People

A Conversation with Licoreria Limantour's Jose Luis Leon

Two people holding a tray of cocktails
Jose Luis Leon (right, with Veronica Bravo on the left) speaks of his experiences behind the bar — both at competitions and as a CAP — as the best education he's received. (Photo: Jennifer Mitchell Photography)

It’s Monday at 9 a.m. in Mexico City. A typical February morning — sunshine with a slight cool breeze greets the nearly 9 million residents readying themselves for work. This includes Licoreria Limantour bartender Jose Luis Leon, who has been up since 7 a.m. Not unusual, he says; even after rolling into bed just a few hours prior to our Skype call. “I don’t mind being up early,” he tells me. “I have things to do and keep me busy until my shift starts.” Leon’s strong work ethic is evident before the first question is even asked.

For a bartender working in one of the world’s most densely populated cities, which relies heavily on tourism to sustain its economy, hospitality is big business. It’s vital to the incomes of the millions who make their living working in the Mexican capital’s kitchens and bars, or the many street food stalls around town.

Internet coverage in Mexico City is spotty. We end our Skype call 10 minutes into an already challenging conversation as we both admit our proficiency in the other’s language isn’t the best. I apologize mine is lacking more so than his — blaming it on my decision to take French and Latin rather than Spanish. Leon laughs, genuinely it seems, when we resume our call — this time via the more reliable cell phone. It’s apparent that he possesses a natural talent for hospitality. His friendly demeanor and engaging voice draw me in and instantly diffuse the awkwardness of the language barrier.

Leon’s bar career began 12 years ago. He was looking for work to put himself through school (and pay for weekend beers with friends). He started by “taking some courses about beverage preparation and table service” before he landed a job as a bar assistant at the Sheraton Hotel. “I wanted to learn these skills so I could do a better job behind the bar,” Leon says.

While working at the Sheraton, he entered the National Polytechnic Institute and earned his Bachelor’s in tourism. But he says his most valuable lessons came from the courses he took outside of college at vocational schools like Servir Bien along with his day-to-day duties at the hotel bar.

“The best school,” Leon affirms, “is the work itself.”

When I ask him about winning so many high-profile competitions including first place in the 2010 Diageo Reserve World Class Mexico, which sent him to the finals in Athens Greece, first place at the 2014 Tahona Society Cocktail Competition and representing Mexico in 2015 in the Diplomatico World Tournament, he changes the subject — politely. “Those were great fun, and gave me a chance to travel,” he replies. “I remember my time in Athens as being a turning point in my career. I saw all of these bartenders doing things at a higher level than me.” He wanted to learn more; to do better. This coming from a bartender who has helped to elevate Limantour’s cocktail program to one of the world’s top 50 bars.

Leon tells me it was in Athens where “he chose bartender as a profession.” Upon his return to Mexico City that Summer, he began reading as many books as he could find on bartending, service and cocktails while perfecting his techniques behind the bar.

The call is briefly interrupted by a flock of birds who decide to perch and chatter nearby. Car horns and people walking along the streets can be heard in the background. Mexico City is coming alive for the day.

I ask Leon why he decided to apply for the Cocktail Apprentice Program (CAP) at the 2016 Tales on Tour in Mexico City. Why would a world class bartender need to apprentice in the program when he could be teaching a course at the festival or hosting an event? “I felt my career needed another boost,” he says, without hesitation. “I was looking on the Internet one day and saw the information about Tales in Mexico City and read about the CAP program.”

He applied immediately. His acceptance, to all but Leon, was assured.

Listening to Leon speak of his experience as a CAP last year, I could sense the pride he took in showcasing Mexico City’s vibrant culture and people to the visiting bartenders from around the world. This pride extends to his work behind the bar at Limantour. It was for this reason he says apprenticing during the three-day cocktail festival was so important to his continuing education as a bartender. “There is no room for ego in this business. You can always learn something new or refresh old skills,” Leon explains. “It woke me up again, like someone splashed cold water on me.”

Carrying and serving a tray full of cocktails while maneuvering around conference tables isn’t easy. Neither is making hundreds of drinks at a time while working in cramped quarters with two or three other people. But his biggest take-away as a CAP was the amount of teamwork involved in making the experience successful. Each CAP approached the same situation a little differently. Leon enjoyed learning how “other CAPs chose to solve creating drinks and handling service” during tasting classes and events.

“It was like starting over. I felt I was learning something new, although that new is something basic,” he tells me. “Today, without a doubt in many aspects of my life, I use the things I learned as a CAP.”

Another turning point in a purposefully built career behind the bar.

I pose one last question to Leon, asking him to compare these two turning points — Athens vs CAP. He pauses briefly. This, like many things in his life, I suspect, is a question he wants to get just right. “While similar, I was at a different point in Athens. I was not as experienced. I needed to get better behind the bar to be at that elevated level. CAP was about refreshment and relearning skills.” This includes the basics which he describes as “order, cleaning and teamwork.” All three, he tells me, are essential to providing guests with excellent service and cocktails.

After our conversation that morning, I have no doubt Leon provides the latter two exceptionally well.

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