Illustration: Rick Kim @reecc; photography: @jessicafradonophoto)
Charles H. Baker Jnr’s The Companion can be considered an educational book, and I know how much you care about sharing free knowledge within our industry. How does this manifest in your role at Proof & Company?
One thing I know I have in common with Charles H. Baker Jnr. is that neither of us is satisfied in just knowing something. When we taste a dish, learn a recipe, or experience an adventure, it’s simply not enough to enjoy that moment for ourselves. What makes us happy – what truly makes us tick – is that we find joy in sharing those moments with others.
I first started making cocktails in my apartment in Philadelphia, carefully juicing fresh pineapples with a muddler and a colander, and driving to Maryland to find bottles of amaro and blackstrap rum. But that was never enough for me. I quickly became obsessed with sharing these drinks with my friends, even volunteering myself to shake Gold Rushes and Daiquiris at a friend’s house party at University of Delaware (never again!) Even once I was in New York, bartending 60+ hour workweeks at The NoMad Hotel, I still found my greatest pleasure in teaching the spirits classes at our big sister restaurant Eleven Madison Park. The thrill of teaching others, and watching colleagues grow as I share my own knowledge is one of the deep pleasures of my life.
This love of building systems, sharing knowledge, and creating ways to help other people succeed, is ultimately what drove me to write my Recipe Manual in 2016. It is also what drove me to join the team at Proof & Company, China. In the end, Charles H. spent his days in his home at Java Head, hosting dinner parties for artists and authors, bringing people into his home to share the fruits of his world travels. In much the same way, I am deeply satisfied spending my time here in Shanghai, using my knowledge to help build bars, train teams, and watch venues succeed. It’s an incredibly satisfying gift, and I’m incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to work for a team that so truly cherishes education and the creation of culture.
Having worked at Booker and Dax, Amori y Amargo, then the NoMad in New York and Charles H in Seoul, you’ve had many different influences. What’s your relationship with the classics and how do you approach dated recipes?
Great question. I was lucky to be trained by Sother Teague both at Booker & Dax and Amor y Amargo. Even though the two cocktail programs are wildly different, we used the same core philosophy to guide our creative decisions in both venues. That philosophy was our North Star, and it read “just because we can doesn’t mean we should.” No frivolous garnishes, and no superfluous ingredients or processes. If it doesn’t contribute to the mission of that cocktail, cut it out. Every part of a cocktail must have a sense of purpose.
I like to think that that creative principle kept a sense of focus and discipline in our work, and it made sure that our decisions were always clear and intentional. When managing the bars at the NoMad Hotel, I made sure that the team kept that sense of clarity. Sure, the ingredients and techniques were more complicated, but never unnecessarily so. The goal in my drinks writing is always to start with a clear direction and intention, and then use my knowledge of ingredients and technique to tell that story to the best of my ability in as few steps as possible.
In working with classics, my mission remains very much the same. When I read a dated recipe, I always ask myself “what was this person trying to say with this drink, and did they succeed?” If the original recipe is a pure expression of the author’s idea, then no changes will be made. I will simply do my best to find the spirits that tell that story best. But if the written recipe is not delicious, or if the execution is unclear, then I will rearrange ingredients or make small adjustments to bring the drink’s intention into focus and make it a truly tasty cocktail.
In a sense, adjusting a dated cocktail is a lot like restoring an antique clock. Some pieces of the clock have not stood the test of time, and must be gently refurbished. Other pieces may not have been well-constructed in the first place, and must be carefully replaced. In either instance, it is fair to show some flourish in your craftsmanship, and leave your own subtle influence on the piece. But in both cases, the emphasis is in restoration, and not in creation, and so this must be an exercise in disciplined technique. In the end, the original designer’s intention remain clear.
Baker wrote about food as well; it was a way to elevate the bar world to the culinary one. Is there a specific dish in your memory bank that you remember being a ‘eureka’ moment for you?
Working with the kitchen team of The NoMad Hotel was always a deeply inspiring process. The beauty of Daniel Humm’s cooking is in his ability to hide his work. Hundreds of hours go into the preparation of each dish, with each ingredient carefully prepared by teams of the best cooks in the world. But when it comes to actual plating and service, these details are tucked out of sight. Plating is minimal, and dishes are presented with no more than one adjective and three nouns (i.e. egg, poached with asparagus, quinoa, and parmesan). Never mind the dozens of sub-ingredients and intricate processes that go into each dish. The flavours speak for themselves.
