Natasha Bermudez about Nikkei, women in the bar industry and life in New York.
Natasha Bermudez, bar manager at Llama San in New York, wants to push people out of their comfort zone. I called her up for a talk about Llama San's interpretation of the popular Nikkei cuisine that combines flavors from Japan and Peru, and in addition to Nikkei it became a heartfelt conversation about being a bartender and woman, New York and Speed Rack — the American cocktail competition for women supporting breast cancer research, in which Natasha took home the victory last year.
The bar industry is not male dominated
I start the conversation by congratulating Bermudez for taking home first place in the latest Speed Rack; a high-speed cocktail competition designed to shed light on self-identifying women in the bar industry and give back to those affected by breast cancer. During their nine seasons, they have raised over $ 1 million for charities that support breast cancer research. Bermudez is delighted with both her victory and her part in the community that Speed Rack has become. “Something special happens when it's just girls competing. I am not a fan of exclusion but I still think that competitions like these are needed because many women find it difficult to find a natural place in the industry. It also helps change the perception that the bar industry is male-dominated — which it is not. Not today”, says Natasha Bermudez. We continue to talk more generally about what it's like to be a woman and work behind the bar, and she explains that she has previously been strategically placed at work stations where she is the first person you see when you come in, just because she is a woman. She also explains the absurdity in that the risk of a hand on your arm is significantly smaller if the number of women working behind the bar is higher than the number of men. She then switches to a lighter tone when she talks about the sisterhood she experience with her female colleagues at Llama San. “We have even synced our menstrual cycle. It happened recently. For real!"
Nikkei - traditional Peruvian cuisine with Japanese influences
After ten years as a New York bartender, Natasha Bermudez now runs the bar at Llama San where she sets the agenda for the beverage selection. She works closely with chef Erik Ramirez when she creates her drink menu. Bermudez explains to me that when a guest asks if the kitchen is "fusion" she must make the effort not to sigh. “Nikkei is not 'fusion'. It is nothing new, where you have taken some things from two different countries and mixed them up. Nikkei is a traditional way of cooking in Peru that has grown through the influence of Japanese cuisine. Outside Japan, Peru is the country with the second largest Japanese population, after Brazil, and what you find on our menu are dishes and cocktails inspired by what has been cooked in Peruvian homes and restaurants since Japanese immigration began in the 19th century. The whole way of cooking changed then. By the way, it was the Japanese who showed the Peruvians how to cure fish in citrus — that's where ceviche comes from”, says Bermudez.
"We only have Japanese vodka"
Bermudez is just as quick with New York-breathing glitches as she is good at justifying them with benevolent laughter and clear points. “When you go to a restaurant, the deal is that you put your taste buds in someone else's hands, and if you are uncomfortable with that — eat at home. The same goes for cocktails. We offer people the opportunity to taste something new, something they have never tried before. When a guest asks for a vodka soda I explain that we only have Japanese vodka and then we already have a dialogue. Often people ask which is the best drink on the menu, and then I want to answer 'I'm not gonna tell you'", laughs Bermudez and continues: "because I want to find out what you want." She has skipped putting Pisco Sour and Japanese Highball on the menu, but does not hesitate to twist classics like White Negroni, where she infuses nori in distilled muscat-wine and stirs it with white amaro, sake, dry vermouth and orange bitters.
Life in New York
Like everything can be found in Peru, everything can be found in New York too, according to Bermudez. “I love New York. It is a small big city and people come here from all over the world. This means that there will be some cultural clashes. But the diversity also means that we can get lots of ingredients from different markets and shops in different parts of the city — the whole world is represented here. We can always taste new things, bring in new products to the bars and that's what keeps the creativity alive.” There is no doubt that she has had to struggle to get to where she is today. She says she sees people from the area go to work and then return half a day later and when she closes the bar she sees the same person go to the next job. “It's a hustle; we always have to be innovative, always with the question 'How can I make more money?' Everyone here can relate to the struggle, but that's also what drives the city forward."
I concluded the interview by asking Bermudez to name a person from the industry she wants to thank, a mentor or someone who inspired her, and she replied: “Oh, there are so many. But if I have to choose, I say Eryn Reece. She has opened lots of bars and I have worked in all of them. I learned the profession through her. But I also have to mention Lynette Marrero. She is the one who has made me a strong leader and taught me the importance of committing to the concept. She has never done the same drink twice! And she is also one of the founders of Speed Rack.” She adds: "Every single person who helped me train was a bartender woman".
The last Natasha Bermudez told me before we hung up was, "If you come to New York and I would take you out, wherever we would go people would treat you as if they had known you forever", and that's exactly how I was met by her during our conversation; as if we were old friends. It became obvious to me after speaking with Bermudez that the common denominator when it comes to Nikkei, New York, bartender women and Speed Rack is the opportunity to create and belong to a community — and the joy that a welcome brings.