My Last Drink with the iconic Brazilian bartender Bolinha
"Nordestinos are all the same: they come to São Paulo, picturing a better life in this huge capital city, but they are always yearning to go back", said the charismatic Walter Bolinha, right at the beginning of our wonderful conversation, as he referred to his fellows’ northeastern citizens known in Brazil as "nordestinos".
Funnily enough, Bolinha was actually speaking about himself. He's been nurturing a longtime dream to return to Paraíba, his hometown in the Northeast of Brazil. After working for more than 20 years at Baretto - the fancy bar of the international acclaimed Hotel Fasano - he feels it's almost time to go back home.
I wish that everyone could have the chance to meet this humble, beautiful human being who is one of the most distinguished characters in the Brazilian hospitality industry. Such a brave man whose life was suddenly turned upside down, four years ago, when he discovered he had stomach cancer. Several months of chemo forced him to stay away from his beloved workstation, where he finds his everyday joy. The illness' distress he's been through made him reflect on what really matters in life. As Bolinha says: "I want to take advantage of the second chance that life has been given to me".
Nowadays, it's pretty rare to see bartenders who still work for so long at the same place. Some people consider it non-sense or a waste of time, especially when compared to the fast and furious pace of which the new generations deal with life. As a matter of fact, I consider it a virtue. If it was not for the two decades of Bolinha's hard work at Baretto, he wouldn't have been able to hear so many secrets.
During endless nights he witnessed his client's adventures that according to him can become an amusing "memoir frame" to decorate his upcoming bar. If he ever leaves Baretto, there's no question he will end up opening his own place that will carry a bohemian-bucolic vibe, as he pictures it. At his very own bar Bolinha will be able to welcome dear local friends, share his nightlife's tales and "make a little money to survive", as he wishes.
His humility also makes him pay a great deal of respect to a work-colleague who is almost 20 years younger than him. This same humility which I could perceive when he described his uncomplicated taste for drinking or even when he didn't admit what they say about his Dry Martini being the best one in São Paulo.
We have spent an enjoyable one-hour conversation over the phone and curiously enough we did not even get close to mentioning social distancing and quarantine. I must confess that it was such a relief still being able to talk to someone about life, dreams and aspirations, instead of being trapped by "Corona talk".
It made also made me glad to know that Bolinha is right now fully absorbed by a new research that will give birth to a brand-new drink menu full of iconic classics. This will make him proud as well as entertain his high-demanding customers.
As of now, I can only think that anyone who had never had the pleasure to speak to or be served by him, will finish reading his interview with the only certainty, to place his bar on the top of your must-visit list.
*What would the Last Drink of your life be and where would you have it?
At the counter of my own bar. This is the dream of my life: to return to my hometown and open my own bar in Paraíba, I would say in a few years from now. Nordestinos (northeastern citizens) are all the same: they come to São Paulo but always dream of going back. And I am confident that I will do the same. I started to reflect on a lot of things in life once I got sick... life passes by so quickly and this serious sickness made me reconsider life as well as considering going back. It's not easy to organize a return with my whole family, but they can't stop saying they will go back there as well. They so much love their grandmother and they wish to be closer to her.
My wife comes from Chapada Diamantina in Bahia, and she also thinks about going back to the Northeast of Brazil. My hometown is called Areia and it only has 30 thousand inhabitantas. It's a historically charming city, and I dream of having a more peaceful life there. But back to the Last Drink of my life, oh Gosh, there are so many! But I would choose a "Caipirinha" made by myself or even an Old Fashioned which I so much enjoy. Actually, thinking it straight I would stick with the caipirinha with cachaça, which is part of our Brazilian roots: with a pineapple flavour that is my favourite. Some bartenders would choose, I think, a Dry Martini or even a Manhattan as their Last Drink, but how could I possibly choose a fancy drink in Paraíba? I couldn’t ever! I must confess I was so surprised by reading the interview you did with the bartender Kennedy Nascimento and to discover that his Last Drink would be a Daiquiri. I mean, he is such a knowledgeable person but still he choses a simple drink. I guess it is just exactly as he said himself, 'simple yet so difficult to master'; I found his point of view so interesting.
What would your bar in Paraíba look like?
It would be a very small bar, 10 to 15 tables. A rustic-bohemian style, not fancy, wooden furniture. I want to have a small counter where I could stay for hours and hours just to share my stories and adventures during the years I lived in Sao Paulo. I imagine myself welcoming and serving my friends and I also want to teach them a little bit about cocktails - I think it could be a good contribution to share a bit of knowledge as they don't get much information living so far from the big capitals.
That's my idea: to serve my friends, share stories with them and have a decent life. The bar could have live music at the weekends. As for the food, I would offer appetizers such as pizza, not much more than that. Country people as well as the ones living in my hometown are crazy about celebrities, football players, actresses, and so on! I could maybe take the magazines and newspapers with me for which I gave an interview and even the photographs I have by the side of famous people. Honestly, this doesn't represent that much to me, but to them in Paraíba this is such an accomplishment! I might have some frames and portraits all over the bar's walls which will give me something to talk about as well. Oh, and the bar's name might be "Boteco do Bolinha"!
*Besides your Last Drink 'pineapple caipirinha', what else pleases you as a drink?
I enjoy sweet cocktails, for no special reason. I don't like the dry ones; I find them way too strong for my taste. I like Sweet and fresh drinks the most, as well as Old Fashioned and Tom Collins. But lately I have been drinking more beer (hand crafted) than spirits. My wife was spoiled by me, I must say. After we met, she wouldn't accept any kind of beer anymore. Just the high-quality ones.
