A World Class Journey by Chris Cardone

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I am not sure what prompted me to submit my first application to World Class in 2013, but what I can tell you is that I did not make it to the regional competitions. I submitted a “half-ass” video of my cocktail (back then you had to submit a video) and a drink recipe that was decent by my standards today.  I just remember that I wanted to see where I stood: an accomplished flair bartender, now running a restaurant in the village, trying to break into the world of “mixology.”  I have always been extremely selective about which cocktail competitions I enter because if I got any press, or actually won the thing, I wouldn’t want to attach my name and reputation to a product/portfolio I wouldn’t be proud of representing.  The Diageo reserve portfolio was something I was always very willing to put my name behind.  

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In 2014, my eyes nearly popped out of my head when I received an e-mail stating that I had made it through the submission process and that I would be 1 of 15 competitors competing for three spots in the Northeast regional round in Boston.  Then, I saw the lineup of the 14 other competitors, and after completely freaking myself out, I started working.  I had one goal: be myself and see how I stack up.  I probably put in 10 hours of total preparation time, worked my bar shift the night before, drove to Boston from NYC and got into my hotel room at 4 am.  The competition started at 8 am, which was probably the best thing for me since I didn’t have any time to think about how unprepared I was and completely outgunned by the rest of the talent around me in the room.  My first round was to create a signature serve that reminded me of “Home.”  I decided to compare the blend of Johnnie Walker Blue Label with the 1994 Stanley Cup Champion New York Rangers team.  Seriously.  If nothing else, I was going to be different.  I thought it went well, as did the other two rounds that day, but I was utterly shocked when my name was called as a National Finalist!  The National Finals were held in NYC where Charles Joly was named the National Finalist and then went on to win Globals. Watching Charles work over those two days was not only educational, but also massively inspiring.  I was proud of how I competed, and I was officially hooked on competing in World Class.  In addition, I also met some fantastic competitors that year, who today I consider my extended family, and that alone was worth the entry.

 

2015 rolled around quickly, and I was ready to kick some serious butt.  I got through to Regionals and was on my way to Philadelphia.  These other competitors were in trouble; I was out for blood.  I was going to make a real statement.  I walked into the room to compete in “Dealer’s Choice.”  You flip over a spirit card, a style card, and a cocktail type card.   I flipped Tequila, Bitter, Flip.      What……The……Hell?    Tequila, bitter, flip?   Um.  Um.  Um.  That was it for me.  I blacked out, mumbled for 10 minutes to Ricky Gomez and Jackson Cannon about inaccurate “facts” and general stupidity.  I walked out of the room in shock.  Although my final round of the day was one of my favorite rounds I’ve ever executed in a competition (Clue and Tanqueray 10), I wasn’t remotely surprised when my name wasn’t called that night for the finals.  I had to re-evaluate everything: my reason for competing, my preparation, my attitude, my behavior.  Everything. 

 

When 2016 arrived, all I could think about was redemption... to myself.  I once again got through the submission process and competed in NYC in the Northeast Regionals.  I prepared harder than I had ever before, and had an incredible opportunity to mentor a first-time competitor and a longtime friend at the same time for his first World Class experience.  It was a very talented field, and I was extremely relieved and validated when my name was called back to the finals stage that year.  Part of the prize package that year was a trip to the Ketel One distillery for their 325th-year-anniversary party.  I had the chance to meet the other 14 National Finalists in a non-competitive setting.  It was very different, and I was much more at ease heading into the National Finals this year, feeling like I was just happy to be back in the running.  I competed well in all five challenges, but also placed an enormous amount of pressure on myself to win, which caused me to not be my true self at times as well as to play things a bit “safe.”   It cost me in the end, and Andrew Meltzer came out the National Winner.  He deserved it, and I was happy for him, but I also felt really good about a lot of things I did that year.  I felt I grew a lot during the year and felt like I had one more year/attempt left in me.   I began thinking about 2017 that same night. 

 

2017 was going to be different for me.  I decided that if I was going to give it one last “go,” I was going to give it my all and not be afraid of losing this time.  I think that’s a big part of any form of competition: being okay with “failure.”   I contacted every single judge from the 2016 National Finals and asked them for their harshest criticism about me during the competition, and if applicable, as a competitor in general.  I won’t lie, that was NOT fun.  Having people tell you what you don’t do well in a cocktail competition is similar to getting punched in the face and then immediately apologized to right after.  But I listened, and I took every criticism as a challenge.  I worked on parts of the game that I’ve never focused on, such as high-level garnishing.  I read books on sports psychology, and about focus and mindfulness.  I asked advice from peers on preparation techniques, and even drummed up the courage to call some successful competitors and ask them how they do what they do and how I can do it too. 

