Peter Dorelli talks the early years

With the revival of the 1950s and 60s forming a core part of this year’s World Class competition, legendary bartender Peter Dorelli recalls the period that has majorly influenced the way we mix drinks today.

We had the luxury of time in those days

I come from a family of bankers, in Rome. I said then that they were pea-brained and I would never be a banker. And have I been proved right? Certainly I am the luckiest man in the world to have a career in bartending. And I escaped the fate of today’s moneymen!

Anyway, it was 1958 and I had to leave Italy to do something else. The army wanted to conscript me, which was another reason for moving. Plus, whenever you kissed an Italian girl she crossed herself, or her mother would follow you when you took her on a date.

So I wrote to my uncle, saying ‘get me out of here’ and he arranged for me to come to England. First off I landed up just outside Truro, at the Pendower Hotel. It was a real eye-opener. The owner was a Scotsman who I could barely understand. He made the cocktails – which looked awful. God knows what they tasted like. I worked in the adjoining restaurant.

I moved around a lot after that, taking my first bartending job at the Crinan Hotel on the Mull of Kintyre peninsula in Scotland. That was great because plenty of Americans used to come for the golf and the fishing, so I made Manhattans, as well as Negronis, Tom Collins and even the Mint Julep.

But in those days there were no schools or classes. If you wanted to become a bartender you had to find someone to teach you. I’d decided that bartending was to be my world, so I joined the Savoy Group, in London. Joe Gilmore had been at the American bar since 1940 and, along with Victor Gower, had a major influence on my career. We still meet once a month to talk about old times.

Back in the early sixties I was working at the Stone Chop House, a restaurant owned by the Savoy Group. My brother joined me to open a bar there, so I was sent to train under Joe for nine months. It was an incredible experience. I returned to run the Pebble Bar with hugely increased skills and know-how.

A lot of what I was taught concentrated on service. You can be a walking encyclopaedia of drinks, as many bartenders are today. But you have to think about the person who pays the bills, about who it is all for – the guy on the other side of the counter. Charm was very important in those days and it’s something that should never be forgotten.

Funnily enough, when it came to drinks, many of the things that Joe taught me are returning. He was religious about fresh ingredients. We used to squeeze lemons, oranges and grapefruits every day. He was also obsessive about the technical side: the ice was correct; the shaking was done the right way. That sort of thing has returned thanks to Japanese bartenders.

But the cocktails were much simpler – there were just a few classics that people ordered again and again. We saw a lot of gin and tonics, and thanks to the post-war American influence the dry martini was popular. We were also lucky in those days. We didn’t have the Internet to do our research, but we had the luxury of time. We could absorb what we learnt.

So I ran the Pebble Bar my way. We had 10 tables in all, rosewood walls, and black leather chairs and large lampshades. Being just off Wardour Street, near the centre of the London film industry, meant we attracted the stars. Kirk Douglas, Stanley Kubrick, Alec Guinness, Maria Callas and Roger Moore all came in. It was meant to be open from 11 to 11 with a short break in the afternoon, but we had a door, and once that was shut it was shut – they could stay longer.

Later when I moved to the Savoy hotel itself, Dudley Moore dropped by and everyone wanted him to play the piano. He refused but I pleaded with him so he agreed on the basis that I would shake him a martini. I never shook a dry martini, but the situation demanded it, so I did it for the one and only time, and he played.

They seemed to like my Italian nature, my extrovert side. To me it was about being sociable. You have to work on the customer: ‘Hello, good evening, nice to see you again. I’m glad you chose me for your watering hole!’ It was all that sort of thing. They would start with something like: ‘I say, young man, come and get me a gin and tonic?’

It was more formal in those days. We wore white jackets with apron, tie and white shirt with stiff cuffs where I used to write the orders so that it looked like I could memorise everything. The customers always dressed up. They could often be a bit stiff, but you appreciated the effort they made. People had a certain style.

The Americans began to change things; they wanted to be recognised and to have some fun. We introduced vodka as a kind of rebellion against gin – at the time it was only used in a Bloody Mary. And tiki culture arrived, with the bamboo cane chairs and mahogany bar at the Savoy. People forget what an avant-garde place the Savoy was. It was formal, yes, but ahead of its time.

I have some great memories, and I love passing everything I know on to the youngsters. It amazes me that some people finish their job and that’s the end of it. They can’t have enjoyed what they were doing. I might be 72 but I’m definitely not looking to retire just yet!