We Sat Down With One of The World’s Best Barmen: Peter Chua of 28 Hong Kong StreetOctober 18, 2015
Cocktails aren’t just a trend in Manila—they have made their way across the globe from the US and Europe to Asia, where they have become a movement. Drinking culture has evolved, and bartenders have become as meticulous with mixing drinks as chefs have been with creating food, and in its best forms, has turned bars into great establishments. Peter Chua of 28 Hong Kong Street is one of those at the forefront of this movement, pushing forward cocktail culture in his home of Singapore. Crowned one of the top 6 bartenders in the world at 2014’s Diageo Reserve Finals, we sat down with the Bacardi Rum ambassador to ask him about the cocktail scene in Southeast Asia.
Pepper: How does living in Singapore affect the way you mix drinks?
Peter Chua: The thing about living in Singapore is that we’re completely multi-diverse. So many cultures, so many races all coming together; we have influences form all around the world. If you want to talk about us training, we’re influenced by the art of American bartending, where it’s kind of like simplicity on the outside and unpretentious, with most of the work done behind the scenes.
Being in Singapore, I try to incorporate as much local flavor as possible with that very American style. So that’s the way I was kind of taught, and it’s kind of the same for everybody else. Bartenders kind of have a school of thought that they learn from to get into the bartending game, like, always incorporate something that is different. The cool thing also about Filipino bartenders is that a lot of them are doing that as well, like using arugula leaves, mango drinks, and papaya. Singapore is like that. The good thing is that we can get fresh produce from any part of the world so we are spoilt for choice in that sense, using beautiful produce to make drinks. So if you want to talk about how it affects us here, I’m technically 100% motivated by the fact that I live in Singapore. I’m pretty sure if I were anywhere else like in Thailand or Vietnam, I’d be making drinks very differently.
Is that a sort of trend that you’ve seen grow? People mixing local with, as you say, old-school bartending? I would say the current trend right now is minimalistic but fun, putting real thought and care into your ingredients, like chefs. Chefs have been doing it for a long time, but bartending is kind of taking that step to the point where people are growing their own herbs in specific climates. In Singapore, we see that trend picking up a lot more as well. People are looking for actual growers to grow crops, and they try to support the local economy and local distributors rather than importing everything in. Of course there is still some stuff we have to get from overseas, but we try our best to get as much local stuff as possible.
What other trends in the cocktail scene do you think are important to look at if you’re looking at cocktail culture around the world? Well I would say that the newest trend is integration, integration of all sorts of food. It always used to be: this is a cocktail bar, or this is a restaurant. I think it has come to a point where we are reaching a level of integration of both. You have food that is a little bit more Americanized, yet you have a bar in the same place. In Singapore it’s the same thing. You have a fine dning restaurant, but they aren’t just serving wines and champagne. People are actually getting cocktails paired with their food so that level of sophistication is kind of coming out. Like in my bar, 28 Hong Kong Street, we are an American cocktail bar, and the food that we have, a lot of thought is put into it. Our chefs are very good, and they make a lot of dishes that seem cheeky and humble enough, like chicken and waffles and pecan pie, but the actual effort that goes into it incorporates a lot of the bartending aspect and the booze, and the bartending incorporates a lot of the kitchen aspect, too.
So it’s like a whole experience. Yes, instead of calling it a cocktail bar or restaurant, it’s a hospitality hub, essentially. It’s a place where you get good service, and a good place to wine and dine.
Would you say that is your philosophy when it comes to 28 Hong Kong Street? Giving your guests a whole experience rather than just a good cocktail? I say we strive to. Our drinks are still the forefront of what we are, and we take a lot of pride in them. We still think it’s primarily a cocktail bar, but we are of course, pushing everything into that integration. Service is always part of it, but we try to push the food even more because we know from the start how it is made, and we know how good it is. People actually like it a lot so that they now come for dinner. We even have friends who are chefs who come down, so we know that the quality is there. We’re just trying to make the public see it as well. Imagine if you go to Noma—you’re not going to pay much attention to the bar, because you’ll be like, ‘I’m here for the food’. They might have a kickass bar but you’re just like, no I’m here for the food. So here it’s like the reverse. At 28 Hong Kong Street, we’re a cocktail bar but we don’t want them to say ‘I only want to drink’. We’re trying to advocate that to the public and the consumers. We’re trying to push the kitchen into the spotlight a little bit more.
