Alexandru Nicolau is a supervisor bartender at The Ivy Cafe on Marylebone Lane. The 24-year-old Romanian moved to London six months ago, bringing his flair for mixing drinks to the cocktail capital of the world
Interview: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Portrait: Orlando Gili
Everybody calls me Alex. I’m the only person of that name working here, whereas back home in Romania there are tons of us. I was born in 1995, and let’s just say that there was a huge lack of imagination from parents, because every boy born around that time was called either Alex or Andre.
I am from a tiny Romanian city called Braila, which is about three hours away from the capital, Bucharest. There’s nothing much to do there. Modern things didn’t reach us. People say that Romania is 10 years behind in technology and that’s true. Honestly, it’s a cold, hard fact. Bucharest and a few other cities are just about up to date, but the smaller ones like Braila are a decade behind in everything.
I come from quite a small family, just mum, dad and my older sister. We’d go on trips to the seaside and during the spring or summer we’d hike up in the Carpathian Mountains, a huge range that runs from Romania right up to Ukraine. It’s just so beautiful up in those mountains. I’ve always been into sports and after school would always be off playing football and basketball.
At school, I always had the highest grades out of all the boys in my class, but there were always the same three girls ahead of me. I liked every subject except maths. I never could understand how anybody could like maths—I don’t know how these people even exist. But I always loved English, just because of the teachers. I was lucky to have good English teachers right through school.
I also speak Italian, though not as good as my English, but I can get by. And working here alongside people from all over the world, including Spain and South America, I’ve started to pick up a bit of Spanish. The Latin languages—like Romanian, Italian, Spanish and French—are all quite similar. I studied English and Romanian at college with the idea of becoming an English teacher, but soon realised that it would be hard to make a decent living, because the teachers out there are paid virtually nothing.
I decided to leave Romania. I found most of the people there to be quite narrow in their view, and I wanted to be able to see a bit further than them—so that’s why I started travelling. I went to the United States, because I was always very curious to see what life is like over there, and then spent a year working in Italy. I adore Italy. The people are warm and welcoming, the weather is fantastic and the food is awesome—Italian cuisine is in my personal top three.
I moved to London six months ago and started working at The Ivy Cafe a month later. This place is awesome. I have worked in lots of bars, cafes, pubs and nightclubs, and this is definitely one of my favourites, if not my favourite. The ambiance is very cool, very relaxing, and we have so many nice customers.
London is basically where bartending was born and developed. And that’s why I came here. I have liked bartending since day one, working at numerous places back in Romania. But I knew that I needed to step up and that’s why I’m here in London. I’m trying to make a name for myself because the bartending scene is huge and there are so many amazing places in this city where you can do this job. Before I started here, I’d been to about five interviews, and because I have a nice CV a lot of them offered me work. But I chose The Ivy Cafe because I saw it as a place where I could really develop my skills.
The thing I enjoy most is dealing with the customers. Anybody can learn the recipe for each cocktail, but the most important thing is knowing how to deal with the customers. There are so many different kinds of people and you need to know how to deal with them all. There are a lot of nice people in Marylebone—not troublemakers. If you work at a bar in some other parts of London, you never know what might happen. But in here everybody is so relaxed. I’ve never had an argument with a customer here, but in America I argued with them all the time. Out in the States they could be a little bit more difficult, let’s say—not all of them, of course, many of them were brilliant. But here they are lovely.
I share an apartment in East Finchley with my best friend, who also works here. He used to be a DJ—now he’s a full-time sous chef, though he still makes music in his spare time. I like to take care of myself and so I go to the gym. I also play basketball with my friend. We often get together and play tournaments. Two weeks ago, there was a festival in High Barnet and about 30 of us ended up playing a small basketball tournament on an outdoor court. My position is point guard—the one who directs the traffic.
From time to time, I like to go partying, because London is a great place to do that and I’m still young. I like to go clubbing. I used to work in nightclubs and I love going to them, but it can be hard to go as a customer because I start to care too much about the bartenders and I try too hard not to make a mess. You can get to the point where you don’t know how to have fun anymore. So, I’m trying to go out as much as possible now to remember how to be a customer.
I love living and working here in London. I love the diversity of the people and the fact that you can do so many different activities. There are a lot of sights to see and some amazing parks like Regent’s Park and Hyde Park. The parks back home aren’t as beautiful as the ones in London. The only thing I don’t like about being in London is that the rents are too damn high. And I also miss my family and friends back in Romania.
I would love to own my own bar one day. I’m not sure if it would be here in London, though, because the competition is extremely tough and if you want to open something then you have to come up with a brand new, cutting-edge idea. Mine would just be somewhere where people can have fun. I’m a huge fan of stand-up comedy and I enjoy places where you can grab something to eat, some finger food, have a drink and just watch some stand-up. The British people are very funny. You have great comedians over here.