How did you get started? “When I was 18 years old I wanted to save money to travel to Europe, and my grandma saw an ad for a part-time bar position in a cranky old man’s pub near my home in Alsager, Cheshire [in northwest England]. The first time I pulled a pint, of Kronenbourg for a stony-faced builder, I screwed it up because half the glass was foam. I went to London to study graphic design and worked in a cocktail bar in Brick Lane, Shoreditch. The menu had 30 drinks, some with eight to 10 ingredients. I struggled learning them all. No one explained that cocktails are built on a basic structure: start with a spirit, then add sweetness, and balance with bitterness or sourness and dryness.”
What was your big break? “I worked at Caravan in King’s Cross, London – a big restaurant with a coffee-roasting programme, and chefs from around the world. I got to try a lot of food I’d never heard of, and learned from the chefs, baristas and coffee roasters techniques like smoking and making syrups, bitters and vermouth. The manager let me experiment by making drinks for people waiting for tables and I began focusing on cocktails. One evening a regular customer asked for an Americano, or negroni with soda, and instead of gin I made it with my own vermouth. Within an hour she had offered me a job in Kuala Lumpur. I moved there in October 2013. It was my first time outside Europe. It was a bit of a culture shock. I ran the bar at Ril’s, in Bangsar. Not that I was cutting edge, but I gave customers a new perspective on what a cocktail could be.”
What did you like most about Malaysia? “Hong Kong’s food scene is great, but Malaysia’s is even better. There’s the indigenous Malay population and a big Chinese and Indian influence, so there’s north Indian, south Indian, Cantonese, Sichuan and northern Chinese [cuisines], and hybrids like Baba-Nyonya. It is a beautiful country. You can drive pretty much everywhere within six hours and get to beaches, jungles and highlands.”
Tell us about winning the 2016 Hong Kong & Macau Bartender of the Year competition. “In the finals, 48 people [competed] including 12 from Macau. I was really nervous but I was prepared. We had to make six classic drinks, such as a Vesper martini – the James Bond one – from our own recipes. I practised so much that it was muscle memory.
“The ‘whisky hot seat’ was a written and practical exam. We had four or five cocktails and had to identify which whisky was used. The last day was a street-food jam. I was paired with chef Vicky Cheng, of VEA [in Central], who made a Taiwanese fried dough sandwich with Iberico lardo, chicken liver parfait, pork-head terrine and pickled carrot and radish, and cilantro. It was ridiculously tasty. For my drink, I chose salted ginger syrup with muscovado and lime to cut the oiliness of the dough and the creaminess of the Iberico lardo. To draw parallels with the origin of the food, I used Formosa oolong tea, which is fermented and roasted, with chocolately notes. I called the drink ‘First in Formosa’. When I won, it took a few days to sink in. There was elation, excitement and disbelief. I had to pinch myself.”
What do you do when you’re not at work? “I try to surf once a week at Big Wave Bay or Lantau. There’s so much beautiful nature in Hong Kong to clear your head. Surfing requires you to keep working at it. There’s an element of nature you can’t control, teaching you to accept things the way they are. I don’t think of anything else when I’m out there. You have to be disciplined, and it pays off in the end.” ■
Barker will compete in the World Class Bartender of the Year Global Final in Miami, Florida, in September