We were first introduced to Tarek Nixon at the Havana Club Tiki Bar during Bar Convent Berlin. Between pineapple and palm trees, tiki gods and bamboo seats, sailor webs and quirky lamps, we were told he was one to watch, a young bartender part of the future of the German cocktail scene – indeed, he was nominated as one of the Newcomers of the Year at the Mixology Awards.
Later on the same night, we walked into the bar Tarek calls home. The mood couldn’t have been more different. Provocateur is a boutique hotel with a cheeky edge. From outside, you don’t really realize there’s a lively bar inside. Once in the lobby, a door leads you into a loud lounge, completely insulated from the outside world. Huge red velvet drapes block the windows, and there’s an air of langueur, if not naughtiness, to everything.
The common point between the Tiki Bar and Provocateur may be that both are about helping you forget the outside world. But when Tarek got his start in hospitality, he had no such ambition, he was just a kid with parents in the restaurant world: “I was playing around with some bottles in the restaurant, mixing basic drinks such as Campari and orange juice”. It might not seem like much but it’s actually quite a lot: some of the best bartenders are where they are because the industry runs in their veins.
Because of this family background, Tarek never had any doubts about his future profession. After studying for a few years – Germans are always very well prepared – he discovered the cocktail world. Three years later, he is the ‘bar chef’ (you have to love this title) at the recently opened Provocateur – it’s a little over six months old. The bar is of course a meeting place for beautiful people in the centre of what used to be West Berlin, but on our visit we got sense its restaurant also attracts quite a crowd, with its French-Chinese (!!!) cuisine. In turn, this has an effect on the work of Tarek and his colleagues: “each drink we serve come with a bit of food, from the restaurant”. Although the idea is not to dive headlong into the food pairing world, there’s still a bit of playfulness around the match. “If the food is sweet, will serve a sour, salty drink, so that the client has the whole panorama of tastes”. And since the small tapas are quite daring in and of themselves – think chocolate and capers – it’s easy to understand that Provocateur is not only provocative in its aesthetic.
Food was also a strong focus when Tarek competed at the latest Havana Club Academia del Ron in Germany – he finished second. He told us it was the first time he consciously worked with concepts from gastronomy, but we bet it won’t be the last. “The main ingredient was honey. In Berlin, we have a local honey maker and I worked with them to make a vanilla honey, which I mixed into a syrup with cinnamon, rice, black beans, water and ginger.” Wow… No wonder what Tarek likes more about the job is creativity. The other ingredients were Havana Club 7 Años, pineapple and lime, resulting in a very original yet very Cuban drink. Tarek also combined this with a food pairing created on the basis of the ‘waste’ of his recipe, recuperating the ingredients he had used for the cocktail to make up the small bites the judges would get to taste. Still, he is quick to insist on the traditional lineage of his drink: “It’s a riff on the Daiquiri, and what I like best are twists on the classics”. As long as they are provocative, we assume.
Cover photo (c) Barkarusell - Antoine Le Minh