending career started for You?

D: I was born and raised in Vicenza, a place close to Verona in Italy.

With 15 I was a student of the Pellegrino Artusi, one of the most renowned public schools in Italy for hospitality. 

Every day, I had to go through a daily ordeal of more than two hours (back and forth) to go to school. This was obviously not a typical situation for a teenager. However, I did it for my passion, which was cooking. 

 Yes, you read it right. I studied to become a Chef. 

Originally, my plan was to finish my studies, come to Switzerland, save money for two years and then to go back to Italy to study at ALMA, the school of Gualtiero Marchesi (one of the most renowned Chefs in the world). Once finished my plan was to go to the States for a year and then to Japan, my dream destination. However, as you can imagine, my journey ultimately changed.

My change of plan occurred when I first got in contact with the bar itself. I learned that one should be curious and try to learn as much as possible. Hence, I started to listen, learn and catch every possible opportunity to experience even more. 

During my studies at the Pellegrino Artusi, I worked part-time in different restaurants. My first working experience started in a big restaurant with more than 900 seating places. Here at first, I worked as a waiter. After some time, I had the opportunity to work behind the “bar” (so-called bar, as it was practically just draft beer and simple drinks from a machine). My first contact with my new dream career just happened. 

During this period, my mum and dad decided to move to Switzerland. To be economically independent, I took on a second job in a small and cosy cocktail bar. However, although it was a really nice bar, I did not have the opportunity to work behind the bar directly. What a pity!  

Once I finished my studies, I quit my job in the restaurant and took on another job in a cafeteria as a barista where I had to wake up every day at 5 a.m. Therefore, during the daytime, I worked in a café, and during nighttime, I worked in the small cosy bar. 

Life was good until I had an accident with one of my fingers, which I practically destroyed. I lost my job and consequently moved to my parents to Switzerland.

Once my finger was more or less healed (more or less, because still up until today it’s a cripple) I decided to move back to Italy: My priorities were fixing my relationship, my finger and finding a job. As you can imagine, finding a job did not work out, and neither did fixing my relationship. For my finger, I went through hell: two surgeries without success and many months of different physiotherapies. Consequently, I moved back to Switzerland and started to work in a restaurant in Thalwil. I was determined to follow my dream: earn money and go back to cooking school.

While working in Thalwil, I once again worked behind the bar. And here is where my original plan started to crumble as I started to feel passionate about the bar and everything magical around it. 

The summer ended, and so did my job. I was once again in front of nothing. No B permit, no German language skills and nowhere to go. Once again, I decided not to give up and to sweat it out. I decided to find a new job and to learn German. Thankfully, I did find a job, although badly paid. The job was a bartender job, paid far below legal requirements. However, it gave me the opportunity to approach the fascinating world of the bar. And once again, my passion for cocktails started to grow.

After a few months of trial and error (yes, I did not even know what the Old Fashioned was) I had the opportunity to start at one of the most well known Gay Bars of Switzerland: The Cranberry Bar. My career as a professional bartender started here: I learned how to mix classics, developed new skills and became a passionate bartender. Everything changed and so did my life plan.

My personal experience helped me a lot to develop self-confidence. I came from “what is the Old Fashioned?” and moved to “I do Old Fashioned competitions” in no time. After almost two years at Cranberry Bar, I started to work for the lounge bar at Motel One in Zurich. Here, I had the freedom to focus on my career and interests. Internal training were a big plus for me. I learned more about customer orientation and customer needs, body language (the famous DISC personality traits), self-assessment and self-development, both, professionally and privately. 

Additionally, I also decided to invest in myself personally. I attended many courses, especially from the Campari Academy and from Dennis Zoppi, did some Master Classes around Europe, went to different Bar Conventions (Berlin and Milan) and read many specialized bar books.

And that’s how I became a passionate bartender who strives for the best.

2. You’ve won quite a few cocktail competitions lately. Can You list them all? What do You think that is your biggest strength in competitions? 

D:Well won quite a few, not really  

I became second at the Monin Cup in 2018, first at The Hecicera competition and the Thomas Henry Coffe Tonic Competition in 2019 and 2018. Further, I did some other small competitions where I was among the finalists. 

My biggest strength for the competitions? 

That’s a difficult question to answer.

I think that it is all about understanding the competition and the brand behind it. What is the objective behind the competition? Is it to sell a new product, is it to create a new drink or is it to see new bartender skills? On my side, my biggest strength is to be flexible and to adapt to the given situation. I always try to understand the needs and emotions of the judges and I consider the human factor in terms of senses and environment (i.e.: if it’s a rainy winter day, then something warm is my preferred choice. On a sunny summer day, a frozen drink is the choice to make).

Another thing that helps me a lot is to be open to feedback. I ask as many people as possible and pitch them my ideas. Most importantly, I do also involve people who are not from the bar community. This gives me the opportunity for some fresh inputs. 

This is exactly what I did at the Monin Cup. Feedback is key. You have to listen, reflect and adapt.  

