Artistic Licence

Hamish Smith meets Geoffrey Canilao, the unconventional owner of Copenhagen’s Balderdash

How about an ice-cream parlour?” is one of the more unusual suggestions for an interview location. But this is Geoffrey Canilao – conventional, he isn’t. A short Uber from Tales of the Cocktail Edinburgh and we’re pulling up stools in one of the smallest ice-cream dispensaries not on four wheels, finding space between the courting teenagers who queue to get their date-day fix.

Canilao is excitable – perhaps more than usual. He’s got an idea. His bar, Balderdash in Copenhagen, will be ice-cream parlour by day, bar by night. Not just any ice-cream though. Ice-cream cocktails – or at the very least, ice-cream laced with booze. It’s the latest innovation this second-generation Filipino New Yorker is dropping from a height on unsuspecting Danes.

It’s been close to nine years since he left the hectic high-rise of New York for the hygge of Copenhagen. Back home, he was a bartender of some standing, but his career path was more evolution than design. Like so many, he’d had other plans. “I grew up in San Francisco with my mum but moved to New York, where my dad lived, to go to art college. I was influenced by Eugène Delacroix and romanticism. In college I was painting with Ronald Sherr, the best portrait artist in the US. I’d go to school and work at night or paint.”

As he hit his mid-20s, Canilao was facing burn-out. He’d worked hard, partied hard and painted not quite as hard. “I was general manager [at 5 Ninth] and worked like a dog and partied too much. I was burnt out so I went for a sabbatical in San Francisco to ask some questions of myself. Am I really an artist or just one of these people working in the bar industry that tells people they’re an artist? There’s nothing worse than going back to your mum at 24, trying to live in the basement. It’s not what you envisage for yourself. But everyone gets lost a bit – that’s part of the process.”

Canilao returned to New York to train and work at Employees Only sister bar East Side Social Club. He’d known owners Dushan Zaric and Igor Hadzismajlovic from their days at bistro-bar Pastis. His experience up to then, unusually for his age, had been in management. Zaric, though, thought he could cut it behind the bar. It was Canilao’s transition from palette to palate – flavours were his new art. “That’s when it clicked,” he says. “My mum told me: ‘We paid for Ivy League art school and you ended up a bartender.’ I told her: ‘What I do is complete art.’ To me life is one big art form. You’re in one big play each night. It’s free form. Every night changes, you have some of the same characters but it’s never the same dialogue and never the same play.”

In 2008 Canilao met a Danish student, Therese Alexander, who in 2010 became his wife. He was curious about Copenhagen but when he moved the reality took some adjusting to. “In New York the whole world is delivered to your doorstep like pizza. Coming to Europe was so different for me. I was like: Alex Kratena – who is this guy? Marian Beke…? Europe enhanced my understanding of the bar industry – the people, styles and approaches.”

Canilao’s first Copenhagen job was running Union, which, helpfully, drew inspiration from Employees Only. But once his feet were under the designer table, he opened Balderdash, showcasing his forward-thinking drinks (fermentation, exotic ingredients – beaver gland anyone?). While Balderdash is artistic, it is also hedonistic. There are stories to be told, just not here. But Canilao is not just about crazy drinks and crazy times – he is at the forefront of the local community too. The event he co-organised, Copenhagen by the Glass, attempted to find ties and share ideas between all ends of the hospitality industry.

Amid the ideas, plans and projects that seep out of every Canilao sentence, the Balderdash ice-cream parlour concept seems achievable… almost conventional.

“Maybe I’ll buy my own cows,” he says. Conventional Canilao isn’t.