Aji, a Peruvian-Japanese concept restaurant, out on the Costa Vista Mare of The Palm, has an intrepid new Head Bartender on fiery form. A bold space bursting with class and colour, Laura Duca fits right in with her retro yet contemporary look. Having won multiple awards, she is a veritable rock star in the world of bartending and Keep Dining Magazine was delighted to get an afternoon to sit down with her and pick her brain on cocktail trends, whiskies and her love of blue cheese. No shrinking violet yet with down-to-earth and chatty, Laura Duca is someone you just instantly like. Radiating positive energy out like Dubai on a sunny Spring day, Duca is brimming with ideas.
Who is Laura Duca?
In charge of creating bold new cocktails for Aji ’s diners, it is evident that Duca is into what she does for a living. Our conversation meanders easily from one topic to another as she tells me about her latest infusion that she has come up with – sea urchin essence anyone? – and then we talk about the Diageo World Class bartending competition which she took part in last year. Having won the Middle Eastern leg of the competition, Duca went on to compete in Miami, Florida against the 49 other competitors. Contestants are put through their paces through multiple rounds that are designed to test all the elements of bartending. From speed rounds, to written tests, to Master Chef-like rounds where competitors are given a bunch of ingredients and are told to go off and make something marvelous; it is intense and a formidable achievement to have made it to the finals. Yet, Duca is no stranger to success, taking it all in her stride, having garnered awards over the years. Most notably, her passion for spirits helped her to bank first place in the Dons of Tequila UAE and the Maison de Cointreau UAE competitions. It is easy to see why she has been so successful and when chatting to her you can tell she pays attention to the small stuff. Love is said to be in the details, and this is evident in her approach.
Getting her break in cocktail mixology at Buddha Bar in a staff competition, Laura won with an original combination of gin, clove syrup and raspberry. Apparently, it is still on the menu at Buddha Bar, standing as a testament to her ability to design crowd-pleasers. So, with this in mind, I asked her where her inspiration comes from.
She says she the key is to break down the ingredients down into their basic flavour components and then match them to one another. So, if there is a base note of vanilla is some rum, that will pair nicely with a vanilla infusion. Or, so the logic goes. Sounds simple enough, right? But then we talk more about how gorgonzola in a dark rum cocktail can be just heavenly and I think she noticed my horrified look. Quickly reassuring me, she tells me that it is the mould of the blue cheese that has the bitterness and burn which adds a nice edge to the rum and this is what she is after. Another fascinating one that she came up with recently is a gin sour using champagne syrup, sea urchin essence (!) and Tanqueray 10. Duca says she loves the mild fruitiness, chamomile flavours that work with the champagne hints of apple and peach and the creaminess from the sea urchin.
It all sounds like complex alchemy to me. Weird, but intriguing.
So, what should we be ordering drinks-wise at Aji?
Enthusing about the most popular cocktail on Ajcoí’s current menu, Duca recommends one of Aji ’s signature cocktails called the Mayan. Of her creation, it is a Habanero-infused tequila margarita using avocado to lend a creaminess while the chilis spice it up. There is a little lime and agave too but Laura tells me that the real secret is the coffee (not espresso – I am told this is the crucial difference) dust. Her passion for molecular is gastronomy is apparent as she shares that coffee and avocado molecules are so similar in makeup, their power on the palette works in tandem with each other, resulting in the coffee lending a subtle saltiness to the other components. It is this careful attention to detail that has made her the formidable and creative powerhouse that she is.
When she is not coming up with wild new ideas for new cocktails, she and her team are hard at work prepping. Behind the scenes at Aji, the bar staff are making their own infusions and syrups. Who wants store bought grenadine when Aji is making their own with fresh pomegranates and cranberries. Duca is insistent on this and believes it makes all the difference. She says sure you can buy it from the market, but the layers of flavour won’t be as bright. And, that is what it all comes down to. Flavour and umami – a difficult to translate Japanese word which basically connotes that a flavour is fully dimensional. The Umami Mary on Aji’s menu is the perfect example of this. Using a combination of clarified tomato juice that is almost clear and a shitake mushroom broth, Duca has achieved the full, rich tomato flavour of a Bloody Mary. It might that take days of behind the scenes preparation but the wonderful result is that you have all the flavour in the form of what looks like a martini.
How should we pair the food and cocktails at Aji?
When it comes to choosing food at Aji, Laura recommends matching up flavours to get all the complete dimensions of a flavour profile. So, if you are ordering Aji ’s Maguro Nikkei ceviche which includes ingredients such as spring onion, renkon and yuzu, then Laura recommends pairing it with a Japanese Sangria (sparkling sake, yuzu, grapefruit, fresh fruit) or the Chilcano Japones (pisco, yuzu, raspberry, purple shiso, ginger ale) which both contain the ingredient yuzu. Giving you a full and rounded flavour experience. Think about it in a way that you layer on fragrances. You use the shower gel, then the body cream and then finally the perfume. Dining is the pretty much as simple as that. Layer up the ingredients and you get a higher quality experience.
What future cocktail trends can we expect?
Laura reckons the industry is going to focus more seriously on ‘sustainability’. These days, she is trying to create cocktails that are ‘straw-less’ where possible as these plastic straws just end up in landfills. Also, there is a lot of food wastage and cutting down on this in clever ways is also important. For example, taking the orange, grapefruit and lemon peels that are left over from preparation and using the peels to use create interesting infusions that can then be used later.
So, the focus is always on progression and working smarter. You can tell that this a lady with her eye on a bright future and spending an hour soaking up her creative vibes energized me no end. Brimming with knowledge and ideas, it was a pleasure to gain so much insight into what goes on behind the scenes and it makes me appreciate the drink set down in front of me. It is so great to see someone on top of their game and loving it.