Kalkidan Lemma and Engidawork Alebachew at Bourbon Steak
Kalkidan Lemma and Engidawork Alebachew at Bourbon Steak Credit: Laura Hayes

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A pair of Ethiopian immigrants met at Northern Virginia Community College in 2017 and became fast friends. Their sisters were already closely acquainted, possibly even from their childhoods in Ethiopia. Engidawork “Engi” Alebachew, 36, was studying bioengineering while Kalkidan “Kal” Lemma, 30, was gearing up to specialize in mechanical and aerospace engineering. Two years into a four-year program they simultaneously realized they were more passionate about the hospitality industry jobs that were supporting their educations and dropped out. 

“I told my mom and dad, ‘I’m so happy—this is so much more than a side job you might not respect,’” Lemma says. “I’m a people person. I’m not going to be behind a desk tampering with machines. I want to tamper with spirits and make people happy.” He doesn’t think he’ll regret not getting a degree. “This is school,” he says gesturing toward bottles behind a bar. “This is chemistry. Now I tell them I’m an ethanol engineer.” 

At this joke, Alebachew eyes crinkle with laughter. He and Lemma are now in bar leadership roles at two of the snazziest hotels in town, located only a few blocks from each other. They are places Washingtonians and visitors go to see and be seen—the Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC and The Watergate Hotel. Both men, who immigrated to the U.S. in their late teens, took different paths to get there and benefited from strong mentors.

Alebachew tried out a few different jobs upon arriving in America including manning a gas station, making coffee at Starbucks, processing data, and working at a Marriott in White Flint. In 2010, he joined the team at Bourbon Steak inside the Four Seasons as a part-time busser. His colleagues saw his hustle and he graduated through more entry-level positions like food runner and bar back.

One night, the lounge was more slammed than usual. “Around 11 p.m. someone was like, ‘Do you want to come behind the bar and help the bartenders?’ Alebachew recounts. “I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ That’s when I started falling in love with bartending.” 

Bourbon Steak’s impressive roster of past lead bartenders—Duane Sylvestre, Jamie MacBain, Torrence Swain, and Sarah Rosner—coached him up. “He has had a hand in every beverage accolade the restaurant has won, and he’s been humble enough to always let the team shine,” Sylvestre says. “I’m excited for him to be receiving this overdue recognition, and I love the direction he is steering the program.” 

Alebachew became the lead bartender in the spring of 2021. There are two drinks on the current menu that he’s particularly proud of—one nods at his culture, and the other is for those living the luxe life. Both are a tell he loves brown spirits. The “Unexceptionable” combines bourbon, lemon, orange, and a dram flavored with the spices found in the teas Alebachew grew up drinking.

The other, “Yo, You Got Beef?!” features bourbon fat-washed with one of the finest grades of Japanese Wagyu beefFat-washing is a technique that makes a drink taste richer. The dramatic smoked drink also contains vermouth.

Lemma is also a whiskey fanatic and is currently working on a project that will allow customers to mix and match the three main ingredients of a Manhattan—whiskey, vermouth, and bitters. They’ll have three options to choose from in each category. The interactive experience will be available at The Next Whiskey Bar inside The Watergate Hotel come June. Lemma is the head mixologist there, as well as at Kingbird and Top of the Gate

When Lemma met Alebachew at school he was pouring wine and mixing Long Island Iced Teas at the Hilton Alexandria Old Town. “I didn’t know much about spirits besides rum, vodka, and tequila,” he says. But then, in between engineering lessons, Alebachew played the role of protégé by teaching him about about craft cocktails.

After working a couple of other hospitality gigs, Lemma landed his first job at The Watergate Hotel in 2017. It was in the gym as a personal trainer instead of behind the bar. When a vacancy opened up in the food and beverage department the same year, Lemma’s sister put in a good word for him with general manager John Gilbert. Soon enough, Lemma was learning the ropes from his second sensei, then head mixologist Ashok Tamang

“He knew there were so many things I had to learn first and the timing was perfect,” Lemma says. “Fate lined up for me. I started working at Kingbird. Ashok taught me everything from infusions, molecular gastronomy, balance, acidity, all of that. The rest is history.” 

Lemma also overlapped with longtime D.C. bartender Rachel Sergi, who was heading up The Next Whiskey Bar. “She taught me a lot about whiskeys in general because she was a bartender before I even thought of being born,” he jokes. 

“Kal was like a sponge just soaking up trends, teaching himself, and applying what he gleaned to his Watergate cocktail creations,” Sergi says. “He was such a smiling, positive presence in a sometimes frenetic setting.” 

If running multiple bars was frenetic before the pandemic, it’s even more daunting now. When The Watergate Hotel reopened, they couldn’t bring back all of their employees straight away so Lemma was juggling more than usual. At the end of his shifts, he no longer had the energy to visit Alebachew at Bourbon Steak to unwind. 

Bars and restaurants lost a lot of workers to other employment sectors as the pandemic crystallized so much of what needs to improve in the hospitality industry from better pay and benefits to more nurturing work cultures. For those who stayed, manning understaffed establishments was emotionally and physically taxing

But while some of their colleagues fled, Alebachew and Lemma stayed committed to their craft for similar reasons. “It’s just the people—when you have people come to the bar being happy with the creation you’ve made them,” Lemma says. “They’re coming from a long day at work and want a cocktail and you make them the perfect one for them to say, ‘This is what I needed.’ That’s what makes me wake up every time and go to work.” 

“I grew up in a huge family,” Alebachew says. He has three brothers and two sisters. “In our culture we eat together, play together, and go to school together. Usually people are stuck on their phones or reading a book, but when they come to the bar they have a drink after a long day of work or whatever they were doing. I see them smiling and talking and it’s like, ‘Oh wow, it reminds me of back home.’” 

Lemma poses that some jobs “are embedded in your DNA,” meaning you’re born to do them. COVID-19 and its accompanying challenges weren’t going to change that. “Any passion you do no matter the circumstances of life or the country you live in, you find a way to keep going,” he says. “If you love what you do, there’s nothing that can stop you from doing it.” 

Even though the D.C. area is home to the largest concentration of Ethiopians outside of Africa, it’s uncommon to see them in custom-facing roles in fine dining establishments. Alebachew says the staff at Bourbon Steak has always been diverse and he felt supported by his mentors and managers. “The only problem I had was a language problem,” he says. “I understood what people said, but my accent was thick so, at the beginning, people may have had trouble understanding me.” 

Lemma sees opportunities rather than obstacles. “You can’t blame society for how they think of us,” he says. “There’s a custom where you see a White person behind the bar doing most of the craft cocktails. That’s how it’s been, but it’s literally not people’s fault when they think like that. But when they give us a chance, it’s up to us to change their minds.”

They’re not ducking out of their current posts anytime soon, but they dream of striking out on their own if the industry recovers. “We can do so much more without having any limitations, whether we do it together or individually,” Lemma says. “I think both of our bars will speak of our friendship, our talents, and the culture behind it.”

Alebachew, for one, would love to fold more Ethiopian spices into his drinks. “There are a lot of flavors that a lot of people don’t know about,” he says. “You’d go crazy over how many spices our parents use to make their food.” His family is still in Dessi. Before Alebachew moved here, his mom packaged up a satchel of all of the spices she includes in her shiro recipe and Alebachew was astounded.

Lemma also hasn’t ruled out returning to Addis Ababa. “The ultimate goal would be going back home and introducing [cocktails] because there are no craft bars,” he says. (There appear to be a few, like Union Cocktail Bar & Restaurant and Cascara Coffee & Cocktails) “There is so much talent, but they haven’t been exposed to the chances being given to me.”