We met Maxime Potfer in extremely relaxed circumstances — in Cuba, on a week-long exploration of Havana’s passionate relationship with culture and rum. And this week, when we caught up with him, we found him in what should be a much more stressful occasion — in two weeks, the group he works for open its biggest project yet. But Maxime sounded as chilled today as he did last May at one of Havana’s foremost music venues. This confirms a long held suspicion: here’s a man who really loves what he does.
That Maxime would end up in the hospitality industry was almost a foregone conclusion: both his parents work in the business. That he would end up behind the bar was much less obvious. As many trainees, he held a dizzying variety of positions in hotels. One of them was, of course, that of bartender. And it’s as a bartender that Maxime left the south of France to make the jump to Paris and the prestigious Plaza Athénée. Still, the bar was meant to be a temporary solution, a necessary step in his professional career. One thing changed everything: a visit to nearby Experimental Cocktail Club, the flagship bar of Paris’ cocktail renaissance. The atmosphere — so much more lively than tedious luxury hotels — and the drinks — much more forward thinking — fascinated our young bartender, who instantly understood he had found his calling. After leaving his job at the Plaza, he joined Curio Parlor, the now closed little brother of the ‘Expé’.
Fast forward to 2018. Still barely a pup (25 years old or so!), Maxime now not only manages the Experimental Cocktail Club, the very bar where he experienced (pun well and truly intended) loved at first sight for progressive mixology, but all the bar programs of all the venues of the Experimental group in France, undoubtedly the leading group in the country. And from now on, he will also be involved with its numerous international projects — « expect important hotel openings in the next couple of years », he told us. Maxime is loving every minute of it: « My job allows me to work on so many different places that I feel I’d be poorer if I left to, say, open my own bar. I’d still learn things, of course, but the variety of what I’d have in front of me would be different ».
Still, Maxime was involved, as a silent partner, in one of last year’s most talked about (and non Experimental group) openings of the year: Combat, a bar located in (up to now) non cocktail territory Belleville. « We picked the neighbourhood because it’s a huge area for food and wine. There are a lot of essential places here. But there was no cocktail bar. So in that sense it was a challenge but we also felt that a cocktail bar would fit perfectly ». Because Belleville is not as upscale as the central areas most cocktail bars call home, the price had to be adjusted without lowering the quality — « the clientele here really cares for its food and drinks. The standards have to be set very high ». The day-to-day work of Maxime’s partners Margot Lecarpentier and Elena Schmitt (Combat is also a statement on the position of women in the industry) seems to be paying off: « It’s easy to have people visit a new bar. It’s tougher to get them to come back. And they come back to Combat ».
The scenery of Maxime’s latest challenge is completely different but no less exciting: the Experimental Group is about to open the Hôtel Grands Boulevards. The cocktail program should have people talking: « The restaurant will have strong Italian influences, and it’s something we will bring to the bar too. Everything will be seasonal and we want our produce to change as much as necessary to maintain top quality. We only work with providers we know personally and they, in turn, have strong and personal relationships with their own providers ». On top of this, the team will also focus on the alcoholic content of the drinks. « We’ll be open all day long, so we need more than just boozy drinks. We won’t have the alcohol level of each drink spelled out on the menu, but we will divide it in three sections: we’ll have five non-alcoholic drinks, five low alcohol cocktails, and five stronger options. Honestly, the spirit is not what will matter the most. Our focus is on the fresh produce we will be using. Its quality will allow us to lower the alcohol without losing anything in terms of taste. Our drinks’ aromatic complexity will be pretty intense. »
Maxime was telling us all this with so much enthusiasm that we felt duty bound to sort of sour the mood. Managing so many project surely does get in the way of actually bartending, which is supposed to be his true passion, we perniciously asked… « It’s not easy to work behind the bar », he admitted. « It’s a shame, but I try to do it as much as I can. It helps me to find ways of optimising the way we work. And if I quitted bartending altogether, I surely wouldn’t be able to design menus or come up with new drinks ». In short: Maxime is not about to leave on us. And that’s good news, because we really could do with more people in love with their jobs.