 

I got through the submission round again.  I focused all of my energy and attention on the regional round in Portland, Maine.  It felt like a business trip.  I was very introverted, and I kept to myself spending little time outside of my hotel room.  During the competition, I managed to set off the fire alarm in the hotel while cooking bacon causing the hotel to be evacuated. The competition had to be temporarily shut down, and the fire department paid a visit. Despite the mishap, I managed to get through and was once again called onto the stage as a National Finalist.  Third time’s the charm? This time it felt different though, it felt… ”easier.” Competing in the Northeast Regional Finals is NEVER easy.  The competitive field is always insane. But I was more prepared, I was present during my rounds, and I didn’t feel any pressure to win.  My goal was to simply execute my rounds exactly how I wanted them to go and see what happened.

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I took the same formula and applied it to the Nationals.  I prepped like crazy, basically shutting off every aspect of my life possible.  I called all the regional judges and asked for feedback again.  I read more about the mental aspect of competing, and about self-esteem and goal-setting in life.  I took a flight to San Diego one day early to spend the day with a friend of mine who lives there, and spent the entire day seeing everything I wanted to see.  That was my gift to me.  That was where my fun trip ended, and business started. After five long rounds, over two days, I sat in my hotel room, in my suit, waiting to go to the announcement party.  I closed my eyes and envisioned winning.  I heard Andrew Meltzer calling my name. I was at total peace with whatever the outcome, but deep down I felt something different.  Something I’ve never felt before in 17 years of competing: Pride.  I knew I didn’t hold anything back and that I gave my absolute best.  I prepped as hard as I possibly could, and I executed what I practiced.

When my name was called, I was so focused on Mexico City that I barely even let it hit me.  I likened it to a sports team winning the conference final, with the championship game still looming. 

 

After applying the same preparation formula that was working for me, I boarded the plane and headed to Mexico City (I finally achieved “overweight” luggage) with two goals: to be myself, and to make the Final 4.  After two long days of seamlessly never-ending meetings, orientations, meet and greets, photos, etc., the competition was about to begin.  Day One for me was to present one round on sustainability, and the other on a “signature serve” (two create a new classic that spoke to the ethos of your establishment).  Both rounds went perfectly.   I was extremely proud of both my talking points as well as my cocktails.  I’ve learned over the years that in competitions that involve multiple rounds over multiple days, that you can’t let yourself get too high or too low after day one because consistency is king.  For me, Day Two was a round all about entertaining guests at home, and the other was about using culinary techniques which blur the line between the kitchen and the bar.  Again, my rounds went exactly as I planned and I ended the second day feeling great again.  At the announcement of the Top 10, before they called my name, I literally thought my heart was going to explode through my chest.  The rush of calm that ensued after was incredible, but extremely short-lived.  I was standing on the stage with the other nine finalists, and all I could think about was the next round: the Speed Challenge.  Having won the past two national final speed round challenges, I knew the potential of what could happen if I executed to my best ability.

 

Every competition has its difficult moments, and I certainly experienced my share the night of that speed round.  Without getting into the details at all, I had to accept the situation and the challenge that I was presented.  My round went off well, but not as good as I knew it could have.  When my name wasn’t announced as a Top 4 finalist, I was internally devastated.  I am a huge believer in good sportsmanship, so I made sure to congratulate the finalists and then went to my room alone to accept the results.  It was hard, and then I received the Top 20 breakdowns of all the challenges, as well as the competition.  I took 5th overall, which was incredible, but what was even more amazing was that I placed 3rd in the speed challenge!  World Class scoring is cumulative of the five challenges, so what ended up keeping me out of the Final Four was the “Signature Serve” challenge.   I knew that round was risky because I had made a conscious choice to stay true to myself and the beliefs of the restaurant where I work, I Sodi.  I made a four-ingredient, balanced cocktail, because not only does it stay true to the ethos of I Sodi, but also because I believe that the majority of classics are based on simplicity.  Unfortunately, the judging panel did not see it that way. 

 

Success is a hard term to define because everyone views it differently.  My definition changes almost daily.  I think it’s important to define personal success and set goals before attempting anything in life that you deem important.  For me, although I didn’t get to the Final Four, I still found success at the Global level because I executed my rounds the way that I wanted to, not trying to be someone else.  Overall, my World Class experience has been life-changing because of the friends/family I’ve made along the way, the spirit, cocktail knowledge, and skills I’ve attained. But most importantly because of the way I’ve learned to compete and to believe in myself.  What would I change if I could?  Nothing!

 


 

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