Nico De Soto the ‘pandan king’ joins us this week to talk all about infusions, running his three award-winning bars and how he keeps organised while travelling the world.
Nico started his career in Paris working for bars such as the Experimental Cocktail Club before he won his award in 2014 as ‘most influential bartender in 2014’.
Now he operates three bars which are Mace in New York, Kaido in Miami and Danico in Paris.
“We have more than 1000 butterfly knifes hanging on the top of the bar so it’s a beautiful space. Brad is doing the food, I’m doing the drinks.”
“Take a horseradish for example. You shouldn’t use horseradish in any spirit. You’re going to get that bitterness. But with a rotovap, you’re going to extract just the clean flavour, on the way to make a fantastic infusion”
“I just got hooked on that flavour. I think it’s so complex because it’s very easy to infuse and it gives such a long finish and complexity, that no ingredient can have.”
Christopher: Nico de Soto. Thank you so much for joining us today. How are you?
Nico De Soto: I’m very good, thank you.
Christopher: Great. And I know you’ve just traveled back to New York. How’s the weather over there?
Nico De Soto: Oh, the weather is a bit cold. It’s not winter, winter yet. But after spending a month in Southeast Asia, yeah, for sure, there’s a bit of difference. So now you have to put different clothes and it’s fine, I like winter as well, in New York.
Christopher: I see. Talking about New York, and winter, you’ve just launched your Christmas menu at Mace, right?
Nico De Soto: We did. We just did it on Monday. So, usually, we start on a Black Friday, but this year, Black Friday is like almost at the end of the months. I think it’s on the 28th, 29th. So we decide to start a few days before.
Christopher: So this is quite popular, and I know many people in New York go mad for it. Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration for the Christmas menu you do every year?[03:09]
Nico De Soto: Well, it’s all starts, when in 2014, we had the location to open space. It was a bar called, Whiskey four nine in the East Village. And you know how it goes, you know when you get the space, and you think you can open soon. But construction now delayed, everything is now delayed. So construction was supposed to start in October, November. We had funnily like mid-December to start. But Greg Boehm, my partner was the owner of Cocktail Kingdom. He told me his mother, told him like, guys, you shouldn’t start the construction in December, because anyway, half of the time they will be off. Why don’t you just rent the whole space, and start in January. Or do a popup. And I told Greg, fuck a popup, that’s a really good idea.
Nico de Soto: So we look for a name. Actually, I found the name of Miracle on Ninth Street, because the bar was on Ninth Street. Doing the 12 drinks of Christmas. So, it was very fun for me, especially we were waiting to open the bar. So I was missing being behind the bar and creating. And we just, we could stop all the Christmas shit we wanted, because the bar, we would destroy everything after that. So we just went to a big warehouse in New Jersey, bought a lot of Christmas decorations, as we could put it everywhere. We did a Christmas playlist, which is not very hard to set up. But we’ve been in here now, for one month I have to tell you get bored of listening to music. I was behind the bar with one of my bartenders from ECC. And after a few days, it start getting crazy, a line, one hour or two hours to get in.
Nico: And that was such a huge success that we decide to do it every December. Mace, because it’s a huge source of revenue. It’s almost times eight, what you do in normal months. So it’s insane. And on this side, Greg with the Cocktail Kingdom, his department created a department called, Miracle Popups. So, I’m involved in that, I’m making some of the drinks, with Johan who’s doing the rest. And Cocktail Kingdom, sold the concept this year to over 150 location around the world. It’s pretty crazy.
Christopher: Right, Okay! So you’re currently running three bars, and we have Mace, Danico and Kaido?
Nico De Soto: Yes.
Christopher: But you had quite humble beginnings. You mentioned ECC (Experimental Cocktail Club). Can you tell us a bit about how you started your career and how you got to here?[05:45]
Nico De Soto: So it was a bit of an accident. I have a computer science degree. I was, in my twenties and I was studying nutrition science. My dream was to go to Australia. But obviously, it’s a big trip from France. It’s expensive and I’m not about to work there. I was only going to go there for one week. But there is a visa called, working holiday visa. That was a bit late in France, compared to England and other countries. And since the day, I closed my books and I said, I’m going to save and go to Australia for a year. And there, I needed a job, I need a job in Australia. And I was like, why not bartending? It’s a cool job. You drink and you at night, you drink, you meet women. I mean, it’s partying and working at the same time. But I did not really know at all, the whole world of cocktails, I didn’t know classics, I didn’t know the good quality spirit. So I discover a whole world. And I get the passion, like most of us about that world, and then start working in better and better bar. I worked for the Experimental Group for awhile in Paris. I opened the one in London. I opened the one in New York. And after that I start doing my own things.