Originally, I prepared another recipe for the competition:

My first drink was a carrot-based drink with a matcha foam. The idea behind it was to recreate a carrot in a glass. 

The recipe: Gin, Carrot Puree, 100% Bio Carrot juice, mango and white grape vinegar plus a foam made of matcha. 

All served in a Quattro Stagioni glass. 

For me, the drink was “the” drink for the competition: The memory of a grandma putting carrots in the glass, some fresh and healthy juice, a sweet and acid vinegar with digestive properties, a unique combination between carrots and the Japanese matcha, which translates into energy and the aromatic gin combining all the ingredients together. Further, a small carrot placed on the drink as a healthy bite.

I loved the taste, the texture and the idea. The drink was savoury, fresh, and a little acid but sweet at the same time. 

Once I gave it to people to try, just a few of them really liked it. It was difficult for me to accept, but I did. I had to leave my ego behind and started to focus on something more simple. Something liked by everyone, not just experts from the field.

I then created (after several fails) a new drink. Personally, I did not like it so much. For me it just was ok. However, every person that tried it was like: “wow I love it”. Therefore, I decided to go for this drink.

My drink for the Monin Cup was a simple frozen drink, made with gin, Aperol, fresh ginger, coconut syrup and some lime juice. Mixed in a blender with crushed ice and served in a Quattro Stagioni glass, garnished with a fresh slice of ginger and some thyme. 

My final tip: work clean, make a drink that is liked and stay humble. Additionally, make something unexpected for competition: in this case, I made a frozen drink.

3. This will be a bit of a private question – your partner has a day (office) job, how do You manage to combine two such different styles of living into one, healthy relationship? There’s a belief in our industry, that such relationships have no, or very small chances for survival.

D:Sounds impossible and difficult but it is not. What you need to do is to have guidelines from the beginning and manage expectations. 

When I met my boyfriend, and we first started dating, I always told him clearly what to expect. My job is my passion and hence very important to me. 

In the end, we were also very lucky because we met right after my cruciate ligament surgery. Hence, I had some time off from work, and we had time to get to know each other. 

Even if we are as black and white, in January, we will celebrate our 3rd anniversary. 

When I say we are like black and white I really mean it:

He did his Masters in economics with “magna cum laude”; I finished my studies with the minimum needed grades. He is super orderly and methodical, I am a chaotic guy and somehow messy. He doesn’t like to have people in the house; I would also invite the friend of the friend of the friend. He doesn’t like to talk a lot; I talk far too much. He has control of everything he does; I do not. He is good with numbers; I’m good with emotions. I could tell you a thousand other examples, but I guess you get what I mean with black and white. 

My opinion is that having a healthy relationship means having a good balance between head, emotions and desires. Everything else can be worked on. 

You don’t need to be the same, but you need to want each other, fight for each other and build the relationship together

We don’t see us so often, and that gives us the opportunity to miss us a lot. Therefore, we also call us during break time every time we have the chance.

However, this does not mean that we don’t fight. We actually do. However, every time one of us manages to reduce the tension and in the end we make peace.

4.This might be a silly question, but how does it feel to be gay in the bartending community. Do You think that it gives You more advantages, disadvantages or it does not make any difference on your career path?

D:I love this question. Many in fact think that if you’re gay, you have more chances to win (keyword: diversity), or that you can touch a woman’s boob without problems. 

Well about the first one, I would love to say it’s like this but is not. In the competitions, I’ve wanted that the judges were not informed about my sexual orientation. I usually do not shout out loud that I am gay. Not because I am scared, but more because I think it does not matter. I always introduce myself as the person I am, and if someone asks if I have a girlfriend, I reply yes I have a boyfriend. I take it as simple as it is, I don’t like to show it, but neither I do hide it.

Generally, I did not have any bad experiences. People were always nice to me, and I never had the idea of someone having a problem with my sexual orientation. I know I am lucky in this matter. 

And about touching a woman’s boobs, well I will tell you privately.  

5.What are your future plans and goals? Are you planning to keep developing your career within this industry? If yes, then how? 

D:In the future, I would like to open my own bar and build on it to open more than one. So yes, I want to stay in this highly exciting industry.

I’m also planning to develop my career through courses in a wide area of expertise, not only in bar management but also in general management and marketing. My focus lies on everything that has to do with creativity and everything that could help me to provide a better customer experience.

Daily, I pose myself questions about how I could do it better and what I can improve. You should never remain still live.

6.What are your ways of finding a work-life balance?

D:My goal is to take my mind off work (which is difficult). To reach this goal, I walk my dog Tay, I meditate, read and go for a run (I just recently started again). 

Further, I like to cook at home for my boyfriend, meet people, travel around, walk in the woods and stay a lot in contact with nature. Giving importance and value to my private life when I’m not at work helps me find a good balance. 

In this way, I manage to recharge myself to 100%. But, when I feel that this is not sufficient, I go on holiday

Don`t forget to check out following posts on my Instagram account – www.instagram.com/bartourist

Motel One - Zurich

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