This article was first published in March 2017. Tenzin Samdo won Boston Magazine’s Best of Boston 2018 Best Bartender award, as Bar Director at Cafe ArtScience in Cambridge. The world lost a brilliant artist when Tenzin passed from liver cancer in January 2019. He shared his passion and life story with me, and for his candidness, I felt grateful. For his kindness, I felt love. He will be greatly missed. Please consider donating to his GoFundMe page to help support his young son.
Tenzin, I will never forget your passion. May we all find something to do that we love. You remind us of the importance of feeding your soul’s appetite. For that we are grateful.
If you were to walk into Tavern Road and see the dapper Tenzin Conechok Samdo behind the bar, you might assume he was “just” a bartender. And while you wouldn’t be completely wrong, you would be missing the bigger picture. You would be missing the beautiful picture that he could paint himself using his immense talent and all of the beautiful colors and dimensions of his life.
Tenzin Samdo is a creative spirit whose life picture is coated with diversity, dolloped with passion, and completed with thick strokes of gratitude. Yes, he is a bartender, well actually he’s the Beverage Director at Tavern Road. But, besides that title, he’s also an entrepreneur, an award-winning mixologist, a teacher, a Tibetan refugee, and a loving dad. As we said, there’s lots of dimension to this impressive soul.
We first met Tenzin in the summer of 2016, but we had been ogling his stunning cocktails on his Instagram account, BostonMixDrink, long before our meeting. Just a few glances of his craft cocktails on social media, and we knew we just had to meet the genius behind the pedestal-worthy cocktails. And when we did, he instantly became one of our favorite Boston bartenders!
The Gorgeous "Little Bit on Mitchell Road" Privateer Rum Cocktails Served to Us by Tenzin
After that meeting, we got the sense Tenzin also had a fantastic personal story to tell, and boy were our Spidey senses right!
You have to respect Tenzin. He’s worked his way from a bar back at Legal Seafood to becoming an award-winning and internationally known bartender. He’s driven, kind, and grateful; admirable qualities in any human being. But, when you hear his story, your respect grows exponentially.
Tenzin Samdo grew up in India as a Tibetan refugee. His parents fled the Chinese occupation to seek freedom and opportunity for their children; a brave, but a challenging move for the poor family.
Tenzin as a child in India
But, where there are challenges, there is often opportunity. At six-years-old, Tenzin was lucky enough to be accepted into the Tibetan Childrens’ Village School, a boarding school established by the Dalai Lama.
Ten months a year, he not only received an education but also the amazing opportunity to meet so many Tibetan children who all had the same background as him. Through the school, he was able to preserve his Tibetan heritage, as well as learn Hindi and a little English. This education is one of the many things for which Tenzin is grateful. If he hadn’t been accepted, receiving an education would have been a significant challenge for the young boy in a country where social classes are so strongly striated.
His father received a Tibetan exile job as an accountant for a medical firm in Northern India. Things seemed okay; they were steady.
But, a change was on the way, and soon more opportunity would come to the family. Tenzin’s father won a lottery to immigrate to the United States, thrusting the now teenager into a new culture. At 16-years-old, Tenzin Samdo became a student at the massive and urban Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.
Upon arrival to the U.S., Tenzin slept for two days. When he awoke, he turned on the TV. Looking back at him, smiling and happy, was the first celebrity face he would see- Bob Saget’s. In some way, Bob was Tenzin’s own personal welcome committee.
With one week until school started, Tenzin adjusted to the time change. He would wake up at 6 pm every day and watch syndicated TV, mainly Full House and America’s Funniest Home Videos; but, also shows like Tool Time and The Simpson’s. Through TV, he started to grasp a sense of humor (hello Bart and Homer) as well as a better command of the English language.
Now, you have to understand, at this age, Tenzin, was rather shy and very soft-spoken. Having learned the Queen’s English in India, he has a very unique accent. In his own words, “I sounded like someone reading a textbook.” (Personally, we think his accent is super cool. 😉 ) But, it added to his shyness. He also came from an educational system where the teachers rotated throughout the school, and the students stayed in one room all day.
But now, the quiet teenager was trying to find his way around a fast-paced and multi-building campus. Every hour he needed to search for a new class in the gigantic high school.