Christopher: Fantastic. Yeah. And I know you’ve won a few awards for your time. 2014 was the Most Influential Bartender in France.
Nico: Yeah. Yeah, it was a good one, I was happy to have that.
Christopher: And Kaido won something recently, with Eater, if that’s right?[07:11]
Nico De Soto: Kaido won the Number One in Miami by Eater. I get lots of winners, Mace was number one in Time Out. We got nominated at Times. We got nominated at Danico as well. But a lot of times we never won anything. But they call me the Decaprio of tales of the cocktails get nominated many times, I never won anything. So I have no plates at home, one of those famous plates. But we got nominated a few times for all the bars. It’s such a huge market, with so many good bars, so many talented people, that being nominated is already a lot.
Christopher: So what’s it like juggling free bars at once, in different occasions around the world?
Nico De Soto: Yeah, it’s a struggle, but it can go very well, or it can go very bad. Depends if all the prevent are at the same time. The main thing is to have, I have two different partners. So Brett, the chef, in Kaido in Miami. Greg is my partner in New York. And I have made two friends, Julianne and Alex, where are my partner in Paris. The three places have their own structure and accountants, and stuff like that. So all that I don’t have to do to care about, because it’s all taken care of by my partners. Now, on the creative side and the train staff, I really have to go with a good manager. If you don’t have a good staff then, then it’s impossible to do. Luckily, I have good teams in all the location, and I have good bar managers, that knows, how to do. And the only things would be the drinks.
Nico De Soto: But I never pushed my staff. I mean, I never say, you have to put drinks on the menu. I’m able to create all the drinks, of the menu, all year long. At Mace for the first time, one of them about to put a drink on the last menu. At Kaido, is all mine. And at Danico, the team is doing a really good job. So then, they have more drinks than me on the menu. So it’s as they want, it’s not a pressure, if you want to put a drink, they present to me, and if they are good, we work on it. But if not, I just put the drink in and on. I know I prefer to have a good team, a good energy, and a good service done.
Nico De Soto: The drinks is not a problem. So as long as that is going well to have good bartenders, giving good service and replicating the drinks, that’s only matters to me. And my bar manager, is very good. They are being very helpful. So without them, I couldn’t do that. It would be impossible to have three bars and two different countries, two different cities.
Christopher: And for our listeners, could you explain a bit about the concept for each bar?[09:39]
Nico: So Mace is quite simple. It’s based on spices. Mace’s the name of the spice. Some people think it’s a pepper spray, or maybe a weapon, but no, it’s not at all. It’s like this skin that surrounds the nutmeg. And I really wanted the name of a spice, very easy to understand, and pronounce whether you’re German, Swedish Indian. Sometimes you have a name that’s in the local language, and I think it’s hard to memorize. And when you have something short like Mace, I think it’s easier. So yeah, so all the drinks are based on spices, the name of the drink, the name of the spices. And that makes things very easy, and very playful. Then Danico, we opened in a very, old arcade ghetto in Paris, that’s a monument. We took over, there’s a restaurant. We just next to a restaurant. And a very, very busy restaurant. We took over the Jean Paul Gaultier flagship showroom. So it was one year ago, the location, it was pretty amazing. And we decided to do something more, not on a classic study in the dream, but no concept. More like a hotel bar, will serve a little bit. There’s no crazy party unit. We still have a lab. So the drinks quite, it could work, we work on the drinks with the centrifuge and all this stuff.
Nico De Soto: And Kaido. Kaido is the baby of… Brad Kilgore one of the most talented chefs. When I went to his restaurant in Miami. One of the best tasting menu I ever had. And I go to quite a lot of restaurants. So I was like, fuck, we became friends. We start partying together, and then he asked me to open something with him, in the design district. Kaido is, some people say, it’s like a Japanese bar is not at all. No, it’s more like Asian in France, with a big, big Japanese influence for sure. We use a lot of Japanese ingredients. I would say it’s the only thing that’s Japanese. The design reminds me of a little bit of the pairing bars, in a talk show. But you have to see the design it is beautiful. we have a secret bar as well, called ama. We have a more than 1000 butterfly knife, that’s hanging on the top of the bar. So it’s a beautiful space and Brad is doing the food, I’m doing the drink.