I remember one dish at NoMad that really blew my mind was the Egg. The egg is slow-poached at exactly 62 degrees for exactly 45 minutes. This is the perfect time and temperature to slow-poach an egg so that the white starts to coagulate but doesn’t set. In the end, it’s an egg like I had never experienced before. The idea that a simple presentation – a humble poached egg with asparagus, quinoa, and parmesan – could be spieled and served in such an unassuming way, but then be so unbelievably delicious, really opened my eyes for what was possible in food and beverage.
What the Egg taught me was that I should always strive to let my cocktails speak for themselves. Rather than waxing on about my processes or gilding the lily with superfluous garnish and exaggerated glassware, I try my best to keep my drinks elegant and focused. Syrups may be obsessively prepared, and infusions may multiple steps and days of careful attention. But I don’t want the work to dominate my guest’s experience. I strive to always underpromise and over deliver.
What’s next for the bar scene in China and how do you compare it to the bar scene in Seoul?
China is in an interesting place right now as a cocktail scene. The last three years have seen an enormous boom in cocktails, especially in the ‘speakeasy’ genre where star mixologists in hidden bars spend long hours preparing their complex signature cocktails. What has started in major cities is now trickling into China’s second and third-tier cities (of which there are more than 100), and cocktails are sweeping the nation with some cities opening more than 40 cocktail bars in the last calendar year. In a word, cocktails in China are booming.
The next step for China will be two-fold. Firstly, cocktail culture will continue to grow quickly for at least the next five years, as fine drinking spreads deeper and deeper into central China from its coastal cities. This will initially take place as hidden ‘speakeasy’ bars, but then cocktail drinking will become more and more commonplace as bartenders become better trained and the general public becomes more discerning about their drinking habits.
At the same time, there will be a shift in major cities away from complicated bar menus, hidden entrances, and rockstar mixologists. As the public becomes more educated about their own preferences, they will be less willing to overpay for underwhelming bar experiences and will spend more time and money in bars that provide great guest experiences with quality service at a reasonable price. Bars will become larger, brighter, and more beautifully decorated, with better programming and a focus on food and lifestyle.
Korea will eventually move in the same direction, but at a much, much slower pace. Koreans are in general much less flexible than the Chinese when it comes to changing their eating and drinking habits, and so cocktails are not likely to be accepted as an item to be enjoyed during meal times. In Korea, the after-work habit of eating local food together with your co-workers while drinking beer and soju is absolutely sacred. Therefore cocktails will remain a niche after-dinner luxury item, and this limited definition will stunt the industry’s growth in general. For this reason, Korea will remain heavily ‘speakeasy’ focused, with a medium number of small cocktail bars delivering Ginza-style service.
Charles Baker’s Shanghai Buck has a pretty cool back story; how did you approach making it?
I’m in love with the story of the Shanghai Buck, and I can’t understand why this drink is not still popular today. In 1910, there was a club on the Shanghai Bund called the British Shanghai Club Bar that stood as the longest bar in the world – a massive “L” of mahogany measuring 110 feet long and 39 feet deep. At least five bartenders would stand down the length of this bar shaking their signature Shanghai Buck cocktail for the throngs of expats. I don’t know if this is true, but I have been told that at the time, this bar was the largest Bacardi account in the world due to this cocktail.
The Shanghai Buck, according to Charles H. Baker Jr., is a cocktail made with golden rum, fresh lime, and ginger beer, with the optional addition of grenadine. In a sense, it’s a bit like a golden rum Dark & Stormy, with a slightly pink colour and a fresh tang of pomegranate. It’s amazingly refreshing, and I would love to see the drink ordered again, restored into its former glory! One of our projects at Proof & Company China will be to work with the Long Bar at the Waldorf Astoria to recreate this cocktail, and re-introduce it back to the city after a 100-year absence. It’s humbling to take part in a project of that kind of historic scope, and I can’t wait to get started.
45ml Plantation Three Stars
10ml ginger syrup
5ml hibiscus cordial
25ml lime juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
45 ml seltzer
Build first six ingredients over ice in a Collins glass, top with seltzer. Stir gently to combine and garnish with a lime wedge.
Read more about the Finding Charles project here