The Engager

Hamish Smith has dinner with Bek Narzi, the barman and entrepreneur with a glint in his eye.


STANDING IN HIS MARYLEBONE RESTAURANT, Pachamama, Bek Narzi is a natural host – debonair, flamboyant, his charisma filling the air. Sitting down to eat, his eyes track to movement like a sniper’s viewfinder, narrowing in on the slightest lapses in his staff’s performance.

Narzi may be a bartender- turned-restaurateur but he could easily act out a scene in a Hollywood mafia movie – and probably just using his eyes. His dialogue could have been penned by screenwriters. An old boss is eloquently described as having “a small shareholding in my mentality”.

Talking of success, he says: “Nothing can stop you if you believe – not even a bullet.” No one has shot Narzi, but he says he has been poisoned.

But let’s rewind. Narzi was born in Tajikistan, of the former Soviet Union. One grandfather was mayor of the capital, Dushanbe, the other a famous writer, who was “killed by Muslim extremists”, in a case compared to that of Salman Rushdie. His mother, a prominent journalist, joined BBC World, moving the family to London when Narzi was 14.

As a young man he “fell in love with bars”. He worked under Andy Pearson at The Avenue and Sasha Petraske at Milk & Honey – an experience that changed him forever. By 2007 he was headhunted to take over City Space, Moscow.

“I told them I will make the bar world-famous,” says Narzi. “At the time, sales were down – I knew something fishy was going on. So I pretended I didn’t speak Russian. I was a kind of spy.” Having overheard the schemes of “corrupted employees” Narzi fired staff and hired a new team. His first year in Russia wasn’t an easy time – he alleges that he was poisoned, which left him hospitalised twice. “Russia made me stronger,” Narzi says defiantly.

In the end City Space made the World’s 50 Best Bars in 2010 and 2011, and he learned to love Russia. Not least his wife, who he told he would marry hours after they met. Narzi has worked on more than 10 bars and restaurants in Moscow and another half dozen around the world, under his company Russian Cocktail Club.

He says he owes a lot to Sasha Petraske. “He is the reason speakeasies exist... why all of us exist. He built [the bar scene in] Russia because I was carrying his philosophy. I was about to ask him about opening Milk & Honey Moscow when I heard of his death.”

Towards the end of the World’s 50 Best Bars 2015 ceremony, Petraske was toasted. Narzi – a man for whom respect is paramount – was waiting for an announcement. He recalls how he turned to a friend: “If they don’t announce something about Sasha, I will eat Hamish’s brains.” Narzi has a penchant for entertainment. For more than three years he hosted his own cocktail show on Russia Today, the equivalent of CNN.

And back in the restaurant raw emotion and black humour continue to coexist in Narzi’s sentences. He loves or hates – and tells you directly into which camp any given subject falls. Bek Narzi is one of the most engaging figures in the drinks industry.

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