Zuma Imports Award-Winning Mixologist From London Venue
Although he's been in town for only a week, he seems to know the lay of the land pretty well. Perhaps the transition was made easier because he already has a circle of Zuma-phites to call upon -- Steven Haigh, Zuma's general manager; executive chef Bjoern Weissgerber; and James Shearer, Zuma's current bar manager (who is heading to Zuma's Hong Kong location) have all worked, and played, together before. After spending just shy of four years at Zuma in London, he jumped at the opportunity to move stateside.
We inquired about his mixology philosophy and discovered the secret to his success begins with good old-fashioned hard work. Oh, and he thinks the screwdriver is the lamest name in all of cocktail-dom.
New Times: How did you begin your mixology career?
Theo Von Ungern-Sternberg: It was actually just as I started going to University. I needed a job to put myself through while I was there. I went to see a friend of mine who was working at a nearby bar -- the Grand Café at the Royal Exchange. We were talking about jobs and what I should do and she said 'they're looking for people at this bar around the corner, why don't you go and ask.' I'd never even thought about cocktails in my entire life. I must have been 22 or 23 years old. I went in, they asked me if I'd had any cocktail experience - I lied through my teeth and I got a job. The bar manager at the time saw right through me by the end of my first shift, but thought I had potential.
What qualities do you think are essential for a mixologist?
It's very important to embrace new things and be able to roll with the punches. Also to be willing to start at the bottom somewhere and work your way up. It's always a good way to get knowledge and training in any subject. It's very much the case, specifically in London, you do need to start at the bottom -- so there's a sense of progression. I think it's important to have the will and drive to make your way up.
What's the mix between art and science when developing new cocktails?
I think it's an interesting balance in that the art side of things is the desire to create, and the science is the honing of that creation and coming up with something brand-new and interesting. So the artistic side for me is where it all begins, and the science is where it's going.
So you were a pretty big deal in London. Was it hard to relocate? Did you decide you wanted to come to the U.S., or did you come because of this opportunity?
Solely because of this opportunity. I mean, I've always wanted to travel, but I've never been in a position where I could travel. And then the opportunity presented itself, and I grabbed it at both ends, wouldn't let go, and shook the life out of it. I intend to be here for as long as possible.
What are the latest and upcoming trends in cocktails that you see?
In London, there was a steady progression from molecular mixology and then focusing on Prohibition-style drinks -- really going into the classics and reworking them so they're modern classics. Now it's gone into an era before that, the Victorian era -- so you're talking pre-Prohibition, 1800s -- and there's a plethora of original recipes you can go through and things to play with. I'm really hoping to bring that into Miami.
Is there one historic cocktail you would like to "fix" or wipe off the map completely?
The screwdriver! It's a vodka orange. Why give it a cocktail name?
Check back tomorrow when we find out what he plans on bringing to the bar at Zuma, and his favorite drink on the menu.
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