As the award-winning bar at the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong presents its new menu, beverage manager Federico Balzarini teaches us the best way to source ingredients.
Taking up a job in a foreign city with a vastly different culture is a prospect anyone would find daunting, but the weight of expectation placed upon Argo’s new beverage manager, Federico Balzarini, is probably more than most have had to contend with.
In this new role, Balzarini faces the dual challenges of not only leading an award- winning team – currently ranked eighth in Asia and 34th in the world by the 50 Best Bar Awards – but also stepping into the sizeable shoes of Lorenzo Antinori, a quasi-celebrity mixologist with a mighty reputation on the global drinks scene, who previously held the position before starting his own venture, Bar Leone.
So, is Balzarini feeling any pressure? “Oh, absolutely, I’m going to start losing my hair soon,” he jokes. “I’m definitely feeling it, but also the responsibility to keep running a great show, given the established name of the hotel. But this is what makes people develop and keep getting better and better, so it’s a challenge more than a worry.”
Speaking in the grand lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, he certainly looks the part, immaculately coiffed, his suit ironed with military precision and exactly the kind of handsome face you’d want to greet you at the end of the day with a stiff drink.
And today he’s wearing an even bigger smile than usual, as it’s days before the presentation of Argo’s new menu, Argo Forestry, which is not only the culmination of five months’ work, but also an opportunity for Balzarini to put his own mark on the establishment since his appointment in March.
But the changing of the guard and a new menu won’t equal a total change in direction; it seems Balzarini’s approach is one of evolution rather than revolution. “Although I’ve brought some of my personal experience into the menu, I wanted to pay respect to the history of the bar and continue the legacy of the past two menus here at Argo,” he says.
The concept, Balzarini explains, is based on agroforestry, a practice in which the integration of trees into crops creates a self-sustaining ecosystem. As with the previous menu, Argo Forestry revolves around six key ingredients, only this time each represents a stage in the ecological process: from soil to root, flower, fruit, tree and animal.
He says the chosen ingredients have been considered for their relevance to Hong Kong and include granite, “the most common rock formation in the soil here”, ginger lily, “the second most grown flower on the surrounding islands”, and bamboo, “the core strength of Hong Kong in so many aspects”.
Probably the most unexpected ingredient guests will find on the menu is goat. “Integrating goats into agroforestry systems has many benefits, including improved soil fertility, weed control and increased biodiversity,” explains Balzarini, adding that products such as goat milk are useful for fat-washing and clarification in cocktail preparation.
“The aim is to create awareness of the best ways to source food and ingredients,” says Balzarini. And though it’s a beautiful idea and concept, this alone won’t cut it at Argo. “At the end of the day, we’re a hotel bar;
we have guests from all over the world, of all ages, backgrounds, palates and tastes. Our biggest challenge is making sure we create a menu to please every single guest coming through our door.”
It’s for this reason that Balzarini sought input from the whole team – including the doorman and the floor staff – during the menu’s development process, and they came up with the concept together. “We divided up into groups based on each key ingredient and started working on the R&D. Most of August and September were spent tasting drinks; it was hard work, but somebody had to do it,” he jokes.
As for his personal favourite from the new menu? “For me, it’s the Igneous Gibson, made with granite-distilled vodka, our own Argo Botanical Spirit, and garnished with a charred pickled onion. I’m a martini lover, but I also have
a savoury tooth,” he says. Other standouts include Buzz Club, a floral champagne cocktail infused with ginger lily, and a rum milk punch made with goat yoghurt named Thief.
Balzarini seems wise not to touch the signature Argo Gummy Bear Champagne, given to all guests upon arrival since the bar opened. “It’s escalated so far we can’t take it back,” he says, adding it’s become something of a bar mascot.
Although Balzarini seems utterly at ease leading such an esteemed Hong Kong establishment, it’s all a far cry from his beginnings in a small village on Lake Garda. His long journey to the upper echelons of hospitality began at the age of 17. After dropping out of school, Balzarini cut his teeth in a local cocktail bar, initially working for free just to gain experience.
It was there he spent his formative years learning the basics of service and making classic cocktails, which equipped him with the skills necessary for his later role in London with the Soho House group, where he eventually managed the Dean Street House bar.
His big break came when the role of bar back was advertised at The Savoy’s American bar. Balzarini first learned about the hotel, which has hosted the likes of Winston Churchill and Sophia Loren, early in his career when reading mixology books. Although it was technically a step backwards, he felt it was worth it, given its reputation and the chance to work alongside industry legends such as Declan McGurk, Erik Lorincz and Martin Hudak.
“What I learned most from The Savoy was not only the way of structuring a cocktail bar and the technical aspects, but also how to mentor people and properly support colleagues,” he says. After passing the “brutal” vetting process and at first just cutting ice and polishing glasses, Balzarini rose through the ranks to become a senior bartender and was also part of the team named World’s Best Bar in 2017.
But even The Savoy wasn’t immune to the impact of the pandemic on the hospitality industry. After a difficult reopening period and a change in management, when the opportunity came available to run the team at Bangkok’s Vesper – also a regular on Asia’s 50 Best – Balzarini felt ready to take on a new continent. Once in the Thai capital, he got his first taste of Four Seasons life via its hotel bar, Bangkok Social Club, which became his local hangout, where he smoked cigars on days off. It’s also where he met Antinori, who eventually recruited Balzarini to replace him at Argo.
Given his admiration for Hong Kong, he accepted without hesitation. “Not only is the drinks scene here super-advanced, able to compete with every major city in the world, but on top of that there’s a presence of local culture and local ingredients, which makes it extra fascinating,” he says.
As this is his third stint at an award- winning bar, you may be wondering what’s his secret formula? “There’s no right answer,” he says with a smile, as if he’s been asked this a thousand times. “But there’s a few things to respect and follow. The first is being passionate about hosting people and staying humble. Even when you work hard to create a cocktail menu and people come in and order a beer or a glass of wine, you can’t take it personally. It’s a big mistake to ever be judgmental.
“Secondly, create a unified team with a common mission. Work with your colleagues like they’re your family, because at the end of the day, you spend more time with them than your actual relatives.” As Balzarini slips off to attend to his new Four Seasons family, it seems he’s handling the pressure just fine.
Post source: Prestige Online