Above, left to right: Raffaele Di Monaco, Pablo Navarro, Joshua Black, James Bowker
Remember last year’s House of Suntory’s DOJO programme? The one where House of Suntory’s Global Ambassador James Bowker and his team curated an incredible series of workshops, each inspired by the art of Japanese hospitality and conceived with bartenders personal and professional progression in mind? For the first time, the lucky participants were given the opportunity to put their newfound skills to the test by taking part in a competition to round up the entire experience. Judged by James Bowker, House of Suntory UK Brand Ambassador Raffaele Di Monaco and the legend that is Ueno Hidetsugo from one of Tokyo’s finest establishments, the iconic Bar High Five. The prize? Only a trip of a lifetime for the top two to experience Japanese hospitality first hand in Tokyo.
Joshua Black, Senior Bartender at Silverleaf Bar is one of two House of Suntory DOJO 2022 winners. Here he tells us about the experience.
Let’s start at the beginning: why did you enter Suntory’s DOJO Programme?
I owe a huge thank you to my general manager, Chris Tanner, who told me about the House of Suntory’s DOJO programme and pushed me to apply. I’m always looking for opportunities to grow and develop my skillset as a bartender and having the chance to learn about the elements of Japanese bartending that I can take with me into my day-to-day role was something that really appealed to me.
What was your knowledge of Japan and its bartending techniques and principles before entering the programme?
Truthfully, very limited. I guess I had preconceived ideas, or misconceptions before joining the DOJO programme, and I have since had my eyes opened to a new way of bartending and I gained some fascinating insights. It was great to learn about the culture first hand from some of the leading Masters in their field and I have left not only a winner, but also a more educated bartender.
How does it differ now?
I certainly learnt a lot about the spirits in the House of Suntory portfolio and the Master brand itself, but I now also understand so much more about Japanese culture. One of my key takeaways is the concept of ‘Omotenashi’ – which is, when applied to hospitality, all about considering every detail of the guest experience, anticipating needs before they arise and wholeheartedly looking their needs. Whilst it’s something we think we do every day in the bar, the DOJO programme taught me so much – little things that, when put together, mean so much for the wellbeing and enjoyment of the guest.
What was your most enjoyable part of the programme and why?
Seeing everyone come together throughout the programme to learn and develop skills, to then eventually collaborating at the finals, was an amazing experience. The sense of community created by the DOJO Senpai was incredible. It was an honour to work with them.
How has it benefited you personally and professionally?
Personally, winning DOJO has given me a renewed sense of self-belief and boosted my confidence. I’ve had a lot of very kind messages from my peers as well as the people I look up to in the industry.
Professionally, I’d say the programme has equipped me with fresh ideas and inspired a new approach to drinks creation and elevation. I have also secured an apprenticeship with Hidetsugu Ueno in Japan next year and I look forward to taking everything I’ve learned throughout the DOJO programme with me into the next stages of my career.
Tell us about your Kaizen Classic, how and why you chose it and how you applied the various principles to it throughout the competition.
At the welcome lunch, we were invited to pick an envelope from the ‘tree of destiny’. Each envelope contained a Kaizen classic. I picked the Sazerac, which, did you know, is also widely regarded as the world’s oldest cocktail?
The concept of Kaizen refers to continuous refinement, so focusing on elevation rather than twisting or altering the DNA of the classic. To recreate such an iconic cocktail was quite daunting at first but keeping Kaizen in mind and with the help of the DOJO Masters, I began to consider how to elevate this classic through seasoning, choosing the right glassware for an optimal tasting experience, as well as bringing in Japanese influences by looking at how I could convey a sense of ‘WA’ or harmony with nature.
Tying it all together; my final serve was a Sazerac made with 70ml Suntory Toki Blended Whisky, 10ml birch water syrup that had been lightly salted with liquid Shio Koji, five dashes of ‘Sazerac’ bitters (a blend of 3 parts Peychauds bitters, 1 part Angostura aromatic bitters and a 1/2 part Minus8 Red Verjus). To serve, I chose a thick-based, frozen glass atomised with Sudachi-infused absinthe and garnished with the expressed oils from a Meyer lemon. I served my Kaizen Sazerac with the accompaniment of chilled mineral water and a hot oshibori towel scented with Suntory Toki Whisky.
Birch water highlighted the sense of ‘WA’, using shio koji and verjus provided seasoning and acidity for balance, while infusing the absinthe with sudachi brought a more complex aroma.
Describe the final and what stood out most to you and why?
The final was unlike any other competitions I’ve participated in before. Our hosts made it clear that they wanted to see teamwork and collaboration between the finalists, and we all wanted each other to do well, which was very refreshing.
There were three stages: A tasting, a written exam and the final Kaizen drink presentation. The tasting was delicious of course, and while the exam was difficult, I felt confident in my answers having absorbed so many insights from the wonderful DOJO masters over the months.
The judges took some time deliberating and it was like being in limbo waiting for the results. The tension in the room was tense, so when James Bowker made the announcement, I was overwhelmed to be honest, yet equally as honoured to have been chosen. What an incredible experience to be a part of.
What does winning Suntory’s DOJO Programme mean to you?
It’s something I’m very proud of. There were a lot of talented bartenders participating in the DOJO programme this year and it was a privilege being amongst them. Having this accolade with me for the rest of my career is something I feel will help me progress within the industry and I look forward to the opportunities to come.
What are you most looking forward to when you go to Japan?
The food! And, of course, I can’t wait to meet Hidetsugu Ueno again and have the opportunity learn from some of the best in the business.
Lastly, three words to describe the entire experience:
Unforgettable, insightful and delicious.