Raz NG's fledgling career in a male-dominated bar tending industry came about after some soul searching into her career path.
What started in 2019 as a short 6-month apprenticeship under the guise of Arsenio 'Ash' Mariano, her own determination to learn more of her craft has blossomed into the running of Gecko dining with fellow apprentices. The fruits of her labour have recently seen her as one of 10 Winners in Malaysia for the #HennessyMyWay 30-Second Challenge but also earned a place as one of the Top 25 Bartenders amongst the Hennessy global bartenders Fraternity.
We sat down with Raz to discuss more on how it all started, what it's been like as a bartender and the inspiration behind her winning Hennessy cocktail.
Raz, congratulations on your recent accolades with Hennessy! How did it all start for you?
As a young adult, I did some soul-searching into my career path. I was determined to becoming a professional bartender, but the question was “how?”. So, I gave myself a list of to-dos and a timeline. I always believe that in order for me to achieve my dream, I had to also equip myself with both knowledge and skills. Hence, I started to pick up some bartending skills in early 2019 and the opportunity came when I met Arsenio 'Ash' Mariano Jr's protégé́ at Sakura Den back in September 2019. Ash was an icon in the bartending industry. Like any serious bartender, he was known amongst the bar community to be strict and stoic. After taking into consideration of other people’s advice, I took up the opportunity to challenge myself as such opportunities may not come knocking at my door twice. Although it only lasted for 6 months, Ash had broadened my horizons in understanding the functional properties of each ingredient and the importance of product knowledge – from cocktail histories to bottles we carry on to the shelves. Under his mentorship, he had also taught me to see the humour in the hardships that we go through and how to be not only a survivor in this competitive industry but to be one of the best. Despite being tough on me, Ash was never selfish in sharing his knowledge, skills and opening up opportunities for me to grow my circle of influence. In September 2020, another door had opened for me. With Ash’s continuous support and motivation, I am now under the mentorship of Malaysia's well-known Japanese master bartender, Osamu 'Sam' Kinugawa. Sam-san has a completely different bartending style that takes the precision of skill to the highest level, demanding no less than perfection. Rather than the Western approach of churning out drink after drink for a busy bar, the Japanese bartending style takes the time to focus attention to detail on each individual drink and guest. Though I may have to start all over again in the bartending scene, this was yet an opportunity to further sharpen my skills. I must admit, it was a lot tougher as Sam-san focuses more on practicality than before when it was more on theory application. When I first started preparing for Sam-san’s signature cocktails, I was only allowed to do ice carving and squeezing fruits by hand through a muslin cloth from Japan. After proving my dedication and patience, I proceed with fiddling a bar spoon and practice stirring in a very specific way for over a month to start making stirred cocktails. Once I've passed, I moved on to shaking. After meeting Sam-san's satisfaction on both stirred and shaken cocktails, I am then allowed to make drinks for customers. Sam san was the one who encouraged me and my colleague to participate #HennessyMyWay challenge allowing us to be creative. As service ritual was the key, he was confident we'll make our place there.
What was it like first starting as a bartender, particularly in a male-dominated industry?
Let’s put it as “without my past, I will not possess the value I am today”. Though it was challenging to be a female in a male-dominated world it wasn’t so much of bartending being a masculine job, rather the concern was more on safety and health issues due to having to work till the wee hours of the morning and the shift in lifestyle where night become day and day become my night. After convincing my parents to let me try it for at least 6 months, and with their tremendous support, there was no turning back since then.
On a positive note, being the few females in the male-dominated world has opened up many opportunities for me as we stand out amongst the thorns. Of course, when we stand out you have many eyes being set on you which can be a bit stressful. In order to strive in this industry, I would think like the beverage I make - to be fluid in going with the flow, while the ingredients define my emotions and the garnishing are my outlook in life.
At what point did you think this was something you would like to continue?
Looking back now, I would say it was probably in the second month of my bartending when a customer came up to me at the bar and told me that I should be working in a job that requires less physical strength. I didn’t find his words to be intimidating, instead; it motivated me more to want to succeed in this industry. I always believe that in any work that we do, it should not be based on sexes and it should focus on individual strengths and the end results that we can bring to the table.
What has been the standout learning experience for you and why?
