We caught up with Jean-Pierre Belonni, the lead bartender at The Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale. He talked to us about how his Puerto Rican roots inspires the drinks he creates, how not even his background in competitive sports could not prepare him for his first day in the kitchen, and how he maintains a high-quality standard while leading his team.
When was the first time you knew that you wanted to pursue a career in the beverage industry?
It was 13 years ago. After long years of doing sports and music, I decided to try something different but that was also competitive. I remember my first interview, the first question was “Can you handle pressure?” I answered, “Of course.” There is no pressure for a person who knows what it’s like to be about to lose a game and has to do everything they can to win it. Well I was wrong. I was running on my first day like I have never run in a job. But I survived, and my manager at that time told me if you didn’t run out of here, then you passed the test. I was very proud of myself of what I accomplished on my first day. From that day, I knew that I really enjoyed the industry.
Where do you draw your inspiration from when you’re experimenting with making new drinks or a new concept?
My inspiration comes from my roots. As a Puerto Rican, I am so into different flavors. I like to use ingredient that are not that common so we can have a point of conversation, and of course the season. There are some cocktails that are pretty famous depending on the season so I work around those.
You currently work at Burlock Coast at the Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale. What is the beverage scene like in Fort Lauderdale? What do your customers come in looking to drink, and how does location affect your menus and signature drinks?
The Fort Lauderdale scene is pretty complex. Bourbon, vodka, rum, and gin are all popular, but most of all, craft cocktails are growing. We get customers that want something as simple as a Gin & Tonic or Vodka & Soda but there are also a lot of “Old Fashioned” guests. In our cocktail program we focus on everybody. We have cocktails for all type of likes – gin, rum, bourbons, etc. but we make them so that the flavors create a story behind the cocktails that will bring a nice conversation for guests to remember. A the end of the day the best thing for me is when a guest wants something special and I’ll go away from the menu to make them that special cocktail.
If you could sit down and have a drink at any bar anywhere in the world – where would you go and who would you go with?
This is a hard question, just because there is so many bars to visit. In this case, I wouldn’t mention any specific bar, but I will say that on my bucket list are places like San Francisco, London, South Africa, Peru and if I keep going the list will not stop – but I’m still planning to visit them all with my better half my wife Marieli.
What is your personal favorite cocktail or go-to drink of choice?
I’m a simple taste bartender. I like my scotch and rum on the rocks. It’s simple, but when I visit a craft cocktail bar I always order something different that I haven’t tried or made before. But I do have a preferred cocktail and it’s an Old Fashioned.
As head bartender, how do you maintain standards when managing a team and can’t personally make every drink or watch every drink being made?
It’s hard work. It’s all about constant training but at the same time showing your coworkers that you are there for them too. A mind is capable to receive all the information in the world, but not in one day. So it’s a constant learning. I read a lot of books and try to learn more every day – both to be better personally and to be able to teach something new when it’s time to each. Sometimes I work as an expediter; I’ll make sure that instead of making the drinks, someone else is making them and I’m adding the last decorations to it, and if something is made the wrong way we fix it at the moment and make sure we learn the proper way. As a leader, my eyes are watching everything but most important is the trust. If you teach them right, trust that your team will make the cocktails the right way.
Photography courtesy of Ritz Carlton.