On his first day, he made it through the morning and ended up at the computer lab. He stood in front of the classroom in shock. There were about 30 PCs, and one was just for him. Well, when the bell rang, Tenzin didn’t go to lunch. Instead, he sat at that PC all day trying to reconcile this new place and his new life.
Tenzin had two years at Cambridge Rindge and Latin. Eventually, he found his way in the diverse high school. His comfort level increased, and he made a few good friends. During this time, Tenzin realized he wanted to be a creative contributor to society. He developed his artistic talent through drawing and painting. He was so good that out of his entire graduating class he won, “Top Senior Portfolio of the Year.” Way to go Tenzin!
One day, after walking home from school, he passed by the Greenhouse Coffee Shop in Cambridge. A desperate employee approached Tenzin on the street asking him if he wanted a job. Tenzin agreed, and the person led him inside. And so began his career in the service industry.
It was tough at first. But, Tenzin being a calm person, would politely explain that he had just come to the United States. Surprisingly, people were kind and understanding of his newness. (We think it’s because of his genuine nature.) But, they weren’t just everyday people who were understanding. Celebrities also frequented the American-style diner. Now, this part of Tenzin’s story tickles us happy.
Guess which celebrity walked into the joint one day?
Yup. Bob Saget- how awesome is that?
Tenzin had the opportunity to tell the actor who he watched every day, who entertained him, who made him feel welcome in the United States, that he was the first person he ever saw on TV. And the best part of the story? Bob Saget was incredibly cool to the high school kid with the funny accent.
Looking back now, this should have been a sign that Tenzin was in the right industry. But, Tenzin still wanted to create. He went to Umass Boston and set out to become part of cinema. He loved set design, he learned photography, but mostly he just loved to create.
Tenzin’s purpose is to create. But, at that time, chance stepped in to start him toward a different type of creation then set design. Once again he was on the streets of Cambridge. This time, he was headed to the mall and standing at the MIT train station. He was waiting patiently when he noticed a “Help Wanted” sign at Legal Seafood. So, he decided to apply. And, just like at the Greenhouse Cafe, he started immediately. This time, he was a food runner and bar back.
A hard worker, Tenzin, was there on the 5th of July, a day when many co-workers called in sick. The restaurant was so busy and understaffed that Tenzin jumped behind the bar to help. He loved it!
This one afternoon gave Tenzin the verve for bartending. So, he headed to T.J.Maxx and found the perfect book to help him in his new love, “100 Popular Cocktails.” When Tenzin does something, it is meticulously and with purpose. So, he memorized all 100 recipes. But, knowing how to make the drinks wasn’t enough. In true Tenzin diligence, he would pull up a seat at the B-Side Lounge in Cambridge, eat the hard-boiled eggs that sat at the bar, and order the various cocktails from the book. Sometimes it was just a sip; just to know what they tasted like.
During this time, Tenzin was still working on his drawings and paintings. Every summer he would go to Nantucket and paint the serene landscape. He was always feeding his creativity.
Samples of Tenzin's Artwork
Tenzin eventually left Legal and accepted a job at Dine Boston Bar and Grille at Logan Airport. It was September 2001, and Tenzin was wearing all the hats at the restaurant. He was a bartender and a supervisor; he was getting significant experience. He was also trying to be responsible and pay for his education. But, his dad encouraged him to get a “real job.” He didn’t understand this fascination with bars and restaurants. Well, one day, his dad came to see his son in action and saw the energy and passion his once-shy son exchanged with customers. His opinion turned.
Tenzin and His Father
Nevertheless, Tenzin got a job with an insurance company. But, fate being who she is, didn’t allow that to last too long and he eventually ended up back in the service industry at the Longwood Hotel. He stayed there for ten years! In that decade’s worth of time, Tenzin had an opportunity to work every position, helping him to grasp what it takes to run a hospitality business in America.
But, in those ten years, Tenzin never called in sick. He didn’t use his vacation. He just worked.
Well, management finally noticed; Tenzin had to use that time. So, after ten years of non-stop work, he agreed it was time for a little break.
But, while wildly enjoyable, this vacation to parts of Asia like Singapore, Malaysia, and Tokyo, was more of an education than a holiday. Each hotel and bar sold an experience to the customer. From the smiles greeting customers to the artfully crafted garnishes, Tenzin returned to the U.S. with a new perspective on hospitality. He already knew how the U.S. did it, and now he knew how the tourism industry handled hospitality.
