Robert Schinkel, ace tea sommelier, looks a bit like Johnny Depp’s character Sam from the movie Benny and Joon. No, he does not dress in odd clothes, he does not perform Keatonesque tricks with hats, but his face exudes a quiet boyish innocence and sincerity. And the pout: you cannot miss the pout. He can also fix you a drink that fixes you — with or without tea, with or without spirits.
Robert, who is brand ambassador for a premier tea brand, Dilmah, is here in India for the first time to launch a tea bar for his company in Radisson Blue, a five-star hotel that is to be inaugurated officially on Friday. Dilmah has seven such tea bars in the world apart from their new one here.
Here you are offered 31 varieties of single origin tea, tea-based cocktails and mocktails. Robert is teaching about 13 to 15 staffers of Radisson Blue the tricks of his trade.
Ana Gabriela Tavila Escobar, an intern at Radisson Blue from Mexico, is one among Robert’s trainees. A self-confessed coffee drinker, Ana seems to have developed a liking for tea after her training. “In Mexico, tea is not very popular,” she said. “We prefer black coffee and that is what I am used to drinking at home and elsewhere. But, the tea that you get here is amazing, especially some of Robert’s recipes. I tried some and they are very, very good.”
It’s mystifying what makes Robert the Robert of now. For a start, he studied political science at the University of Amsterdam. “I excelled at political science right from high school,” he said. “And so I pursued it at the university too, but what I had a real flair for was bar-tending. When I was at university, I was working at three bars: one for fun, two for the money.”
Robert said he did not choose a career in political science because of the vast differences it had in the ideal world and the real one. “Name a politician who is honest?” asked Robert. “None; they always have to play to the crowd. They can never speak their mind. That does not suit me, as I speak my mind always. But when you make a drink, there is some ingredient or the other that speaks out. I like that part very much.”
But Robert says political science has its uses. “There are various aspects that comprise political science, such as history, culture and so on,” he explained. “When I see a person walk into my bar, I somehow know what they would like. Political science helps you understand people from various angles. I am mostly right when it comes to a person’s nature. That is one of the reasons I am good at what I do.”
Robert says he had his own crowd at every bar he has worked. “When I left one bar for another, they would follow me there.”
“Also, I don’t share my recipes,” he said with hint of a wink.
His talent and success could also be attributed to his being of mixed origin: his father is Dutch and his mother Indonesian, which might have helped in understanding different cultures across the world.
Robert’s career started to soar in 2006 while he was working in the famous restaurant, club and cocktailbar the mansion in Amsterdam. That year he won one of the most prestigious international cocktail competitions Remy Martin Bartender Style Master; then followed national titles Southern Comfort Bartender in 2007, SCAE champion Coffee in Good Spirits in 2008 and Dilmah Tea Sommelier Champion 2009.
Robert has never been to India before, but he is aware of India’s contribution to his field. “You know, punch is actually an Indian drink,” he said reverently. “It comes from the word panch which in Hindi means five. Panch (the original name of which is paantsch) comprises alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and tea or spices.”
But it gained in popularity only after it was introduced in England by sailors of the East India Trading company in the 1600s and from there the other European countries picked it up.
But Robert thinks the Brits have no true taste for tea though they go bonkers over their ‘cuppa’. “They don’t understand tea,” he said. “They love tea, they buy tea, they drink tea, but they don’t know tea. The average time they take to brew tea is 18 seconds: they know nothing about it.”
Robert is quite a genius when it comes to signature drinks. He asks you what your favourite spirit, tea, fruit is and how you like your drink — sweet, sour, or bitter and he makes you something truly magical. He asked me the same questions and finally came up with one for me. With a modicum of mischief, I told him that I know one of his recipes now.
With the calm of a ‘spirit’ually enlightened master Robert replied, “But the balance of the ingredients… only I know it.”