Bartender Rawad Semaan of The Grove

To see Rawad Semaan behind the bar or patrolling the floor at The Grove (1611 Lamar St., 713-337-7321) with his impeccable suit and easy smile, you'd think he's never done anything else. But in reality his success -- Beverage Director at one of the city's hottest new restaurants before the age of 30 -- is the result of passion, talent and old-fashioned hard work. He started in 2001 as a valet at Café Annie, after arriving from Lebanon, and enrolled at the University of Houston's Hilton School of Hotel and Restaurant Management.

"I moved inside as a busser, because I wanted to start at the bottom to learn everything," Semaan says. "I had a 3-4 year plan, and it worked, with management's help. Right after that I started bartending at Café Annie for a couple years, and at the same time I was bartending at Taco Milagro." A couple years later Sewaad had graduated and found himself in charge of all beverages, from the main bar, to the upstairs Treehouse bar and the wine list, as well as being one of the managers on the main dining floor.

Is this just Schiller/Del Grande restaurant nepotism? Hardly. Any doubts about Semaan were quelled last year when he was the Houston winner of the Bombay Sapphire GQ Inspired Bartender drink competition. "I had no plan that day. I never drank gin, and I went in and I won," laughs Rawad. The winning concoction, a delightfully pink and refreshing martini called the Summer in Bombay, is still on the menu, alongside this year's competitor, a spicy and unorthodox clear take on a Bloody Mary called the White Tomato. "The key word to describe my drinks," says Semaan, "is well-balanced. Even with this spicy drink, there's something balancing it. In the Summer in Bombay you have the lemon zest. Here you have the salt."

For a guy so meticulous, so prepared, it may seem like nothing can fluster him, with one exception: the Material Girl. "I won't lie to you, we crashed once, the night of the Madonna concert. It was a tough night to manage. There were eight people making drinks behind the bar, and we just could not keep up. The ticket line, it just kept going constantly for two hours straight. At a certain point there were probably 300 people in the bar. It was just insane. I learned on big concert days never give a special drink list to people, because usually with a specialty drink it takes you about 15-20 seconds to make a drink. There's lots of ingredients, muddling. But now people know our drinks, so they order them even if we aren't promoting them. It was the only crash for us, liquor-wise. I just said to everyone, you know, do the best you can, but let's have fun."

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Sarah Rufka