Christopher: You mentioned a centrifuge. I think these days it’s such a big thing to have this equipment. Like road of apps and having to make all these crazy infusions. It’s changed the industry a lot in the last few years. But I think we’re nearly at a point of where can we go next? What’s your view on that?[12:15]
Nico De Soto: Well, first before going next, I think everyone should know how to use the centrifuge, the whatever. I see people buying some. But they don’t really know how to use it. So it’s a lot of equipment. It’s not like a shaker, so you need to know how to use them. So I think people should leave this style going in that direction, to have a lab. To really master all those equipment. Because you can do a lot of stuff with it. I really love it because you just put the cocktail and the favor to the next step. I think as well, now, with the help of a lab, you can achieve flavors that you couldn’t, just with the butter on the shelf. In the bar world, you need up everything.
Nico De Soto: Can you dive out and you’ve tested my bar, you need more like molecular bar, I think that’s the beauty of our industry. So, and I really like it. You can really do crazy stuff like… Take a horseradish, for example. You shouldn’t use horseradish in any spirits. You’re going to get that bitterness. That’s you really don’t want that. But with a rotovap, you’re going to just extract the clean flavor, on the way to make like a fantastic infusion. So with all those tools. It’s no acid modification. We’ve like fermentation. Now, you have Sonic prep. If you know how to use them, you can really, really, do great things.
Christopher: Right. Okay. I mean, you’re very well known for your infusions, particularly, pandan. I know you’ve had quite a fond love of ingredients. Where did this come from, where did you learn about pandan.[13:49]
Nico De Soto: Well, without knowing, it was always like, I love coconut. Coconut was always my favorite flavor. And when I was in Indonesia and Southeast Asia there’s always like that green stuff. I didn’t know what it was, and I loved it. It’s the perfect combination with coconut. And I was always eating those sticky rice. Glutinous rice cakes. Because, I have a sweet tooth. And when I went to London, with a bartender, he used to work at Devon in Melbourne, and tipping club, made a garnish with pandan, and we’re like, fuck, that’s that flavor. And since that day, I just got hooked on that flavor. So I stopped. And I think it’s so complex because it’s very easy to infuse and it gives such a long finish and complexity, that no ingredient can have. So of course, I start putting that in a lot of drinks. There is a few articles mentioning it, like the New York Times, and then I even received an official letter from the Philippines embassy that he is saying like, Oh, thank you.
Nico: We saw an article about you in New York Times using pandan, and its from the Philippines. So it got a bit crazy. But yeah, they even call me the panbassador. I have to do it. But, yeah, I really love that flavor. It’s like coconut. Coconut. I was wearing this, those two things. And that’s a thing, with Millie, like when we were in Australia, she exactly love the scent. She puts like … paste in all her drink, in a competition. So we have kind of a love for those two flavors.
Christopher: Huh. Okay. I mean, when does your inspiration come with the cocktails? I’m just looking at one now. The Christmas Carrot Barrel, which has blended rums, coconut water, carrot cream, cheese, lemon milk. How’d you come out of this, and find a way to balance it all?[15:30]
Nico De Soto: Well, balance, balance of drink. I always think of drink like a bit of the nerdy way like mathematics. I think if you know all the skeletons of drinks, and you know your ingredients, it’s crazy to draw a menu. But I just take inspiration from food. Like that, that is just inspiration from a carrot cake with crunches on it that I had, that was just so good. So I start from there and separate ingredients from that. And we did a punch with it. Which is a clarified punch, which has such layers and most feeling that’s an amazing drink. But yeah, I get inspiration for food. You know, I’m, I’m always taking notes, when I to go to restaurants, because I think that’s where you can find the craziest combination, and then master it. So I always have, I have a file with some combination flavors, and then, when I do a menu, I’m not doing like, okay, I’m going to make, a twist of Manhattan or twist of a negroni. No, no. I start from the flavors, and then, from there, I would arrive most of the time, yeah. To which we serve a classic, but I start the other way around. Flavors, and direction, and then coming back to either a stirred, shaken, dry.