*Tell me about your daily routine: do you end up drinking every day?
After I got ill this every-day drinking had to change because I'm no longer able to drink that much. Alcohol affects my stomach where I had cancer. Therefore, I must drink carefully. But mostly to avoid drinking at all, even though its so hard as a bartender. My profession forces me to taste or take a sip all the time. But I must put a limit to it . I've always loved drinking, smoking and eating. But all that had to stop. It's not easy to do one year of chemo, God knows how many surgeries I had to submit myself into, and throughout this process I was always thinking if I would ever survive. Having young children also made me reflect on so many habits in life. Drinking every day was always part of my life but unfortunately, I cannot do that anymore. Apart from that, I want to take advantage of the second chance that life has been giving to me.
*What kind of cocktail do you most enjoy preparing?
Honestly what I don't like is when the client says that I have to create something "free style". I really don't like it when the client wants to leave it in my hands. This is too personal and I don't enjoy choosing the drink for them. Even if I ask what he or she likes the most, either sweet or sour, that doesn't make me happy at all. I would rather the client says: "the usual please". This makes me feel so much more comfortable. Negroni is the best-seller at Baretto, followed by Old Fashioned, Moscow Mule and Dry Martini.
*It is said that you prepare the best Dry Martini in Sao Paulo.
That I don't know... They talk about it, yes... But maybe it's just because of the way we serve the Dry Martini by using a decanter. Some other places even tried to imitated it but they couldn't make it. The way we serve the Dry Martini is so elegant and unique, that's probably the reason it became such a sensation. But let's just not forget that to be a good bartender we must enjoy preparing and serving the drink, it's not just about pouring ice in the glass. We have to make it carefully and respectfully. I love what I do. So, I believe this combination of love and preparation is the key to our drink's success. Still to make it a good Dry Martini it requires my personal touch as well: I prefer to drop in around 5 to 10ml of Noilly Prat and leave it there.
*Can you tell me a little bit about your professional life before Baretto.
I started to work with the French chef Emmanuel Bassoleil at his former-restaurant called Roanne - something around 1992, right after I arrived in São Paulo. My brother Cícero was already working there. Roanne was a very renowned and popular restaurant. First, I worked as a cumin then I went to the dining room as a waiter, but I didn't like it that much, I knew all along it was not for me. I always enjoyed working behind the bar. Then, I went back to Roanne's bar until I left to work at a Thai restaurant's bar in 1998.
By that time my brother was already working at Parigi (a famous French owned by the prestigious Fasano Group) and the owner, my current boss, Rogerio Fasano, has mentioned he would open a Bar called Baretto - I didn't even know who Fasano was! (to think that Fasano is THE hot gastronomy and hospitality brand until nowadays in Brazil). I took that chance and went to Baretto where I had the great pleasure of working with Célio Freitas' side - who now manages Gero Brasília (also part of Fasano's chain). But when Fasano opened the first brand's hotel in 2003, Rogerio Fasano took Baretto along and promoted me as the bar's manager. Here I am until today. It's a life-time journey and as any other kind of job, there are good and not so good moments. Staying for so long in the same place is not always a bed of roses. There are tough times as well. But still it's great to be there. I don't see many people working in the same place for so long nowadays.
*Are you still inspired by someone?
I still admire some people as Mestre Derivan de Souza, a very nice, empathetic and humble person; I also respect Kennedy Nascimento a lot and despite knowing him not so well personally speaking, I truly admire him and his life's history, what he already accomplished being so young. I'm also having classes with him at ABS (Brazilian Sommeliers Association): he kindly invited me to take classes and I am so grateful for it. This is allowing me to learn so much, because as a bartender there will always have new things to learn. That invitation came in the right moment, I felt like I needed to refresh my knowledge. Also I am working on new upcoming projects with Kennedy and hopefully I'll be able to promote a Guest Bartender with him.
Have you ever imagined yourself working at any other bar other than Baretto?
I believe that once I leave Fasano, I won't be working anywhere else but my own place. There's no way of predicting the future and although a few clients keep saying they are opening a bar to hire me; I dream about returning to my hometown. So far, I don't see myself working at a different bar other than Fasano.
*Is there any bar in the world where you dream of visiting?
Yes, the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel. London is where it all started, where books and knowledge come from, all of our references come from UK. If I could go I would.. American Bar has always been a huge reference to me, it's an institution! If I ever win the Lottery, that will be the first place I would go! There's another place that would be worth for me to visit which is the Dante, in New York, that was elected as the World's Best Bar in 2019.
*Do you find time to go out in São Paulo?
I don't have much time and my wife works at Gero Panini restaurant during the day, so I have to take care of our children and take them to school. I come back home very late, in the middle of the night. My only day-off is on Sundays when bars are pretty much closed. When I go out it is mostly for family activities. But to me as a bartender what I do like the most is to see my friends at the "botecos" (Brazilian popular bars). I'm not this guy who goes out to sophisticated bars where my admired work-colleagues work although I really would like to, but the lack of time doesn't allow me to.
*What have you been doing lately in terms of novelties?
I'm working on a new drink menu mostly dedicated to revisit the old classics. We are giving fresh touches to Baretto's drink menu which means making it smarter, by also prioritizing world-wide classics along with a short list created by myself. Our clients have so much knowledge about spirits and culture in general, but I want to be able to introduce much more to them, but also in a way which I could present and share the story behind those classics. That's why it requires so much effort because this Baretto has no ordinary clients.