As far as excuses for running late go, proposing to your soul mate would rank favourably amongst those that are most easily forgiven. But even if Martin Hudák, who arrives flushed from a day in the sun and firing on adrenalin alike, hadn’t just affianced his girlfriend half an hour before we meet, it would still be near impossible to begrudge him those missing minutes.
On arrival, Hudák, 27, is giddy and garrulous having finally seized an opportunity that he has been staring down for the last six months. He says he has been waiting to pop the question on arrival in Australia in a location befitting the white opal he chose. A visit to Phillip Island failed to produce perfect proposal conditions. Likewise, Bondi, the Royal Botanic Gardens and Circular Quay were, unsurprisingly, too crowded for the occasion; Lady Bay Beach would also prove too problematic as far as locations go – the beach is clothing optional, or at the very least, frowned upon – before Hudák decided to seize the moment further along the headland, unable to contain himself any longer. But first, he set up his GoPro.
It’s not the first time that the Slovakian-born, London-based Hudák has visited Australia, but it’s shaping up to be the most significant trip of his life and career thus far. Three years ago he represented his homeland at the World Coffee Cocktail Finals in Melbourne as part of a competition called Coffee In Good Spirits, placing second to Australia’s Matt Perger. The following year, in Shanghai, he placed second again, compounding his desire to take the title and dispel the thinking that he’d remain, so to speak, always a bridesmaid and never a bride. In June this year at the SCA World of Coffee in Budapest, Hungary, Hudák clinched the title that for so long had eluded him, accompanied by a score orchestrated by none other than Hans Zimmer. In his seventh year competing in the competition, Hudák earned the highest point score ever accorded to an individual in the history of the competition. The theme was ‘Mother Nature’, and Hudák built an Irish Coffee using the milk of a single jersey cow and a blend of geisha coffee cultivated at 6,500 feet above sea level in Panama at the Los Lajones Estate. It was served in a terrarium; your average Espresso Martini this is not.
It was the prospect of travel that motivated Hudák to continue entering the Coffee In Good Spirits competition despite what he considered to be his repeated rebuffing – that, and a desire to share his ideas with his industry and its patrons alike. The title affords its recipient opportunities that otherwise might not be granted to an otherwise tenured bartender and others of his ilk. It’s what has brought him to Australia for a four night, two city residency in collaboration with cold press coffee liqueur brand Mr Black that saw him helm sell-out takeovers at both Melbourne’s Black Pearl and Sydney’s Eau de Vie. Hudák met the owner of Mr Black, Tom Baker, on his frequent visits to London’s Savoy Hotel, where the former is a senior bartender at the famed American Bar. On a recent visit, Hudák joked to Baker that he’d love to revisit Australia and the rest, as they say, is history. Hudák and his fiancée, Mishelle, who hosted those takeovers, work alongside one another at the Savoy: Mishelle in the Beaufort Bar, and Hudák in the American, which holds both the dubious honour of being Europe’s oldest bar at 127-years-old, as well as recently being awarded the title of the world’s best bar in the annual World’s 50 Best rankings. Having attended the ceremony in previous years, Hudák was working at the American Bar the night of the awards and live streamed the ceremony on his phone as the announcement rolled in. He shows me a video taken of him as the runner-up, London’s Dandelyan, was announced in second place. In it, wearing the customary white jacket, Hudák and his colleagues scream, jump, cry and hug with ecstatic, unbridled joy – perhaps not exactly the kind of behaviour you would expect to see from the well-coiffed staff of the American Bar. They celebrated with champagne showers, nonetheless.
Unlike many before him, Hudák’s story began nine years ago in a small Irish-themed café-come-bar in the city of Prešov, where he cut his teeth over five years working double shifts as both a barista and bartender out of fear of having to choose between his two passions: coffee and cocktails. “I was so hungry for competitions and learning,” says Hudák. “I was travelling so much too, spending my own time, and no one was doing that in Slovakia. After five years I said, ‘There is nothing that can challenge me, I cannot improve, I cannot grow, so I need to go somewhere’ and London is the mecca of cocktails. So I asked a few people there, Slovakians and Czechoslovakians, and I got a few recommendations and one of those was [the] American Bar.” A rigorous vetting process followed (one that included an hourlong psychological questionnaire, a three hour-long interview and a phone call with the “big boss in America”) before on a Friday morning at 11:35am, Hudák received a text message welcoming him to “the best bar team in the world.” Two years, 10 months and eight days ago, Hudák made the move to London, having only visited once before to conduct that three-hour panel interview. That he’s able to recall without hesitating timestamps, the number of years, months and days he has spent there since is indicative of the palpable passion with which Hudák approaches his craft (“It was like a birthday,” he recalls) and the indelible impact the opportunity to make the leap has had on his life.
“You became a true gentleman once you’re there – you learn the skills and the rules and how to behave and interact,” says Hudák. “It’s like a proper British academy of [teaching you to become] a true gentleman [laughs], and the hospitality is just fantastic. That’s what I think we’re missing in other places around the world. Because we won not just because of the best menu or cocktails or white jackets – we won because of the hospitality, who we are, how we deal with people.” Since that day, he considers that his presence has relaxed the atmosphere of the bar itself, making it a “more open and friendlier place than before” that doesn’t discriminate against its clientele, despite whatever preconceived notions of the American Bar they may have. Under his watch, your tattoos, your sneakers and jeans are just as welcome as your garden variety Savile Row tailoring. Which is not to say that Hudák doesn’t take a great deal of pride in the bar’s level of hospitality on offer; instead, he relishes the amount of personality he has been able to both bring to the table and bring out in the staff with whom he works.
“I know we are the best in the eyes of the judges but I want to be the best for my guests every time,” he says. “I don’t want to keep thinking that someone’s watching me. I mean feel the pressure, it’s there, and they’re going to judge why we won, but [we have] got to be natural as we are [and] always deliver the best in what we do, and what matters is hospitality. It’s a great achievement but still for us it’s important to have lots of returning guests [and a] full bar. But it’s so much pressure. Hospitality is super hard – once you’re playing the top game, it’s super hard.”
Having arrived in Australia from London, Hudák – like many before him – is not at all immune to the immediate effect of the climate on the body and mind, and is already entertaining the possibility of making a move to Melbourne or Sydney (a choice that’s compacted by the considerable differences between each city’s attractive coffee and cocktail scenes). Here, we have what he considers to be a speed of service (and high volumes) that he finds appealing and, again, an openness and friendliness that Europeans (the British, Nordic and French in particular) could stand to take some cues from. In exchange, Hudák thinks we could stand to see a stronger hotel bar culture here, with its affiliate ideas of routine, service, consistency and quality control. There’s already talk of heading home and applying for visas and not, as I suggest, retiring after a year of unbeatable highs. “There’s something great here that attracts us a lot,” he says, “And even if you work in the best bar in the world, it’s okay but it’s not only that that matters. It’s life outside of the bar that many of us forget about – it’s not healthy.
“Honestly, if I got offered a job now – I don’t care if it’s in Sydney of Melbourne,” he continues, slipping into a reverie for a life that’s yet to materialise. “It’s very easy to work in the best bar in the world. But I want to work somewhere and make it the best, do you know what I mean? I can imagine myself here in a leather apron. So let’s see. ”
Bar owners of Australia, consider this fair notice: “Martin is looking for a job!”
Tile and cover image: Courtesy of Mr Black/Martin Hudák