The Specials is an ongoing series of interviews with the unsung heroes of hospitality — from managers, waiters and sommeliers to dishwashers, farmers and foragers.
Esther Merino works at the acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant Alchemist, where she helps produce and develop fermented drinks and craft spirits. A graduate of the Basque Culinary Center, she previously ran a front-of-house consultancy.
IKEA kickstarted my career in gastronomy
I was studying law in Spain when IKEA opened a store in Valladolid. I got a part-time job serving meatballs and was so happy. The empowerment and training I received made me decide to stop studying law. I was at that IKEA store for almost four years and became manager of the restaurant. When I successfully applied for a place at the Basque Culinary Center, IKEA even agreed to keep my old position open for four years.
Studying the culinary arts was incredible
You get to explore everything from food safety to food science, but in my second year, I became very interested in front of house operations — and in examining human behaviour and gastronomy from an anthropological perspective.
We socialise through gastronomy
Gastronomy is fascinating because it isn’t just a biological need, it’s a social one. Anthropology is a way to analyse things that are sometimes missing from the front of house, in terms of communication, taking care of guests and experience design.
Front of the house people are like magicians
I wrote my thesis on the “floating host” — the person who’s in charge of managing all of the circumstances in the dining room, from tangibles like equipment, employees, cutlery and glassware, to intangibles like music, lighting, ventilation and humidity. Putting a candle on a table will create an atmosphere that guests won’t necessarily be aware of, but you’re still changing their whole experience. That’s what being a floating host means: I’m taking care of you, but you may not notice it.
You can learn a lot analysing the pot-wash area
About a year after I graduated, I set up a consultancy advising restaurants on their management and front of house operations. Their typical problem was a lack of organisation. But they wanted everything without giving anything to the team. I applied an anthropological methodology, looking at a restaurant as an outsider, as a guest, and then as an employee. I would ask to spend a day in the front of house, a day in the kitchen and a day on the pot wash. The last one was a must because it’s where you notice if there’s a garnish that diners don’t like, whether there’s any waste or not, good work relations between departments and so on.
I became a kind of student again in Denmark
I came to Copenhagen to celebrate my birthday in 2020 and was stunned by how sustainability was integrated into the restaurants. I had dinner at Amass, which was mind-blowing, and then at Noma and said to myself, “You may have a consultancy and be a part-time teacher at the Basque Culinary Center, but it’s time to take out your notebook again.” I spent a month at both Amass and Noma analysing all the touch points between their sustainability initiatives and daily front of the house activities.
Everyone understands a tempeh burger
I ended up working in the drinks department at POPL, where we used many products from the Noma fermentation lab such as saffron kombucha or blackened chestnuts for our cocktails. But one thing I really liked about POPL was that they were making something unusual — a tempeh burger — super accessible. Everybody likes a burger. Everybody understands a burger. Calling it a ‘tempeh sandwich’ wouldn’t be as successful.
I was blown away by Alchemist
All the equipment, all the tools, all the people who come from different disciplines — I felt like a kid in a candy store when I first visited. I started in the drinks department last June and I’m now the beverage, fermented drinks and craft spirits assistant.
I created a new “cream liqueur” for Alchemist
Making something unfamiliar familiar is what I like to do. I consider traditional food combinations and research the science behind new techniques. For example, we have a dessert called Lifeline that was created to raise awareness of the importance of blood donations. The dish contains pig’s blood, cream, sugar and berries, as well as a ganache made of deer blood garum and juniper oil. We used to pair it with mango kefir, but our front of the house team said diners reported the aftertaste of iron. The team proposed pairing the dessert with white chocolate and vodka instead, which got me thinking about a traditional Castilian sausage called morcilla, which contains pig’s blood and rice. When I was a kid, I’d only eat it if my mum put toasted pine nuts in it. So, by roasting pine nuts, distilling white chocolate, and using centrifuges and an ultrasonic homogeniser, I made a pine nut cream liquor that’s a little like Bailey’s but contains nothing related to it.
Humans are the most difficult animal in the world
But they’re also the most amazing one, so I really enjoy looking at people in the same space — different people with different needs, but all in harmony, respecting each other and socialising through gastronomy. But I’m only human too, of course, so sometimes I just go out and enjoy myself.
As told to Superb. The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.