Flair Legend Interview: Francesco Leoni

We had the opportunity to catch up with one of the main men from the European bartending and flair bartending scene from the 1990s and early 2000s, Francesco Leoni. We follow his story from fledgling bartender to the Legends of Bartending in Las Vegas and beyond. The king of bumps and rolls, Francesco still has one of the most unique styles of flair bartending to this day. Find out where it all began:

Where did it all start?

I was 17 years old when i first got involved in the food and beverage industry here in Genoa, Italy. I was studying in the industry at the time and was also able to do a bit of travelling, it was on my travels that I first started to see and experience flair bartending – although at the time my own style and experience was very much ‘classical hotel’ and guest relations focused. It is interesting to see how where you started, seems to influence your style of flair when you come to learn, I think the style of flair bartending I would come to know as my own was very heavily influenced by my time working in high end hotels and restaurants.

From my studies and work in Genoa, I was able to get one of my first jobs at a 5 star hotel in Frankfurt, Germany. This is where I was first introduced to flair bartending, our manager organised for a TGI Friday’s Master Bartender to do a bartending development course for all of us at the hotel, I was 19 at the time. I saw how amazing flair bartending was and how it could be really beneficial in guest service. This was in 1998, so flair bartending itself was still developing and naturally as a TGI Friday’s Master Bartender, much of what I was shown was working flair.

It didn’t really matter what type of flair it was because I was hooked. Working 12 hours a day and spending another 3-4 hours practising my flair bartending, I was passionate about mastering this way of service. As I was in Germany, I got involved with the DBU (bartenders union) and this is where I saw for the very first time – competitive flair bartending, with the first competition in Germany, the Bacardi Martini Grand Prix in 1999.

My love for flair bartending was clear to see and eventually the TGI Friday’s Master Bartender who I met through my work in Frankfurt told me of an a position that had become available at TGI Friday’s in Haymarket, in London. TGI’s were renowned for the level of training they would invest into their employees, therefore I didn’t hesitate, although it meant working my way up from bar back.

Your first competition…

Now in London and starting to train in the art of flair bartending I was on the look out for my first competition and heard about something at The Roadhouse in Covent Garden. I started entering and competing in the monthly Roadhouse heats, where I was able to get a place in the Roadhouse Grand Finals later that year. It was one of the first ever Roadhouse Grand Finals and it was incredible. I couldn’t believe how many people from different countries were there to compete, nevertheless I stepped up and performed my routine and was amazed to come 3rd in my first every Roadhouse Grand Finals, with Nicholas St Jean in 2nd and Steve ‘Nitro’ Smith in 1st.

I was 20 years old at the time and it gave me a lot of confidence to go on and develop my flair, the following year I got my first ever 1st place in a Roadhouse heat and came 5th in the TGI National Finals. The Roadhouse continued to grow month after month and I got really close to people like Neil Garner, Neil Lowery, Nicholas St Jean and Oliver Pluck. We started travelling and competing in international competitions in places like Dubai and Legends of Bartending in Las Vegas, 2001 was a very exciting time for flair bartending.

I was very surprised to receive my first invitation to Legends of Bartending in Las Vegas and was even more surprised to receive my second – a year later. There were 63 people competing from over 27 countries and I somehow managed to place fourth, following this I was offered a job at Caesars Palace in Vegas at its world renowned shadow bar. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great year to be an immigrant in the USA following 9/11 so I had it took much longer than normal for me to get my work visa.

Living and working with guys who were from all over the world introduced me to different styles of flair bartending, it gave me hints on how to develop my own flair and in turn I was able to show them the European style. Although flair bartending was growing in popularity, there still wasn’t a huge amount of competitions available, the level of flair really started to kick on and become more sophisticated thanks to places like The Roadhouse and Legends of Bartending.

Hanging up your bottles…

Leading up to 2007 I had been in the last three Legends of Bartending and in 2007 I qualified first for the finals. Unfortunately in the end I fell at the final hurdle, messing up in one round which left me down on points in the final – I finished in 3rd place overall. This was my last Legend of Bartending, although I didn’t want it to be my last flair bartending competition, my journey started at The Roadhouse and this is where I wanted to end it.

It was 2007 and the next generation of flair bartenders were starting to come through, I believe it was one of Marek’s first Roadhouse’s and it was clear to see what the next generation was bringing. Flair bartending was still developing when I started out, by this time it was much more popular. Flair bottles were invented and easy to get hold of, YouTube had become a success and you could get videos of all different types of flair and flair moves. Naturally this led to stronger flair bartenders, with much better technique. I was surprised to find how hard it was and finished my last flair bartending competition in fourth or fifth place.

From here I returned to Vegas where I was recruited to work in Dubai for Emirates as a training manager for the company. In the end it was my flair bartending career and the competitions I took part in which got me the job at Caesars Palace and then from there, this job for Emirates in Dubai. I really relished the training and teaching side of this job in Dubai and to this day, that desire to teach and train new bartenders has never left me…

Any moves to call your own?

I don’t know if there were any moves you could call my own, you could probably say better than me. I spent time developing my rolls and bumps though, this was my style. I had the over the shoulder bump and chest bump, although back in the day everyone’s style was so individual so even if two bartenders performed the same move, it would be hard to tell as the execution was usually quite different.

How do you think flair bartending has developed today?

I think flair bartending has come a long way, like I said through videos on Youtube, teaching in bar schools, what the WFA has done and more it has become extremely technical. The ability to study flair moves in slow motion and in such detail allows for the perfection of technique and development of more and more technical flair. It is important not to lose the entertaining side of flair bartending in the pursuit of perfect technique, however it seems that the best flair bartenders have this balance.

It is also cool to see flair bartending introducing more and more objects. I was part of the generation that do a 4-5 minute routine with just a bottle and a tin, no repeat moves and if you didn’t land a move you would try it again straight away! It is really cool to see how the different styles of flair have developed with the use of more objects.

Today Francesco owns and runs two restaurants and cocktail bars in Genoa and has just launched a training lab for bartending, “Working flair is a big part of the training lab. For me it is all about giving back to the world of bartending and flair in the way I received it when I was young. My passion for bartending will never die and with this attitude we can continue to have generation after generation of professional and great bartenders”.