Keeping it local

Day two was all about flavour and local ingredients. It began with a briefing from Theo Watt from the excellent Thirsty Work Productions team who introduced the bartenders to a fully stocked larder of produce to get their creative juices flowing. Mangosteen, wax berries, custard apples and dragon fruit; tamarind, smoked salts, cooked and uncooked rice; milks, butters, spirits, beers; herbs, vegetables – you name it, it was all here, vying for the competitors’ attention.

Ben Rojo and Masa Urushido assessing the larder

Dre Masso led the first workshop of the day. As he should do, he’s worked in the business for 22 years – most of that time in London, some in San Francisco and the last six years as bar consultant for Potato Head, creating ace drinks programmes for their outlets in Jakarta, Bali and Singapore.

Dressed in full Bali garb his engaging and inspiring talk looked at working with indigenous ingredients, local craft makers and his approach to the root to flower principle of using all parts of the fruit in drinks. He addressed the all-important sustainability issue too, including making glassware out of recyclable bottles, using rattan and wicker coasters for durability and looking to bamboo, glass and metal straws instead of the usual plastic ones. The talk certainly gave the bartenders food for thought. Which led on to the next round just nicely…

Dre’s top tips:
Think local
Find uses for all parts of the fruit – including stones, skin and flesh
Aim for sustainability in the bar – no card coasters, plastic straws or non-recyclable containers
Work with local artisans where possible

The food pairing round

The bartenders had two dishes to taste and choose from. Both were absolutely delicious – rich, complex and bursting with flavour, textures and aroma. The first was Western (pancetta wrapped rabbit loin with foie gras, macerated cherries, smoked almonds and Burgundy beet gastrique); the second was Asian (Atlantic cod with red curry, kaffir lime, and coriander, lemongrass and ginger butter). The group had 45 minutes to taste, make notes and consider which dish they wanted to work with. Decision made, it was time to delve into that luscious larder, keeping the dish and the tips gleaned from Dre’s earlier talk top of mind.

Over to the bartenders, challenge two:

Aurélie went for the rabbit. Unsurprising perhaps when you hear her father was a hunter and she a former chef. Her drink blended Chivas with a flash infusion of ginger and galangal and a red wine reduction of coffee beans, orange and wax berries to which she added a touch of apple vinegar. Santiago added mangosteen and orange bitters to the Chivas, stirring the drink into a coconut shell to impart the flavours to pair with the rabbit, while Lam contrasted the heavy dish with a light, refreshing Jasmine Tea Collins. For Johan, ginger syrup and cherries macerated in an Armagnac reduction made the perfect pairing. Stefanos created his own version of a Chinese Remedy combining wax berries, honey vinegar and a mix of vermouths and Chinese Yellow Wine. He infused pineapple and orange peel, added a coffee rinse to the glass then coated a strip with toasted rice dust. Lukas went for a white Manhattan and Chelsie created a drink based on ruby port, complete with anise, apple, strawberry, cider vinegar washed with strawberry and an anise clove to garnish.

Food pairing drinks from, clockwise from top left: Chelsie Bailey; Alejandro Millan Ponce De León, Stanislaw Domin, Ben Rojo; Johan Blaauw; Yao Lu

The first fish pairing came from Yao who created a South East Asian Southside/Penicillin style cocktail with muddled cucumber and basil, and lime, galangal, ginger, turmeric and lemongrass syrup with Maharaja Tonic; Ben combined turmeric, lemon, coriander seed, lime juice, cooked rice and Arack and Stanislaw went for vermouth, elderflower syrup, mint and bitters together with a sprinkling of lemongrass – all with Chivas of course. Rosemary, pineapple, orange and galangal went into Reynier’s Asian-inspired cocktail, where Alejandro, another former chef, plumped for a Thai curry in liquid form, beautifully served in a fresh coconut shell and garnished with tropical flowers

The finer points of service

There’s one name that continually comes up when the subject of exemplary service and first-class hospitality is bandied about and that’s Leo Robitschek’s, Bar Director at The NoMad Hotel and Eleven Madison Park. Little wonder really. He’s won countless awards for the bar programmes he’s put into place as well as accolades like New York City Bartender of the Year for his leadership skills.

Leo’s workshop packed in an overview of his experiences running an award-winning team and all aspects of service, from creating your own culture and vocabulary to thinking about how to identify yourself and the bar. He spoke about saying this, not that to change the dynamics in the bar. For instance, instead of customer, he advised the group to say guest; rather than “on the house”, say “with our compliments”. Are you still asking your guests, “how is everything?” Don’t. Switch it up to “Please let me know if there is anything else I may do for you”. It’s the details that make the difference. He went on to talk about adopting the one inch rule – e.g., doing everything, including researching your guests preferences (not in a stalky way, mind) to the last inch to create wonderful experiences.

Leo’s top tips:
Think about how you want people to see you
Identify yourself and your bar
Create your own culture and vocabulary
Ask all of the questions so others don’t answer them
Set your rules and use them every time
Train your team to understand why you expect things done a certain way
Engage your guests
Be present
Research your guests to tailor experiences

Over to the bartenders, challenge three:

Being attentive to customers requests, reading their body language and mood, coming up with a cocktail based on their preferences – all in a days work for a bartender, right? Well, yes but how would our finalists cope under the pressure of having to prepare a cocktail for one of the judges sat only inches away from them at the bar?

This round demonstrated how you can listen and despite yourself, not hear. Blame it on nerves but few of them got the hosting round down pat. Some only asked one question of their allocated judge before going off to make a cocktail that may or may not have answered the brief; others failed to pick up on simple clues. Chelsie stood out here for really engaging and having fun with her judge (Leo) even asking him to pick out his favourite ingredients from the larder for her to make a drink with. A bold move but she pulled it off. Big style.

Main photographs: Leo Liu, Thirsty Work Productions/DRiNK Magazine

Day 3: In pursuit of excellence and the top three bartenders are announced

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