Meet: João Balzani
VENUE: Avant Garde, Mauritius
INTERVIEW with João Balzani from Mauritius, an Indian Ocean island nation, known for its beaches, lagoons and beautiful reefs. João, saw an opportunity and took it. The Blend speaks with him, and dives deeper into what life is like on the island in which he now calls home.
Where are you working currently, and what is the style and concept of the venue?
Last year I had the opportunity (with the help of investors) to open Mauritius’ first cocktail bar, ‘Avant Garde’.
I am only overseeing the bar currently as it’s running well by itself. That allows me to give time to my other businesses, including Liquidchefs (a mobile bar service company), and the consultancy services I offer to hotels and resorts on the island.
You’re not originally from Mauritius... What brought you to this region and where have you worked on the island?
I am half Brazilian and Italian, and I have travelled and worked across the globe throughout my career.
I arrived in Mauritius at the end of 2010, which is when I joined Le Suffren Hotel. The hotel was in need of a new concept at the time, so its team of professionals and I developed a trendy, new lounge bar, ‘On The Rocks’. I worked there for around two years and met my wife who is originally from Mauritius. Our love of adventure took us to Hong Kong, but we moved back to the island at the end of 2015.
What is the bar culture like in your local market?
The bar industry in Mauritius is still developing. Customers have a greater chance of finding international brands in hotels or bars managed by foreigners or Mauritians who have international experience. The local bars mostly focus on the spirits produced here and offer classic cocktails such as the Mojito and Piña Colada. However, the market is improving, which is pleasing to see.
How does that differ to back home?
Well, the bar industry in Italy has a big history. It has modernised over the past five years and more development has occurred in areas such as Milan and Rome.
Do you have any challenges with sourcing supplies and fresh produce?
The taxation on spirits in Mauritius is high, which makes them expensive. Tahitian lime is very hard to find and would be expensive if you did come across it. There are a number of other fruits and herbs also not available on the island. However, Mauritius is rich in resources and all you need is creativity!
Where do you draw inspiration from?
There is so much to explore in this region. I often discover something new on the island that inspires me. Currently, I’m working with ‘betel’, which is a leaf used by Hindus during prayers. It also proves to be a great ingredient in cocktails.
Who’s driving the trends, is it consumers visiting your venue and requesting specific flavours and spirits, or is the venue leading the way?
The guests are very receptive to our concept; they trust the bartenders to offer them a unique cocktail experience. We do have to adapt to the market, which isn’t ready for a lot of things, however, we believe the relationships and trust we are building with our guests will get us there.
Who is your clientele - locals, tourists or a combination?
We have a mixed clientele of locals, expats, businessmen and tourists.
What motivates you and why do you enjoy this industry?
As a mixologist, it’s the ability to continuously create new cocktails and work in different markets.
In which moment in your career did you know this was your passion?
At the beginning, back in Italy, where I was working as a part-time bartender. I was impressed by the professionalism and knowledge of my mentors, as well as their style; I wanted to be like them.
Then, living and working in the US really opened doors for me. I discovered a new approach to bartending; I was travelling for competitions and getting recognised. Before I realised it, and in a short amount of time, I was one of the leading bartenders there.
All of those experiences showed me that I want to do what I’m passionate about.
There is still more that I have to achieve, but that’s what is great about this industry.
What do you think the industry needs more of?
International bartenders helping the local bar community grow by sharing their knowledge and experience.
What do you think the industry needs less of?
What’s next for Joao?
I am planning to open a new cocktail bar in Europe, inspired by the Indian Ocean’s mix of cultures. Stay tuned...