When Alquímico opened in 2016, there was just Jean Trinh and five other colleagues. And the bar only occupied the ground floor of a run-down mansion in the historic part of Cartagena.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
Jean Trinh had arrived in Cartagena in 2013. Six months later he opened a pop-up bar in Getsemani, a colorful, bohemian neighborhood of the city. That, eventually, led him to open Alquímico in 2016. Flash forward to 2023, and Alquímico occupies three floors of the same mansion. And now there’s more than 75 staff. It’s quite an operation.
“Right, we have around 800 to 850 guests every night – but some nights there’s over 1,000,” Jean Trinh says wide-eyed. “We open at 6pm everyday. And we have our last orders at 1:30am, which is not too late. There’s often over 250 people on each of our three floors at the same time. And there’s four DJs, two on the rooftop and two on the floors below.”
Then The Awards Started Rolling In For Alquímico…
Add to that Alquímico’s commitment to sustainability and the fact that each floor of the bar has its own cocktail menu, and that Jean Trinh and 22 of the team decamped to the farm he’d bought in 2018 that supplies most of their ingredients, during the pandemic, and it’s not surprising Jean Trinh and Alquímico started getting worldwide attention.
By 2020, the awards had started rolling in. That year, the World’s 50 Best Bars listed it at #47. It won the Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award the same year, when Tales Of The Cocktails also listed it among their ten favorite bars in the world. And last year, when Alquímico had risen to #10 on the World’s Best Bars List, Jean Trinh was given the prestigious Altos Bartenders’ Bartender Award.
But, when Jean Trinh says he really didn’t want to accept the Altos Bartenders’ Bartender Award when the World’s 50 Best organization called to tell him he’d won because he’s just one part of a big team there’s none of the phony modesty of an Oscars acceptance speech. You really do believe him.
“I said thank you very much for the offer, but it’s kind of weird to accept an individual award with a team of over 75 people,” Jean Trinh shakes his head. “They said, ‘Use it as a tool to showcase what happens at Alquímico, and in your country and in your region.’” And, Jean admits, they had a point. “It is a beautiful communication tool. And it is a way to talk about Colombia – which most people don’t really know about. But it’s a big responsibility as well.”
Born In Paris To Vietnamese Parents
Then, there’s that name, Jean Trinh, that doesn’t sound very Colombian. In fact, it’s a mix of Vietnam and France, just like the bartender himself who was born in Paris to Vietnamese parents.
“I would go to school as a kid with a banh mi for lunch and everyone would be asking ‘what’s that?’ So, now it’s cool to see how popular Vietnamese food is in places like Paris,” he smiles.
His parents had moved to France in the late 1970s, where he was born a couple of years later. “Even now, I do still feel like I’m a mix of both French and Vietnamese,” he explains. And his earliest memories were of the Paris restaurant his parents had opened. “I guess I’ve been in hospitality since I was five years old,” he shrugs.
It’s hard to find Vietnamese food in Colombia, “unless I’m making it myself,” Jean notes. “There’s nothing in Cartagena but there is one Vietnamese restaurant in Medellin,” he tells us, which is a one-hour flight away. “It may sound weird, but the things we eat in Colombia – with the herbs and greens – and the landscape, and the way people behave, and even the way they drive is very similar to Vietnam,” Jean Trinh continues.
The Alquímico Farm
With such a reliance on the Alquímico farm, which was created on an 11-hectare plot of land Jean had bought in the fertile coffee-growing region of Filandia, that became home to Jean and 22 of his team and their families so they could be self-sufficient and spend downtime of the pandemic productively learning to farm, traveling for pop-ups, we suggest, must be a challenge.
“You know, at airports it can be challenging to travel with ingredients so we really have to communicate well with the bar where I’m doing the guest shift. We need to understand what ingredients are available and their flavor profile.” It’s hard to bring along his favorite mezcal too. “Which is probably Macurichos Mezcal,” he nods. “They’ve been making it for generations as part of the mezcal production community of Santiago Matatlán using organic farming practices and traditional clay pot stills. I always try to have a bottle with me. Only on this trip it’s been a challenge because of customs.”
“More than the drink and the beautiful flavors mezcal has, it’s the people behind it that make it special.”
“I first went to Mexico in 2003. And I did fall in love with the culture – and part of that was mezcal,” he remembers.
“It’s a very old spirit. But during that period it was really being embraced again. More than the drink and the beautiful flavors mezcal has, it’s the people behind it that make it special. When you meet the families who make it and you discover the history behind it, it’s something else. These days, I still go back to Mexico four or five times a year and I bring home 20 or 25 bottles…which may not be legal,” he laughs.
Alquímico In One Cocktail
At Alquímico, the ground floor, La Vitrina, remains the heart of the operation. There, the ‘Raíces‘ menu highlights the products and stories from different regions of Colombia.
Upstairs, ascending the grand staircase, at El Balcon there’s a different cocktail menu, ‘Clasicos Alquimistas,’ which gives classic cocktails a Colombian twist – a house Caipiriña made with viche, the Colombian sugar cane spirit popular on the Pacific coast, and a Pichón, their take on a Paloma, with a base of Mezcal Unión.
Upstairs again is La Terraza, where there’s a totally different cocktail list again. There, the #fromthefarmtothebar menu features lots of homemade tonics and cordials that leans heavily on ingredients from their Alquímico farm.
“But if I had to sum up Alquímico in one cocktail?” Jean Trinh asks, “I’d choose our Petronio.” The cocktail was inspired by the Petronio Álvarez music festival, which is a celebration of Latin American afro culture. “So the drink incorporates a lulo puree – it’s a ubiquitous Colombian fruit often used to make juices served along the street. It looks like a kiwi on the outside and a tomato on the inside. Then there’s agave spirit. And then viche – the Colombian sugar cane spirit originally made by women of African descent on the Pacific coast of Colombia, which allows us to also tie in the story of slavery into the narrative behind the drink.”
“It’s very easy to drink. It’s sour. It fits the Caribbean weather. It’s Colombia,” he decides.
Now It’s Full Circle For Alquímico’s Jean Trinh
Jean Trinh first came back to Vietnam four years ago, landing in Ho Chi Minh City and working his way up to Sapa, “just taking it one day at a time, rediscovering this beautiful country.”
The strange thing, Jean Trinh says, was the feeling of the stories his parents had told him as a kid coming to life. “It’s this inexplicable relationship,” he frowns. “I felt so many things, lots of them remembered from what my dad had told me. Watching people – the way they sit, the way they eat, the way they smile. It was foreign but all so familiar.”
So, this visit for a guest shift at Park Hyatt Saigon on behalf of Diageo will be only his second time in Vietnam. “I’m so happy,” Alquímico’s Jean Trinh beams. “To be able to come back again and share with the industry in Vietnam…I’m just really honored. It means a lot,” he says finally about coming full circle. And when he says it, he’s as genuine as he was when he said he didn’t really want that Altos Bartenders’ Bartender Award only for himself.