The Magic Behind Berlin’s Velvet Bar
Velvet may just be the most exciting bar in Berlin right now. Damien Guichard, Ruben Neideck, and Filip Kaszubski, the three masterminds behind the bar’s intimate ambience and offbeat seasonal cocktails, talk about Velvet’s unique vibe.
We recently sat down with Velvet bar manager Filip Kaszubski and bartenders Ruben Neideck and Damien Guichard for a discussion on their work, their drinks, and what’s in store for Velvet’s first winter season. Humble to a fault, these three highly talented bartenders take hospitality very seriously, yet still manage to showcase an ease and sense of fun with their drinks.
Although Velvet first opened in 2013 – one of the first cocktail bars to appear in Neukölln as it gentrified – Velvet came under new management six months ago. Robert Havemann, the man behind Rosa Lisbert and one of the three owners of the bar, brought Kaszubski, Neideck, and Guichard on board to shake things up, so to speak.
The trio immediately started turning heads in Berlin. Velvet is known for its lab in the back, which is used to process seasonal, local ingredients. Like the farm-to-table movement in the restaurant world, Velvet aims to bring ingredients from farm to shaker. Unafraid to use unorthodox cocktail flavors, previous menus have featured drinks made with chanterelle mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, and sorrel.
Here, the Velvet gang reflect on their work, in their own words. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Velvet has quickly gained a reputation for its unique bar concept. What is it about Velvet that really resonates with your guests?
Damien Guichard: First and foremost, we’re a bar. We might have a strong concept, but we’re a bar. Even if it can seem a bit more intricate in terms of where we source our ingredients and how we process them, at the end of the day what we’re trying to do is come up with good drinks so that people are interested and happy to stay for the evening.
Ruben Neideck: I would like to stay far away from the idea of a “concept bar,” we are a bar that has a concept but we try not to be too in-your-face about it. You can explore the menu but you can also have a good time.
Filip Kaszubski: It’s more about the identity. I think we want to be a bit different and challenge ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we come up to our guests and try to show off. It needs to be approachable so they feel relaxed. At the end of the day, it’s about having a drink and having a good time.
In that case, what’s the attraction of using these more obscure local ingredients?
Damien Guichard: We want to highlight the richness of the region, it’s not about making things complicated for ourselves and challenging for the sake of it just to get people off. Why use apples from France or Spain, when we could be working with apples from Görlitz? Of course, there are things we might want to use, like exotic fruit. I, for example, really love pineapples, but here we get to use both pine and apples!
Filip Kaszubski: It’s about combining local flavors into something that can end up being exotic. Like we made a drink with sanddorn (sea buckthorn) and it ended up tasting like passionfruit.
Ruben Neideck: We showcase flavors to the customer that they know exist, but never experience anymore because they’re not relevant right now. We want to showcase the variety of the produce that can be had here. The restaurant world does that a lot already, but the drinks world is a bit different.
Filip Kaszubski: It’s very rewarding because we use many ingredients that people might know from their childhood. I think the best example is the drink we did with sorrel. So many people got incredibly excited about this, going “Oh, you have a drink with sorrel! My grandmother used to cook with that. That’s amazing!” It’s about that trip down memory lane that opens up this wonderful moment from your youth and it lends a nice connection to the bar. It’s not about showing off, it’s about sharing a memory and having a good drink along with it.
How do your roles within the bar vary? How do you divide the work?
Damien Guichard: I like to say that Ruben is the brain, Filip is the man, and I’m the kid. In terms of making drinks, we do everything together. Filip is the bar manager so he has the final say. Very often, technical input is going to come from Ruben because he’s more methodical, whereas I work more from trial and error – he monitors things a lot more. That’s something I love about him. Luckily though, we always end up making the same decisions when it comes to creating drinks.
Filip Kaszubski: That’s what I really enjoy. When we work on new drinks methodically, there’s a still a bit of craziness and we put it all together. On Tuesday lab days we all make new drinks. We all might have an idea for a drink, with similar ingredients, but we each make it a different way. Then we compare it and it’s not about ego – I might like Damien or Ruben’s drink more than mine. So we make it that way.
Ruben Neideck: In terms of actually working the bar at night, Damien might end up mixing more often, Filip does 50/50 and I do a lot of service. That’s because we all have a certain tendency towards these positions. Then there’s the barback position which we all do, and that’s really cool because you have this overview of the bar and what’s happening. We all know how to do each position and that’s where trust is important. I think you need to trust your teammates, and trust that they know what they’re doing.
How has the work you’ve done at previous bars prepared you for working at Velvet?
Filip Kaszubski: For me, it’s been a long journey working in bars, restaurants, and clubs. It’s slowly come to this really nice, high plane. We have the privilege of working here, which is like a big playground. We have a good relationship with our bosses, so there’s not a lot of micromanaging going on, which is very important when you’re working in a bar. We have a lot of freedom.
Damien Guichard: I’ve only been a bartender for four years, so it’s a bit different for me. I’ve been lucky to work in really good bars. I’ve learned to remember the frustrations to be able to appreciate when they’re not there anymore. The lack of trust for example. I feel like here we have the best conditions to work as a team.
Ruben Neideck: We all worked at Bar Marqués, which is a good connection. We all know that we worked in a bar where our own set of standards was quite high and having worked in that same environment gives us a bond. Personally, Ora benefitted me greatly towards the direction that we’re going here, in terms of seasonality.
This is the first winter you’ll be doing at Velvet, do you have any specific plans for the new season?
Damien Guichard: We won’t have as much fresh produce to work with, that’s going to be challenging. Scarcity is always challenging. We’ve made some shrubs, some fortified syrups with vinegar so that we can prolong the shelf life of those products.
Filip Kaszubski: This will be the first winter season of our first year, which means that there is still lot of trial and error. The main thing is how the public reacts to what we’re doing and how we can build on that. It’s important to capture the winter season in the correct way. I think it’s a fun time, we’re looking forward to keeping the concept alive when you have fewer ingredients to work with.
Ruben Neideck: We’ve pre-produced of course and we also have a couple of fermentations waiting in the cellar, that we exclusively produced for the upcoming season. It’ll be interesting to see how the demand increases in winter, when we have more customers. What’s coming soon is the sloes, I’m actually going to pick some this week because we just saw the first frost. We’re also currently making black garlic, because fresh garlic is in season.
Filip Kaszubski: We also have some more equipment arriving and we’re looking forward to experimenting with that. The main thing is to react to the public. Winter is a great opportunity to do some whacky events like last week’s oyster Sunday. That’s the interesting part of it, playing around and experimenting.
Foto: Photo via Tim Klöcker.