If you’re reading these pages, chances are you know who Pete Goffe-Wood is. You know who David Higgs is. You’ll have heard of Reuben Riffel. Luke Dale-Roberts? Yup, that rings a bell. Margot Janse - yes, yes, I know that one. In other words, you will be fully aware of the top chefs that this country has to offer.
But who the hell is Ryan Duvenage? And Assaf Yechiel. And Nick Koumbarakis. And Travis Kuhn. And Anil Sabharwal. No clue, right? I don’t blame you – nobody knows them. Not the way they should. These dudes are some of the best bartenders in the country. And quite why they don’t get more credit is beyond me.
Let’s stick with the chef comparison. A good chef will get some kind of formal training. They’ll then get work experience. They’ll bust their ass racking up long hours for shit pay. They’ll get yelled at. They’ll get shat on. But they’ll do their time. Eventually they’ll make inroads and start climbing the kitchen hierarchy. One day they may open their own spot, or they’ll head into catering, consulting or something related to their field.
Here’s the part I don’t get:
Good bartenders are no different.
They’ve also put in the hard yards. (In fact, they’ve probably dealt with more abusive customers than any chef in the country.) They’ve also spent years perfecting their skill set. They’ve also worked crazy hours for stupid salaries. And for far too long they have been under-appreciated. Having spent a bit of time recently with some of the best in their field, I’m amazed at two things:
1. Their commitment. We aren’t talking about guys who are in this field because they couldn’t hack it in the corporate world. These guys are here out of choice, not necessity. Passion is what drives them and they are 100% dedicated to their craft. They’re constantly learning, constantly experimenting and constantly innovating. Do you know who that reminds me of? Chefs. Celebrated, talented chefs.
2. Their palates. When you taste various drinks every day – each with subtleties and nuances – it stands to reason that you’ll be able to pick out a few flavour profiles. But the level of sophistication these guys show is quite something. Forget the poncey wine writers and commentators that get most of the media attention. If you want to taste (and I mean TASTE) good booze, do it with these guys.
Anyway, last week I judged the local chapter of a global competition spearheaded by Bacardi. Following a nationwide search, four bartenders were picked to present their cocktails (which they each invented themselves) to the judges. The brief was to create an iconic, “legacy” drink that has the potential to sit alongside classics like The Negroni, The Manhattan, The Mint Julep, The Daiquiri etc.
The quality of the drinks we tasted was top-drawer but, in the end, Nick Koumbarakis came out on top for his coffee-inspired drink, The Tourist. It was a well-deserved win for Nick, who quickly proved to us that we had made the right choice by crying like a baby when his name was announced. Ha. In all seriousness though, to see how much it meant to the guy was pretty cool. And to hear his heartfelt acceptance speech was an eye-opener. These emerging bartenders are at the top of their game but they are all noticeably on the same team. They’re looking to promote the forgotten art of mixing good, classic, clean and delicious drinks. I’m on board. I admire the shit out of them. My message is simple: bartenders, AND IN FACT BARTENDING, in this country, deserve(s) more respect.
Go forth and eat,
P.S. A big shout out to Travis, Anil and Ryan. Your cocktails all rocked and it was a privilege to imbibe.