Fresh twist on an old profession
Written by Kevin McBarron
Once seen as a dead-end job, bartending is now on the up
Hongkongers' love of cocktails, growing aspirations and their awareness of what constitutes quality food and drink has added gloss to a profession once deemed unworthy.
Bartending has been transformed from cheap and cheerful to demanding and professional. The job increasingly requires an encyclopedic knowledge of cocktails and the skills to mix them - a far cry from the old days.
The most important facet in transforming the perceptions of the job into that of a professional career, is training. In Hong Kong, the China Hong Kong Bartenders Association (CHKBA) is at the forefront of changing local perceptions of bartending from 'McJob' to 'rewarding and satisfying career'.
'Through training and competition, people's perceptions of this industry will change and the status of the humble bartender in Hong Kong can be raised to a rank similar to that of their peers in some of the more exclusive eateries in Manhattan,' said Maggie Beale, consultant to the CHKBA. The recent successful Asian Open Cup - Creative Classic & Bartending Flair of 2007 that took place at this year's Hotel, Restaurant and Foodservice Equipment Supplies and Services exhibition was an example of this focus. 'These events tend to elevate the perception of bartending in the eyes of the public, which is our goal and it is working,' Ms Beale said.
Hong Kong's economic success and its receptiveness to western culture has nurtured a generation of young professionals who are highly educated, demanding and discerning, and have money to spend in style. Their demand has turned Hong Kong from a food and beverage wasteland into a gourmet's heaven full of dining and wining options.
Neil Wong Siu-chung, president of the CHKBA, said: 'One major catalyst for this evolution was the mass of returnees from Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States, especially the offspring of those who left Hong Kong in the '80s, bringing with them western influences and tastes, one of which is a love of cocktails.'
This new desire for cocktails quickly morphed into an increase in demand for knowledgeable bartenders who could tell the difference between a Martini, a Mai Tai and a Tai Tai.
The Sars outbreak was another major catalyst that altered the paradigm overnight. According to Darren Conole, assistant director of food and beverage for Island Shangri-La, Sars caused a seismic shift throughout the whole service industry, not just upmarket hotels. 'Before Sars, the concept of quality service in Hong Kong in many areas was nonexistent, after 2003 the whole service culture was altered,' Mr Conole said. 'Sars changed Hong Kong forever, and for the better. Now so many more service industries are aware of the incomparable value of training.'
Training is important in helping the food and beverage industry project an image of professionalism and raising standards for the whole industry.
Cora Cheng, the hotel's food and beverage training manager, said: 'Increased competition and increased expectation of what constitutes good service has elevated training to an unseen priority.
Justin Dingle, group executive chef and senior operations manager of Great Vision Company, a restaurant group that runs Bulldog's Bar and Grill and The Quarterdeck Club, said: 'Before, all of the high-quality restaurants were located in the good hotels. Now there is an abundance of good quality, authentic restaurants to choose from with many of them offering delicacies and extensive wine menus to cater to Hong Kong's burgeoning army of connoisseurs.'
He attributed these changes to the increasing education of the customers, the increase in focus on food and wine on TV programmes and an expanded industry focusing on training and service.
According to Mr Wong, there are more jobs than trained bartenders in Hong Kong.
However, interest in the profession is growing, especially among the 21-30 age group. Increased interaction with other bartending associations is exposing aspiring cocktail kings to their peers who have successfully made the profession their life's work.
This exposure is enhancing the concept of bartending as a career.
The association runs courses on bartending skills in Hong Kong and Macau and will soon launch an accredited course with the Open University of Hong Kong.
'Courses are short but intensive to meet the limited time available to the participants and can cover all aspects of the job, including flair tending,' Mr Wong said.
'I believe more could be done, and would like to see existing courses catering to the food and beverage industry modified to include bartending skills, and run in a fashion compatible with the limited time available to those already working in the industry.' Mr Wong said: 'We would like to upgrade Hong Kong standards to match international standards within five years and to see Hong Kong rise to a consistent top-five slot within the next five years at international competitions.'
The industry needs individuals who are ready to learn, to be part of a team, and can uphold the standards of the profession.
Mr Dingle said: 'If you show us the desire, motivation and ability, we will give you a chance.
'We are keen to empower staff to grow with us. At the moment, it's difficult to get staff of the right calibre.'
Flair tending is the efficient movement and showmanship applied to bartending. It is not limited to flipping, spinning and catching bottles, glassware and bar tools. The combination of
multi-bottle pours, efficiency, accuracy and dexterity is the essence of flair tending.
Classical bartending A comprehensive knowledge of and ability to make a large variety of well-known and classical cocktails, knowledge of correct ingredients and procedures, glasses to use and garnish as well as communication skills.
Epicurean A person who appreciates good food and wine
Sommelier A trained wine professional knowledgeable of all aspects of wine service and commonly working in fine restaurants
Waitress station A dedicated area containing everything a waitress should need