Since working behind the bar two years ago, every day is a new experience for me. I am always encountering something new from meeting different people, learning from other bartenders, listening to customers’ story of the day to making drinks itself. I must say that my bartending experience has shaped my perspective in life and all these have a part and partially contributed to my creation for HennessyMyWay. Therefore, the most standout experience for me so far has to be during the entire course of making “Thyme Waits For No Pear”. It was putting what I have learned, the knowledge and skills, and crafting it into a beverage that tells a tale of my journey in bartending through a glass of cocktail - in summary of the beverage concept, time waits for no one. If you want to succeed in life, you have to put your heart and soul into whatever that you do. Even if you fail, you just keep trying and strive being better than before.
You were recently one of 10 Winners in Malaysia for the #HennessyMyWay 30-Second Challenge with your Cocktail Thyme Waits for No Pear. What was the inspiration behind it?
I strongly believe the inspiration behind my drink came from my bartending journey. Growing up, I’ve spent most of my time with my grandparents and has always been surrounded and fascinated by my late grandfather’s massive collection of cognac and brandy. As Hennessy V.S.O.P Privilège is made from a selection of eaux-de-vie aged mainly in old oak barrels, you could pick up aromas of vanilla, cinnamon and toasted notes which fruits like apples, apricots and pears can go pretty well therefore the ingredients I’ve used was inspired by my current workplace; a slight Japanese influenced and techniques of preparing the drink. As for the name? When I started getting a little more serious about my career, I was mentored by Ash. He loves his puns, and we’d often brainstorm for punny cocktail names for his guest shifts and gigs.
Where did the showmanship and service ritual play a part in the winning recipe?
As I've been practising not using store-bought juices since I've started working at this establishment, I utilise fresh fruits and squeeze them myself using a muslin cloth from Japan. Smoking the drink wasn't only for the presentation but also contributes another layer to my drink. The aroma excites the palate and adds depth to the flavour of the cocktail.
In addition, you also earned a place as one of the Top 25 Bartenders amongst the Hennessy global bartenders Fraternity. How did that feel being compared to others around the world?
I've watched videos of other bartenders and many were really impressive and lively. It was still surreal for me to earn a place as one of the Top 25 out of over 500 submissions.
How has running Gekko Dining with the other apprentices been during Covid-19? What has been some of the biggest challenges?
It has been fun running the bar with other apprentices. One of the biggest challenges is when Sam San's regulars stopped coming when they found out he returned to Japan for a bit to visit his wife and son and new walk-ins who'd peep through the door first to see if this place is manned by Japanese staff as they presumed us locals cannot craft the same quality as well.
Any advice for someone wanting to pursue a career in bartending?
To be honest, I think that I'm still at a very early stage of my career to share any inspirational stories. But to any aspiring bartenders reading this, take a moment to read Gaz Regan's Letter to Young Bartenders. Bartending courses or degrees in hospitality management may be useful but they won't replace experience. I honestly thought that I would struggle to secure a job when I did not obtain my certificate in university. Like any other industry, you still have to hustle your way up the ladder, and though it may not have many requirements to becoming a bartender, but not everyone makes the cut to becoming the best. You’ve got to think on your feet, be a self-starter and, most importantly, a team player. In my own opinion, bartending is not for those who wait around to take orders. It's vital to be creative, a quick thinker and always to love what you do. When you make a great beverage, it can make someone’s day greater. The reason being is that you don’t just serve people's drinks but you give them a story to remember through the drinks that you create.
As a bartender myself, I see people from different walks of life. While we perceive alcohol as an unhealthy drink but I see alcohols as a substance that shares and complements one’s emotions which can affect one’s mental state. Of course, it requires one to understand that like a glass of cocktail; you need the right components with well-balanced content and skilful techniques to make one great drink which the same philosophy can be applied to life. Though we are behind the bar there are people whom will open up to us. You may think why us? Well, it’s because we are good listeners and our drinks do the talking.
How do you envisage the future for bars in KL post Covid 19?
COVID-19 has not only affected all our lives, it has changed our lifestyles too with the new norm. It has forced all of us to adapt quickly and reflect on our relationship with ourselves, in terms of how we treat our body (health), as well as with others, the value we hold in each other. When after COVID-19 becomes one of humans pandemic crisis history, I foresee the bar scene will be more than a social place to meet. It will be a place where memories are captured, and every moment spent together will be very much valued. Since most of us now have extra screen time to research and learn something new, I believe there will be more unique and exciting cocktails to showcase real soon. There will also be more guest shifts and takeovers to look forward to!