Christopher: Yeah, I agree. You know, I have a feeling, the chefing world were quite far ahead, compared to the beverage world, for a long time. But we’re catching up, you know.
Nico De Soto: oh god, they are and will always be, they always be, we don’t have the same budget as available, We don’t have the same years and years studying flavors. Look at Noma, they have a team working on just concepts. All year around. While a bartender has to split that, with the time he’s behind the bar. It’s just not the same stuff. They have so many methods, so many machine, that we don’t have. We can approach, we can go close to it. Look at the book, the idea. I think it’s very interesting, because all those recipes are made with the help of a chef. With the mind of a chef. So, you have all those little steps that we tend to forget, or we don’t know as a bartender. Like blanching leaves it’s really opens the mind to to how far you can go to get like the right, the perfect taste, know of each ingredient.
Christopher: I mean, I think times have changed, whereas before, when you make a cocktail, you’re firstly using the tin shaker, if they should drink. But we had this focus on sustainability, which has helped with infusions for instance. We’re being less wasteful, because the flavor can now be taken further. Sustainability is such a huge topic. I mean, in England for instance, the ban on plastic straws is great. But what other things can we be doing in the industry to be more sustainably minded?[18:15]
Nico De Soto: There’s so much that you can do, you have to use as much as you can, of what would go to the waste. Like we do a punch with berries. And he took that stuff with the cuddle that was on the bottom of the bag, and dehydrate it to make a garnish, like for a drink. Some people tend to use less lime and lemon, and add acids. Use acids to have less weight. And to have the least of possible of trash. Those guys have to eat trash, You have like a guy’s like Native, they use, they use the waste to do some paintings to do stuff on the wall. It’s crazy. It’s pretty amazing. So yeah, I think the ban on the straws is the first step. And I think, we had to do that. I don’t think people always talk about that, but that should go further than that. You should go to Bali. Bali is a good example. Bali just banned plastic bags and bans straws. But you still step on that shit everywhere, and the shoe stuff in the street. I mean, there’s so much work to do. With all the shit, we throw by the window. So, it’s a good start. So you could start, but I think yeah, to really make an impact, we have to double effort in that way.
Christopher: Good, good. Talking about Bali, actually, you’ve just been there and a few other places in the last few weeks. How do you keep your wellbeing intact, with all that traveling?
Nico De Soto: I’m pretty well organized, well structured. I still try to do four or five, cross fits, even when I travel. I always find no cross fit, could be, or we always have a gym. So it’s just a matter of motivation to , and just move your ass to do a little sport. It’s very important. When I’m home in New York, or Paris I count my calories. I eat a lot of veggies. I really pay attention to my food. I always take like supplements when I travel. A Lot of stuff, stuff for the liver. It’s just like, as I say, that did some nutrition science studies. So I quite know a lot about all that. And I really. cause I’m a heavy drinker as well. When I travel, I can do. Yeah, it’s part of the job and I like it as well. You travel, you go to all the cities, and you meet all your friends, bartenders and yeah, you want to drink, and to pump it out. You want to try what they have on their bar. And they don’t sell kale smoothies, they sell alcohol. So it’s a balance of what you do at home and what you do when you travel. Yes. On travel, is a lot of restaurants, a lot of bars, but as soon as I’m home, I’m very, very strict and handsy. And it’s been a lot of trouble. I think this year, I’ve been to 25 countries. More than 70 flights. I think it’s seven cities. So it’s been a heavy, heavy year. I did 25 guests shifts this year. I won’t do it as much next year to be honest, because I think it’s really taxing. But it’s been a great year traveling.
Christopher: Great. And what’s your favorite place? Where feels like home for you?[21:18]
Nico De Soto: Home? You know, home, it will always be Paris, because it’s where my family is, and where only the area. But I I really love New York. New York is still my favorite city in the world. I’m crazy about Bali and Singapore. Those two cities. I love Hong Kong as well. Such, such a good vibe. So those places I can go to like several time a year, and I’m very happy to go back all the time. Tokyo as well. There is such an energy right now on the food and beverage industry. In Asia, so many things happening right now that makes you want to do something there, like wants to be part of it.
