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Silchar to Shanghai: Assam grocer’s son to represent India at global bartending slugfest

New Delhi, June 22: When Santanu Chanda cleared his B.Com. in Silchar, Assam, his father, who ran a neighbourhood grocery store, said that it was time for him to tie the marital knot with a good-looking Assamese girl. Santanu, though, had other plans. He took a train to Kolkata and from there he set off to Goa for a career of his choice. After working in a shack for some time, he landed a job at the well-known Goan nightclub Titos, where he got paid Rs 900 for rinsing glasses and removing beer bottle caps.

That was in 2011. Cut to 2023, and you find him, now a world-travelled bartender presiding over PVR Limited’s plush Home lounge and bar in New Delhi, preparing to represent India for the Diageo World Class Global Bartender of the Year faceoff in Shanghai, China, in September. He got his ticket to Shanghai after a two-stage contest — Best of 100 followed by Best of 16 — that engaged the best bartenders from all over the country. Santanu’s dream for the competition — he’ll know only on July 4 about the parameters for this year’s slugfest — is to shake up a disco-inspired cocktail to the beat of Parvati Khan’s ‘Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja’ from the MIthun Chakraborty-starrer ‘Disco Dancer’.

He knows the burden of expectations lies heavy on his shoulders — because last year, when the competition was staged in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Delhi-born, Pune-based Aashie Bhatnagar was one of the 12 finalists and returned home with the People’s Choice Award. Unfazed, Santanu declares with confidence, “I will be this year’s winner.” It is not an idle boast, but what he calls ‘positive manifestation’. Whenever he has a target to fulfil, he makes it a point to wake up seeing a notice pinned on the board next to his bed. It spells out the current target he has set for himself.

His wake-up note for himself now says: “I will be the Diageo World Class Global Bartender of the Year”. These notes, according to Santanu, help him get focused on the goal and develop the positivity within himself to achieve them. So, how did Santanu move from being rinser of glasses to a champion bartender? It started in Goa when a bartender friend of his got selected for a cruise liner and landed a Rs 80,000 per month job. The friend’s lucrative salary package gave Santanu a purpose in life — he had to become a bartender, but he needed a mentor, so he tried to get into the good books of a Ukrainian expat, Artem Klymenko, a champion flair bartender who was a trainer at Titos.

Artem first tested Santanu’s resolve — he did not even acknowledge his presence for a week — and then made it clear to his future student that he could never become a good bartender if he only wanted to make money. He had to love bartending and be passionate about it. Santanu agreed, became Artem’s disciple, attended a three-month course, read up all the books he could lay his hands upon, and six months later, he made his life’s first cocktail, a Cosmopolitan.

His next break came because of two rising stars of his profession — Pankaj Kamble (who’s now no more) and Sachin Gowda, who ran Pune’s Flairology Bar School and Events. They recommended Santanu for a job at the JW Marriott, Pune. Santanu’s friends had to raise money for him to buy decent clothes and a pair of shoes for Pune. Looking back at those days, he said, “I used to earn Rs 8,000 and send Rs 7,000 for my parents, which left me with very little to spend on myself.”

When he was at the JW Marriott, Pune, Santanu attended his first World Class, becoming a part of a global community of bartenders created by Diageo to enable them to connect, get acquainted with trends, and pick up new skills. That proved to be his gateway to the famous Buddha Bar in Dubai, where he spent six years and won international competitions — up against French and Italian bartenders. Then the call came from Reynaud Palliere, CEO of PVR’s Luxury Collection and Innovations, who head hunted him for Home, which was then a members-only club at a Delhi mall.

Home is no longer a private club. Santanu has helmed its transition to a popular, albeit exclusive, lounge bar with a food menu designed by Japanese Chef Yutaka Saito and MasterChef Australia finalist Sarah Todd. Today, Santanu’s father is proud of what his son has been able to achieve by not listening to his advice. The dutiful son, in fact, looks after their financial needs, so his parents are back to doing what they love — they have returned to their paddy fields and his father, who has shut down his grocery store, spends his days fishing when he’s not in the fields. Santanu takes immense pride in pointing out that John Walker, the man behind the iconic whisky brand, was a grocer like his father. Well, he may not yet be India’s answer to John Walker, but Santanu has up his sleeve a variant of the Johnnie Walker Highball, one of the three cocktails that booked his ticket to Shanghai.

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