Five minutes with… Lucia Montanelli

The Dorchester’s head bartender Lucia Montanelli discusses Riviera summer cocktail ingredients in the rooftop bar, and why she’s excited about beer glass sprayers

Food and Drink 28 Jul 2022

The Dorchester's Lucia Montanelli

The Dorchester head bartender Lucia Montanelli

Tell us a little about your background… where in Italy are you from?

I come from Viareggio in Tuscany and I was born into hospitality – my parents had a restaurant and so did my aunt. I first worked at Club Nautico in the yacht harbour when I was 14 – even doing a bit of bartending on the quiet! While I was at hospitality school, I would work there in the summer and, in winter, at a four-star hotel in the mountains. I moved to Florence to work at the rooftop bar of the Westin Excelsior hotel for two years, then came to London.

Did you come straight to The Dorchester?

Funnily enough, I was on the bus in from Stansted and talking to a friend on the phone when we stopped at the lights by The Dorchester. I said, ‘This place looks nice…’ and she said, ‘Forget it – there are never any jobs going. No one ever leaves!’ So I took a job at the St James’s Hotel and Club, which was great. But, a few months later, I heard there was a job going as bartender at The Dorchester’s The Grill. I got to the fourth interview before the food and beverage manager finally got me to admit that I didn’t really want that job; I wanted to work in the main bar. But thankfully he decided to introduce me to Giuliano [Morandin, the legendary Dorchester bar manager] and the next day I had a job in the bar… although it was waiting tables at first. 

So, did you have to fight to get to be head bartender?

Giuliano told me that no woman had ever been a long-term bartender there. I said, ‘Perfect – I’ll be the first.’ And, after years, I was – but I have not been the last. That was in 2014 and I became head bartender in 2021. But Giuliano has been a mentor to me – he taught me everything I needed to understand about guests and service. The redesigned bar that will open in the autumn will be his legacy and I’m so proud he will be here to help me open it and hand over the jewel to me.

Why is there such a great tradition of Italian bartending?

Well, first, we are a narrow peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea – and the fourth side is ski resorts. Also, in Italian education, we specialise earlier. We start at 14 or 15 in hospitality school and study for five years – two years on all aspects: reception, cooking, waiting tables and working behind the bar, then a year specialising in one of those, before doing serious stuff on the business side.

What are the most important traits of a bartender for you?

The most important thing is to be a good host. You can be the most creative mixologist, but if you don’t know how to approach a customer, welcome them and talk to them, it means nothing. Someone like Guiliano, as soon as the customers talk with him, they are enchanted. The next most important thing is knowledge. You need to study constantly to understand the products you are working with. Creativity is important for inventing cocktails, but that comes naturally – it’s hard to train.

You have seasonal drinks lists, as well as the classics. Tell us about your current favourites from The Dorchester Rooftop bar summer list.

I like to tell a story with each cocktail list. This summer, we are describing a journey along the French and Italian Riviera – from the lavender fields of Valensole in Provence, through Saint-Tropez and Menton, and on to San Remo, Cinque Terre and Portofino. And each cocktail has ingredients associated with that place – a lavender-infused agave for Valensole; Menton lemons, naturally; basil for Portofino as a nod to pesto, and so on. They’re very colourful, which I feel is very important for summer cocktails in particular. There is a spun sugar garnish on the Menton and people ask for ‘the candy floss cocktail’.

Do you enjoy working in this setting, high above Hyde Park?

There are two views up here I love, depending on my mood. The one to the south and east, over Buckingham Palace towards The Shard and the London Eye, I love when I’m feeling happy and sociable. But, if I am a bit stressed, looking across all this green in the park really relaxes me.

Work is going on downstairs on the refurbishment of the main bar. Have you been able to get things laid out to help you?

We’ll have a laboratory in the back for all our prep work making ingredients; and a specific room for waiters to fetch water from so they’re not passing behind us all the time. You know, it’s the silly little things that I am so excited about – for example, we’ll have those beer glass sprayers so we can quickly rinse our shakers. But it will all help us concentrate on making good drinks and looking after customers.