Christopher: Absolutely. I think Asia’s just caught up to the biggest cities like London, New York for instance. Even here in Bangkok, you have some incredible bars. Do you think Asia is going to be taking over a bit in the future?
Nico De Soto: No. Asia is taking over. What’s happening in Asia is far more, it’s far more interesting than what’s happening in New York right now. Even if New York is New York, even if it’s a great city, that has such a history, I think it’s been years, that not much is happening. Nothing is going on anymore. There’s a lack of creativity, I think in New York, that when you go to Asia and you’re like, fuck. And it has been an article where, the guys from New York would say, Oh no, no, it’s a great scene. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of fantastic neighborhood bar. But I think in term of creativity, they have to look what’s going on in Singapore. They have to look what’s going on, yeah in Bangkok. Bangkok, I know there’s like five, six bars opening very soon. Bangkok will be the next one, after Singapore and Hong Kong. Manila, I think is on the rise as well. I was recently… so those big city are taking over. And it’s been inspiring how fast things can happen. Now, China as well, is flooding.[23:10]
Nico De Soto: Shenzen, you don’t know what’s happening there. Soon it’s going to be crazy. They’re trying to bring all the Michelin star chef and lot of great bars, to make the city more attractive, because right now, it’s a bit bigger work city. But I heard a bit boring, so they wanted to change that. And that’s just two of the cities in China, that are crazy, created the rubbing and where you have a big budget. And order people with money to drink as well.
Christopher: Okay, fantastic. So Nico, what’s next? You have free bars, you’re traveling in the wild. Is there another big project in the works? Another bar maybe.
Nico De Soto: Yeah, there’s some stuff here and there. So this, is more happening in Paris. We are looking for more locations, but that smaller restaurant side, because I’m part of the direct local restaurant as well. We have already two. So we were looking to open more places. There could be something in Asia. I’m going to talk with some people. I just want to make sure. If I do something, you have to focus on it. It’s the more you do, and the less you focus on your bars. So that’s right now, that’s what I’m wondering. Maybe I won’t do anything there, maybe I’ll do something there. Let’s see, it depends on whether, Thibault my bar manager, Because if he wants to make the step there, and open there, it will make things easier. So it just think, you know, a lot of things right now. Like I’ve got some stuff, that position Shanghai in China, in Singapore and I got something as well. It could happen in Bali by just a matter of just not jumping and saying yes because I want to [inaudible] surfing there, but just really thinking, can I do it, can I do it?
Christopher: Sure. And do you have any advice for aspiring bartenders, who might want to open a bar in the future?[24:51]
Nico De Soto: Well, first, they shouldn’t open up a bar, after working behind the bar, after two years. I understand it’s very tempting. You see all the guys like me, like Alex Kratena all those guy traveling all around the world and doing stuff. Yeah. But we worked our ass off, before getting there. We like Baba King, behind the bar for one, and then we opened our own place. So that’s first, like some young guys come to me and say, Oh I want to work in your bar because you do fat wash. But you ask them what’s the process of distillation? They don’t even know. So learn your basic, learn your base. It’s like when you’re in your restaurant, you don’t go to the pass right away. You just cut potatoes for a while, before, and you make your way up. And it’s exactly the same for a bar. Be a good host, be a good bartender, be a good host, make your time, and then maybe open your bar. And even if you open your bar, don’t think you’re going to get the door of craziness like opening bar, it’s very hard. You cannot be a slave of your bar. You don’t necessarily make more money having a bar, because unless you put the own money from your pocket, you have investors, they have a big share. So it’s just, don’t go too fast. That’s all I will say. Don’t go too fast.
Christopher: Brilliant. Nico, thank you so much for coming on the show today. It was great to hear about you and your history.
Nico De Soto: Thanks for having me.
Christopher: And have fun with the Christmas concept of Mace.
Nico De Soto: Yeah, it’s going to be running for a month and a half now. I mean we have a good team. Like it’s a bit insane, but we have intense, but yeah, we have a good team running it. I’m going to Miami next week for [inaudible 00:26:22]. So same with changing dominion, Kaido, and Buzzer. It’s a good moment. We have a lot of events, and then I’ll be back in Paris. And our last trip to Kazakhstan, and then that’s it.
Christopher: Great. Well, enjoy. Thanks for being here. Talk soon, Nico.
Nico De Soto: Thank you.
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