IMAGINE being at the top of your craft, with international experience, yet always underestimated and sometimes even having to prove that you're just as good as your colleagues. That's the reality of Italian mixologist Ludovica Telese, a bartender whose passion for the profession has taken her around the world.
"As a woman, every time I would go into a bar, especially as a guest bartender, the male bartenders would look at me like 'Oh yeah, she's a pretty girl, but she probably doesn't know how to make cocktails.' Then, as I make my cocktails, I can see their expressions change and they understand that it is actually my passion and what I want to do; that a woman can be just as good as a man," said Telese.
The bar consultant shared her story and some of her expertise during a recent visit to Jamaica for the Johnnie Walker Brand Passion and Mixology Seminar at the AC Hotel where she also encouraged local bartenders and bartending students to never put a limit on what they hope to achieve.
Telese started out as a timid student at the Bartenders Bar Academy in Italy in 2013, shortly after which her teacher noticed her exceptional skills and encouraged her to seriously pursue a career in bartending. Today, she lives in St Maarten and is the island's brand ambassador for Diageo, the world's largest spirits manufacturer.
Noting that her journey hasn't been without its challenges, Telese said she has learned that success comes from being willing to leap at the right opportunities with your best foot forward. While living and studying in Italy, Telese got well-rounded experience by opting to work at all types of bars. She worked at restaurants, clubs and even a speakeasy, learning the different styles of bartending. At age 21, she travelled to London for a year and a half to learn English. "When I was living there, I was further inspired by the bartenders who, especially during their shortages of bartenders, were making cocktails so fast and so good," she said.
It was fate, perhaps, that she learned to speak English as when she returned to Italy in 2018, she came upon a life-changing opportunity while working as a bar manager at a restaurant in her hometown. "One night, a couple of English-speaking guests came in and I was the only one in the restaurant that spoke English. The restaurant owner asked me to take care of them as a waitress because he couldn't understand what they were saying. Though it was not my job, I did it and at the end of the night they told me of their new restaurant in St Maarten and they wanted me to be their bar manager," Telese recounted.
Having accepted their invitation, she arrived in St Maarten but realised that the restaurant was still in the process of being built. Telese threw herself into the construction, helping to ensure the restaurant became a reality. She sees the Palapa Grill, which is also a steakhouse, cocktail bar and lounge, as the result of her hard work. "I helped build it with my own hands. I became a painter, a carpenter, and a plumber for five months," she recalled with a laugh. "Within one year, we became the number one restaurant on the island because we had a great team. I learned how to be resilient and how to reinvent myself every time."
In 2020, however, when COVID-19 struck, the restaurant was forced to retrench its employees, including Telese. Jobless and bored, she decided to enter the DIY (do it yourself) Diageo Cocktail Competition and won. Winning the competition drew Diageo's attention and she became their brand ambassador for St Maarten and has continued her private work as a bar consultant. Telese also offers bartending masterclasses that have positively impacted numerous women. "The number of female bartenders on St Maarten grew exponentially since I started my programme," she said.
In Jamaica for the first time for the Johnnie Walker Brand Passion and Mixology Seminar, Telese said her experience has been amazing and she is privileged to help bartenders improve their craft. "The attendees made me feel as if I'm a superstar," she beamed.
One area of improvement she recommends for bartenders in the Caribbean is that they research their craft as much as possible and further their education. She urged, "Even if you don't like to study that much, reading about bartending is going to elevate you in many ways and on many levels."
As for Telese, she plans to continue her work elevating the culture of cocktails across the Caribbean and other countries to which her exciting journey takes her.