As one of the top bartenders in a country where feminism is still a burgeoning movement and machismo (literally defined as “exaggerated masculinity”) permeates much of the culture, it may come as a surprise that a woman would triumph over dozens of mostly male bartenders to claim the title as the best in Mexico.
Born and raised in the capital, León has worked at some of the best restaurants in Mexico City and behind the stick everywhere from Playa del Carmen to Berlin. Sitting at the bar of the award-winning Fifty Mils inside the Four Seasons Mexico City, we discussed her career, sexism and the ingredients that inspire her latest creations.
What brought you to hospitality?
In the beginning, I wanted to do something completely different. Initially, I studied theater and fine arts. While in school, I began working at a bar and restaurant. After a year, I had developed a love for that job. I got to do a little of everything, working at the bar, in the kitchen. Growing up, my mom had a catering business, and my grandmother made her own bread, so there were always people cooking in my house. We even had a bar in the house. So I’ve always been surrounded by this world of making things. But when I told my mom I wanted to leave school at the age of 20 to pursue this as a career, she almost killed me.
Describe your approach to bartending.
For me, studying gastronomy, destilados (distilled liquors), wine, coffee, tea and infusions was a long process. I started building a base of all of these things before finally arriving at mixology. Because in reality, it’s an art that combines a little bit of everything. People might think bartending is just knowing alcohol, but if I want to create cocktails with ingredients like coffee, I need to understand the difference between an espresso and a cold brew. I want to adopt a little bit of everything into the process, understanding food and drink and how they go hand-in-hand is all part of that.
My cocktails are very much a product and representation of my personality. I’m a floral person, I’m sensitive, I’m a person with a lot of flavors. I’m Mexican, but I also realize that everything I’ve learned from my travels, from my family, from my roots makes me also a citizen of the world. I try to incorporate my experiences into my cocktails. I might put three ingredients in a drink, and if you asked me why I combined those three, I could tell you why I chose them over 15 other ingredients. Mixology to me is very particular, and I put my whole heart into it. I’m the kind of person who’s always trying to do things differently, to mix new things that don’t seem to go together.
What is like to be a woman bartender in Mexico?
Here in Mexico, women aren’t as liberated as they are in some other places. The cultural environment is complicated, and the path to a career in bartending can be longer because of social constraints. The key is to not put limitations on yourself. I took an unusual path, so it was a little different for me. I studied gastronomy, met chefs and tried to understand their techniques.
Some opportunities might come to us in life, but that doesn’t mean we just sit around and wait for things to happen. We have to move, make changes for ourselves, meet people and make things happen, no matter where you work or what you do. There might be a part of Mexico that believes women should be limited in their career goals, but the other part, the growing majority, is different. Instead of accepting these constraints, we need to tell the world, ‘I am me. I’m Fátima León, and if I want to do something, I try it.’ When you face a challenge, you can’t think, I can’t do this, because I’m a woman. It comes down to: Do you want it or not?
Tell us about the bar program at Fifty Mils.
Guests often tell us they’re surprised to find such a cozy, comfortable bar in a five-star hotel. It’s not a place that’s ‘mucho fiesta’ or too elegant and stuffy. It’s the perfect middle ground. There are three parts to it: the space itself, the ambiance and the people who run it. They’re all in harmony. We love to say we’re a dysfunctional family yet at the same time extremely functional.
When I started here, it was like I was one domino that joined a whole set. Each piece has its own number and is its own, but we all play a part in what Fifty Mils is. Some here might specialize in food chemistry; some might be more strategic and numerical. Others might be more visual and interested in the crystal we use. The truth is that we’re a family that will create a thousand versions of one thing because we all do things a little different, and you see that in each of our cocktails. The whole wouldn’t be possible without each individual piece. It might sound a little romantic, but it’s true.
What cocktail ingredients are inspiring you right now?
Lately, I’ve been trying things with cacao and with coffee. I’m all about investigating ingredients and learning about how many different facets of one we can use in new ways. For example, with coffee, there are a million ways to extract the flavor, methods like French press and cold brew. There are so many elements that affect the flavor, such as where its from, how it was processed, the subtle notes of citrus or chocolate or whatever you might taste.
We investigate the whole process before pouring it into your glass. So when you sit at the bar and ask, we can tell you why we used that particular kind of coffee. We’re fortunate that Mexico produces a little bit of everything, whether its coffee, chocolate, vanilla, fruit, avocados. We make everything for our cocktails in house, from syrups to juices to infusions, and we use a world of ingredients. If you arrive and you’ve never seen something we put in your glass, ask us about it.
What’s the drink you recommend most at Fifty Mils?
I think the cocktail on the menu most representative of Fifty Mils is the Bugs Bunny. It might seem simple, but there are so many contrasting flavors and ingredients, including gin, house-made carrot and lime juices, house-made three-chile bitters and the aromas of fernet and lemongrass. As a team, we all put so much into making this cocktail, it was a complete collaboration of our team, and it will be one of the cocktails that will always continue on the menu.