Meatballs—salmon and dill, lamb in curry sauce—are the specialty of Paris’ Café Moderne, an old-fashioned bistro-meets-industrial Brooklyn joint near Bastille, in the 11th arrondissement. Before they arrive to the table, usually accompanied by house-made frites, patrons are likely to spring for a cocktail. If they’re lucky, Jennifer Le Nechet will be bartending, whipping up concoctions for them such as her silky Velvet Ballet (made with Tanqueray No. TEN gin, cream sherry, strawberry syrup, lemon juice, white balsamic vinegar, egg white and crushed black pepper) or the bright and fruity Jungle Parrot (made with Ketel One vodka, elderflower liqueur, pineapple juice, lime juice, sugar syrup and fresh mint). “My customers love them,” says Le Nechet.
Le Nechet’s knack for slinging drinks is also recognized well beyond the grateful guests of Café Moderne. In September, after four days of high-pressure tasks testing everything from technique to spirits savvy, she was named 2016 Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year in Miami. Vying against 55 other contenders from around the globe, an elite group whittled down from an overwhelming pool of nearly 10,000, Le Nechet became the first female to snag the title in the event’s eight-year history, following in the footsteps of recent winners including Michito Kaneko of Japan and Charles Joly of the U.S.
Making this accomplishment all the more impressive is that the competition was Le Nechet’s first. The Seine-Saint-Denis native, now in the hospitality biz five years, studied Spanish and Latin American literature and culture. Upon returning to Paris after a spell in Spain, she started working in a classic brasserie, where the bartending position she initially deemed temporary surprisingly put her at ease and instilled joy. She “loved that every day was different,” exposing her to interesting people. When Café Moderne was in need of a barkeep, Le Nechet’s next professional chapter unfolded.
Determined and focused, she spent eight months rigorously preparing for World Class. “It’s a marathon where you constantly have to perform. It’s not only about ability but endurance, investment and most importantly working to rehearse every detail,” says Le Nechet. “The competition itself was very challenging with very little sleep, but every time I was behind the bar, I was in my comfort zone and not stressed at all because I was ready to give the best experience to the judges.”
For the last intense round, six finalists had just 24 hours to conceptualize and assemble their own imaginative pop-up bar. Inspired by the writings of Jules Verne, the Fallout series of video games and Mad Max, Le Nechet opted for a steampunk theme “that is close to my heart. I’m a big fan of retro-futurism and a post-apocalyptic world where people need to survive with very little.”
Such a bleak, barren state is the antithesis of a whirlwind 2017 in store for Le Nechet, who will spend the year traveling and judging as a Diageo Reserve brand ambassador. “This new journey is about to begin. I’m looking forward to meeting a lot of bartenders from different countries and to have the chance to share while learning from them, their culture and local products,” she says. “I want to keep growing.”