2007, London. Andrea Gualdi is a young Italian who knows a few sentences in English. He is working as a dish washer in the kitchen of an Italian wine bar. One day the barman calls in sick. Gualdi, having never manned a bar in his life, is asked to take over.
Sydney, 2016. Gualdi is pouring a drink for a customer at a Sydney bar. The customer likes Gualdi’s style and asks him if he would like to help open up his own pizza-and-cocktail bar, called Maybe Frank, in Surry Hills. Gualdi says yes.
2017, Mexico City. Gualdi is on stage competing at the International Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year Awards. Watching him are some of the best bartenders and cocktail judges in the world. Gualdi is making his signature drink. It combines Don Julio Reposado, Cocchi Rosa, Italicus, rose syrup and a dash of Peychaud’s bitters. The result is a pale pink, glistening and translucent drink – a delicate, expertly balanced concoction of bitter, sour and sweet. Gualdi calls it Sophia, or A Kiss from the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.
To say Gualdi’s journey to competing among the world’s best bartenders has been rapid would be an understatement. “Being a bartender was never the plan,” he says. “I was working in Italy selling hospitality equipment. I wasn’t making any money. My dream was to be a computer programmer.”
That changed when Gualdi decided to follow his heart. “I had a girlfriend and she decided to go to London for three months to learn English. I said, ‘You know what, I'll come with you’. Because I couldn't speak any English I got a job washing dishes in a kitchen.” It was there he got his first taste of bar work. “I just had to understand what they were saying,” he says. “Chianti? Okay, I know what that is, just pour it. It wasn’t very easy but I started to like it. I thought, ‘I can do this’.”
Gualdi initially followed his girlfriend back to Italy, but he decided he’d found his true calling. “I was too in love with the profession,” he says. So he went back to London by himself. After a few stints pouring beers in classic English pubs, Gualdi landed a job behind the bar at the Artesian, one of the most renowned cocktail bars in the world. “The day beforehand I was watching cocktail-making videos on YouTube, and suddenly I was there,” he remembers. “It was very scary. Full on, very stressful. But they taught me everything I know.”
He remembers having an epiphany there about what makes a good cocktail. “It was no longer about following a recipe,” he says. “It was about understanding why you do something and how to achieve balance.” He says he now imagines all cocktails through seven different cocktail categories: punch, milk punch, sling, cocktail, sour, Collins and highball. "Each category has a structure,” he says. “Once you understand that DNA, you don't need to study recipes anymore.”
"It was no longer about following a recipe,” he says. “It was about understanding why you do something and how to achieve balance."
Eventually Gualdi decided to leave the Artesian and follow his own path. “I didn't really like London,” he says. “I wanted something new in terms of weather and lifestyle. As an Italian, we have this myth of Australia. The great land of opportunity, fantastic weather, beautiful lifestyle. So I said, ‘Why not Sydney?’ I didn’t know anyone. Zero. I just booked a flight.”
Shortly after arriving he found a gig at Merivale’s Palmer and Co. in the CBD. One night Gualdi was filling in for a bar shift down the road at This Must Be The Place when Stefano Catino – now one of the owners of Maybe Frank – walked in. “He was all dirty with black paint,” says Gualdi. “He asked me for a prosecco. I poured it in a wine glass because I hate flutes. He was like, ‘Oh, I always do the same, I don't like flutes either.’ Then he said, ‘Hey, I’m opening a bar and I’m looking for someone to look after it. Do you want to join?’ I resigned from Palmer and Co. the next day.”
Incredibly, Catino and his business partner, Vince Lombardo, gave Gualdi complete freedom over the bar. “He just gave me the keys and said, ‘The bar is yours, do whatever you want’. He’d never even had one of my drinks,” Gualdi says, still with a hint of surprise. “Most of my friends were worried. They were saying, ‘It's a pizza place, you’re just going to be pouring wines and beers.’ But I had this feeling I’d be rewarded.”
A few months in, including a scarily improvised opening week of cocktail menus scribbled on pizza boxes, Catino approached Gualdi and suggested he compete in World Class. “I didn’t think I was ready,” says Gualdi. “When you imagine World Class, you think they’re on another planet. The level is too high. He just said, ‘No, I already talked to the people. You’re doing it.’”
Gualdi entered the competition for the first time in 2016. “When I made it to the top 25 I cried, I was so happy,” he says. “It was a dream. Then when I came third, I was so pissed off. Not because I deserved it, but because I was so stressed thinking I couldn’t make it higher. I was thinking if I was more self-confident, I could have won.”
"The reason I went into the comp this year is the same reason I accepted this job: to show everyone what I can do."
In 2017 Gualdi came first, gaining him entry into the international grand finale. There he was tested in four rounds including speed, sustainability (in which he made an waterless recipe using liquid extracted from a watermelon) and his signature drink, Sophia. Despite a calamitous speed round (which Gualdi blames on a live-stream mishap), his Sophia and miraculous watermelon invention were good enough to see him score fourth overall.
“It was the best feeling ever,” he says. “I thought about it all year, wondering whether I can even make the top 50. This was way beyond my goal, but the biggest mistake you can do is think, ‘Okay, now I can relax.’ A competition is just a competition. The reason I went into the comp this year is the same reason I accepted this job: to show everyone what I can do.”
Here's how to make the Sophia at home.
Makes 1 serve. Approx 2.5 standard drinks.
35ml Don Julio Reposado
35ml Cocchi Rosa
5ml rose syrup
2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
Combine in a cocktail shaker and stir. Strain into a coupette with ice and garnish with edible flower petals.