How personal is your process when you create a cocktail? Do you think about other people or do you think about what you want to make? We usually have a style of drink that we adhere to. There is a voice that we use to speak to our clients with our drinks. So no matter how funky it is, our image still falls under that. We break the box, but we always retain something that is in our DNA, which essentially is unpretentious, straight-up, humble-looking, all the flavors are in the drink, and you don’t see what’s behind it. You see the bartender pouring it, not the smoker and all that fancy stuff. That is done back of house. When it comes to me, I’m always inspired by a lot of things. People, random things I see on the Internet, music, and art. Music and art play a big part for me, like a song. I take that and conceptualize how I think it would fit into my work.
What cocktail on your menu now kind of embodies who you are as a bartender? I made a cocktail once actually with scotch, organic peanut butter, cherries, chocolate, nutmeg, cinnamon, and those things don’t normally go together or make sense. It actually turned out really well. If you talked about what embodies me and the way I think, I’ll say that drink was it, mainly because it shows how I like to challenge what people call the rules, you know? I think this is the best industry to do that. More so if you tell me I can’t use this, the more I want it to work with it. Another drink I would say is my favorite at 28 Hong Kong Street, is called Tiki Hours. It is over-proofed rum, dark rum, infused with almost fermented bananas, with peanut, bacon, lime.
I can see the trend from what you were saying a while ago— Yes, it’s taking flavors, and making presentable but delicious drinks in a very challenging way. The thing about consumers is that they don’t know what they like until they are given it. Its always like ‘I’ll order what is safe for me, I’ll drink the same thing’ and then whenever they see something new its like ‘oooh I think I like this’. A good example would be tequila, like when you hear someone say ‘I hate tequila’. You say you don’t like tequila because you had one too many shots the night before, so you’ve had a bad impression, but it’s actually great.
Is there a cocktail, classic or modern that you wish you had invented?That’s a good one. I remember saying that before. A bartender who was in a cocktail competition who won last year, he had a drink that was a twist on this drink called the vieux carré from New Orleans. It is made with rye, sweet vermouth, Benedictine. He took it, and changed it into a sour drink with citrus and sugar, making it easier for people who have never had strong drinks like that before. He used angostura and ice cubes, changed the flavor, and it was absolutely delicious. It was a concept that I thought was really cool and creative and when I drank it I was like ‘Shit! I wish I had thought of this’.
What can you say about the cocktail industry in the Philippines? There are so many bartenders entering—and winning!—competitions around the world. I’m actually proud of you guys. Southeast Asia was never known for cocktails. Literally like 4 or 5 years ago, there was like the Blue Lagoon [classic nineties cocktail], maybe something else, and that was it. It was just stuck in the nineties. Then, Singapore started embracing this whole cocktail trend, and we knew we weren’t the only ones. We saw pockets of it appearing in Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam. This is the first time I’ve been in Manila, but I have met people who have told me things and it’s cool. Like I’ve heard about The Curator all the way from here, people saying ‘If you go to the Philippines, you have to check this out.’ You would be surprised; you would think that it would still be on the lowdown.
When I came in last night, and had a nice tour of a couple bars in manila, it was amazing to see how it has grown so much from two years ago to now. There is attention to the quality of the spirits, to the fresh fruits, the guts to challenge different flavor profiles, and using things traditionally used in food, being put into drinks. What really impresses me the most about everything is the hospitality. The Filipinos have the best hospitality I have ever seen. Ever. Everyone is ready with a smile, never say no, very respectful, and they try their best to literally give the best experience they can. That to me is very impressive. You hear a handful of bars when you talk about Manila in particular, but when I am here I saw other bars where I thought: ‘There is something going on here that is good.’ I still think there are a few more years to go before we hit the status of America and Europe, but I don’t think we are that far away. Asia has the ability to pick up the pace and catch up with the older brothers. We also have an advantage in terms of the diversity of ingredients that we have. We have things that they don’t have. Exotic, if you want to put it that way, and it’s not just that advantage we have.