Although it would’ve been too obvious to feature Kurt first in this series, I only ‘competed’ against Kurt once, and that wasn’t at a recognised comp by any means but rather in one of the in-house comps we used to have at Flair Club in Greenpoint. In that comp we finished in a dead heat, and I’m not sure who out of us would’ve enjoyed that result more?
I always speak about eras in SA bartending, and if I had to define the era which made us it would be the ‘flairasic’ period of AD. 2001 – 2004. We were the connector blocks between the founding fathers of flair, and the wave of popular poster pin up bartenders yet to come.
We were complete fledglings at the time and to tie with someone like Kurt, Simon Borchert or Colin Carmody at that stage of our careers would’ve been seen as a victory for us. On the other hand, we didn’t run any businesses of our own, or carry any other responsibilities like they did and still do. We could happily plough through a day of late rising, fill every bit of sunlight hours practicing and then go to work and continue practicing in a real bar. There was no doubt we were primed to win flair comps and in so saying maybe coming in a tie with one of us could’ve been seen as a victory for them.
During that period, one of my favourite things to do was to go to flair club every week. It was held at a place called Bourbon Street in Greenpoint. For reference, the hall of the fine dining restaurant Pigelle as we know it now, was filled with baggy pant wearing, bottle flipping, glass breaking social misfits. Armed with delusions of grandeur, a cloth, 3 pens a zippo and a sense of cocktail kingdom. We thought of ourselves as the keepers of the good times since there wasn’t a drink being experienced in a club, bar or party anywhere that wasn’t being made by the hands of one of us.
The very idea of ‘Rockstar Bartenders’ was the holistic concept of Kurt himself. Not only were we being primed to win flair competitions, we were being primed for ‘Rockstar’ service. Born to be kings, we were the princes of the cocktail universe. There wasn’t a concert, brand party, nightclub, social café or cocktail bar that we didn’t have VIP access to. Okay we were always working, but it didn’t seem to matter to us, it was like our privilege. The better you got at bartending the more gigs you got to go to, it was like hanging out with your friends at cool parties except you had your own cornered off VIP area, and all you had to do was make drinks for everyone else and get paid - seemed like the perfect gig!
When referring to our flair founding forefathers, there was David Gibbon, Ryno Slabber, Simon Borchert and Etienne Schlechter. The most influential propounding father of them all was Kurt. For any bartender worth his barblade in those days, the system for fast tracking yourself to bartending royalty was under the guidance of Kurt and Etienne Schlechter through the first ever mobile bartending company which they started, called the Bartenders Workshop.
Already an icon by the time we met in 2001, loads of what I knew about Kurt in my early days as a bartender was from the stuff of legend. I never saw him flair in competition, but I did catch him in his natural habitat holding down the bar at a place in Sea Point called Blue Rock where he worked.
That place was like a living rendition of the movie Cocktail, and the bartenders were just the coolest guys on earth. Using call signs, throwing everything they touched while making multi-coloured libations in huge punches they called Fish Bowls. I would hear stories of flair comps before my time from which Kurt gained notoriety.
According to legend, Kurt came onto stage wearing sunglasses, passing out shots of Tequila from a tray while jamming to the sounds of Funky Cold Medina. This preamble preluded his routine before going on to win the competition, blowing everyone’s minds being the only guy in the line-up who could flair three objects at that time. I think this was the moment where Kurt left the bar and started B.T.W and they started doing cocktail shows, touring around the country with Mainstay and the original ‘Rockstar’ bartenders were born. The 'flairasic' period followed this.
Apart from flair, and I suppose we all followed in his footsteps, but the world of Mixology is where Kurt had most of his successes. For a long time he was the only bartender in SA who had won an international competition in any capacity when he won the global Tahona Society in Mexico in 2009.
Kurt won the only two National Competitions he ever entered in. He and I competed in 2 IBA World Championships together. In 2008 in Puerto Rico and Cape Town in 2014, where he won a Bronze Medal in the After Dinner Category, another accolade he holds alone as the only SA Bartender to win a medal at the global showpiece.
It seems as though Kurt has never lost a National competition he has ever entered, and he remains the best SA bartender ever with the best win/lose ratio of anyone in our short history. If anyone spends time talking with Kurt you’ll quickly realise that neither mixology nor flair are the most important things to him as a bartender. Knowledge remains the object of his bartending obsession. I recall an early discussion we had, one of many. During which he asked me if I knew about a liqueur which came in two colour renditions yellow and green? I replied in full confidence and said yea sure, you’re talking about Roses passionfruit and lime cordial, hand over face, thank you Tiger for not laughing your head off out loud.
While trawling Facebook photos of others I have already written about, I couldn’t count the number of photo’s all these great bartenders have on their social walls which have been taken with Kurt. It’s clear that Kurt has connected the celestial bartending stars together. If all he wanted to do was to fade to black, then I know it would be for no other reason than to provide the back drop for all the other stars to shine for themselves. But for most of us, Kurt still remains the biggest burning ball of combusting gas in our bartending solar system.
His energy seems limitless, the literal night skies over all of the bars we work at today may show their stars in all their glory, but when the Sun comes out to play no other stars can be seen.
‘Tastes like ice cream, kicks like petrol’!
Kurt Schlechter at the IBA Conference and World Cocktail Championship in Puerto Rico, 2008.