Tenzin Gained a Valuable Perspective from his Trip to Asia From Choosing the Freshest Ingredients, To Presentation, To Craft Cocktails, Tenzin Came Back from his Trip Abroad with a Wealth of Hospitality knowledge.
His need to create, his passion, had now found a driver. He realized that when people walk into a bar, they are there to escape. They want to forget what they left outside of the door. Tenzin wanted to “create” an amazing experience for his patrons.
At this same time of his return, smartphones were starting to take up permanent residency in our purses and pockets. Tenzin could see the bigger picture and power of apps like Facebook and Instagram. He knew it was going to be big. And so, just like with “100 Popular Cocktails”, Tenzin’s drive kicked in, and he instituted late night reading sessions on hashtags and geotags. The visual beauty of BostonMixDrink was being born.
Tenzin was fired up; he was on a mission to be one of the best bartenders. He realized if he wanted to be well-known in the industry, he needed to work with a renowned chef. Enter Chef Jodi Adams of Rialto fame. Chef Adams provided that opportunity at Trade when she hired Samdo. During one of our both loathed and loved New England blizzards, he created a tropical drink and posted a picture. Well, the gorgeous photos made the social media circuit, giving him the perfectly timed exposure that his career needed.
Tenzin started winning awards, like “Star of the Bar” and “America’s Top Bartender.” He was on his way to the top; he was officially a cocktail artist.
Tenzin Working at Trade
The service industry in Boston is tight. Friendships are forged behind bars amidst loud music and sweat dappled brows, and they’re sealed at the end of the night with a draft or well-deserved cocktail. The late and beloved Ryan McGrale and Tenzin developed exactly one of those friendships. So, when Ryan unexpectedly died, Tenzin was obviously upset. And when he was offered Ryan’s job at Tavern Road, he was extremely conflicted. Tenzin knew he could never replace Ryan, but he also wanted to honor Ryan.
Tenzin, Ryan, and a Few Other Friends
So, he accepted the job.
Last summer he helped Tavern Road Chef, Louis Dibicarri, in a project to honor Ryan. They collected and displayed tools from bartenders across the country in a memorial at Tavern Raod. Tenzin tells us that because of that memorial, Ryan is always with him behind the bar.
Chef Louis Dibicarri and Tenzin and the Memorial For Ryan McGrale
So, now we are up-to-speed on this artist who as found an extraordinary and fluid medium to display his creativity. Through gorgeous hand-crafted cocktails, Tenzin has found the outlet for his passion and a means for success. And we’re pretty sure that success was just solidified. On March 8th, his face will appear on this lemon juice bottle that will be distributed in 4,500 Walmart locations.
What the? Yes, you read that correctly, the branding of Tenzin Samdo is going National. So, what does that mean? Just like his famed Instagram account reads, Quality Matters! Tenzin teamed with Next Phase Enterprises to create basic drink mixes that are high quality. If you want to make a craft cocktail, that burn-your-throat-chemical-laden sour mix doesn’t cut it. So, they are producing natural and healthy mixes with a longer shelf life. You too can be a cocktail artist!
Besides hitting the bottle big time, Tenzin plans to continue to elevate his game. His goal is always to be a step ahead in the service and entertainment industry. Charisma, passion, and compassion are important qualities in a bartender. If you’ve ever worked serving drinks, this is a fact you know well. It’s the reason why in part no one is ever “just” a bartender.
Tenzin hopes to impart those qualities to his young son, but mostly, he hopes his son follows his own passion.
Tenzin and his son
This uber-bartender not also wants to teach his son, but those around him. He regularly participates in speaking engagements and loves to mentor those around him. There should be no secrets in good service!
Tenzin at Tavern Road and One of his LED-Lit Cocktails and Specialty Garnishes
So, what did we learn from this refined, thoughtful, and diligent artist? From his own mouth, always be grateful and humble, no matter how much success you gain. Without these qualities, one will fall from grace. Keep a balance in your life; work hard, yet maintain simplicity of the mind. And a mantra we always try to follow- Find what you love, pursue it, and do it well. That is the stuff that will make your dreams come true.
Congratulations Tenzin. We are raising our best champagne flutes, topped with pretty little floating roses in celebration of you! Hard work does pay off!
The Haute Life