One of the coolest experiences in a bartender’s career is the ability to reach beyond the bar. You may be lightning fast with your head down during a Friday night well service, or you might be the best at pumping out classic cocktails, executed perfectly by the dozen during a cocktail party, but you’ll have to agree that receiving an invitation to participate in a national competition makes you feel pretty good. While remaining humble, we get very excited of the possibility of having paid travel and accommodation in order to prove that we’ve studied hard enough, that we’re good enough, and we’ve been recognized for doing something that helps promote cocktail culture in Canada. On this day, I had the utmost honour of joining Bar Manager David Wolowidnyk of West Restaurant to Toronto for the 1st National Barchef Competition – a play on words in a way – Barchef being the charismatic Toronto molecular mixology bar, and as well a “Barchef” is someone who successfully incorporates food science into bar service. Amongst us two Vancouverites delighted to participate, we joined 3 of Ontario’s top bartenders, Rob Montgomery of the Miller Tavern (Toronto); Nishan Nepulongoda of Blowfish Restaurant (Toronto); Wes Galloway of Black Beans Steakhouse & Lounge (Port Hope); and Fabien Maillard of Montreal’s Mixoart Bartending Inc.
Only 6 participants.
No limit on ingredients.
No limit on time.
No limit on presentation.
The catch? Ketel One as the featured ingredient.
It’s neutral, well distilled, smooth, but amazingly has a wonderful finish and tastes pretty good!
The night before the competition, there was a gorgeous dinner held at Origin Restaurant, a newbie added to Chef Claudio Aprile’s belt at the corner of King and Church streets, where fresh seafood and market fare met some classic flavour combinations and some interesting dishes. I will say the quality of seafood was pretty amazing, even though it’s obviously hard to compare Vancouver and Toronto’s coastal product availability. Big juicy malpec oysters, scallops, tuna – I was impressed. The food was more memorable for other diners though, as early on in the meal I pulled a long hair out of my mouth while indulging in some homemade chorizo “frites” – anyone who knows me, knows I have a life-altaring hair phobia, especially in my food or on my bathroom floor and walls.
When a cocktail reached our place settings with “red bull snow” I though I was going to have a stroke. It was well executed, but alas, IT WAS RED BULL. When will people learn that the consumption of Red Bull, like the frequent use of “NOT jokes” is both gross and distasteful? I knew it was going to get ugly… two brand managers from Diageo (Ketel One), Barchef owners Frankie Solarik and Brent Vanderveen, Barchef “Governor” Bill Hawrysh and Sous-Barchef Aaron Gaulke, and all of the competitors had glass after glass of wine, shot after shot of bulleit bourbon… each libation didn’t necessarily pair the other, just completely mindless consumption, as per the usual. Impressive yet that 12 of us only seemed to rack up a $2500 bill – that’s a personal best for some us, but we could’ve done a lot better. We headed down to the Drake Hotel on Queen West for a little “chochy” entertainment before hitting the sack. It was packed – artsy fartsy Queen West folk, meets uptown proper – and everything in between. My good deed of the day was preventing David Wolowidnyk from ordering a bulleit bourbon old fashioned at the patio “tiki” bar. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to Fabien in time, who order a Zombie, and later dumped in a bucket of grenadine – cocktail fail. If I closed my eyes for a few seconds (before swaying into a table) the music made me feel like I was back at C Lounge or the Brant House in Toronto partying during my early 20’s. Ahhh the questionable “blackout” nostalgia. Then out of nowhere, Christina Kuypers, the hottest female barkeep to ever grace the wood (no pun intended) at Voya in Vancouver appears. Ya, she runs the join. Thanks for the round rockstar.
After a bout with the best late night takeout aka Toronto falafel, bedtime. See, I should’ve slept – instead my boyfriend, Chef Jonathan Chovancek (Culinary Capers Catering) and I decided it a great idea to order a giant pizza from BIG SLICE, drink beer and watch Inglorious Bastards, again. It should be noted that if all pizza joints are closed at 4 in the morning, you should go to sleep, not eat the pizza that supports “homeless” salami a.k.a those guys stole meat from some grocery store in their pants, and sold-it-for-cheap through the backdoor of “red flag” establishments – another fail.
The next morning, we all prepped for our competition which would happen later that evening. Following our individual on-camera interviews with Ketel One, I did a little bit of prep in the kitchen, then we took off for lunch. Afterwards, we hit Chinatown, which still remains the best place to grab ingredients and equipment, in any city, hands down, and Toronto has one of the best. A giant restaurant supply store called Tap Phong carries everything from giant high quality stainless steel stock pots, to bitters bottles, vintage glassware and rice cookers for super duper cheap. It’s just at Spadina and St. Andrew streets, next to Pho Huong Restaurant. Toronto’s also known for Kensington Market, where Chinatown meets “local” – everything from hippie vegan juice bars, to south american empanada spots to “jobers” – discount surplus, clothing, shoes, sunglasses, etc.. (sorta like Army & Navy without the crackhead population), vintage clothing and antiques, fruit stands, cheese, fish, meat, spice shops, and coffee shops. Plus it’s a little more “sanitarily” put together than the markets in Beijing where poultry and full animals are broken down directly on the concrete floor in 42C heat everyday.
The night of the event, I was running late – had to pick up my “prop” – a dress covered in “rock royalty” emblems with a significant area devoted to Van Halen (Eddie Van Halen is from Holland, as is Ketel One… tee hee) made by the talented ladies over at Peach Berserk (Queen & Augusta streets). Now it was time to get the game face on. David was cool and collected, having prepped everything ahead of time, which we can all expect from him. However in the Barchef basement, science was stirring. At one end, I had set up shop – pouring all of my tinctures into speed-pours and prepping my presentation piece – a tower of silver spoons with raw product intended to deconstruct the flavour composition of the 3 tinctures I chose to feature by themselves for the judges to taste. Next to me was Nishan – his chemistry kit was open and unpacked – he was making pearls, spheres, etc… he was “molecular-izing” himself right good.
Guests started to arrive, so after I pulled my brother downstairs to help me, also known as sit in the corner and tell me how awesome he thinks my dress is, we headed upstairs. I found my mum Linda, my best friend Martin, and Jonathan all waiting for us to get started. There were lots of familiar faces for me from my Toronto days… bartenders I used to work with, old customers of mine – small world this bartending thing. There were definitely some cool people in attendance: Joe Fee (Fee Brother’s Bitters), Stephen Beaumont (That’s the Spirit & World of Beer), and James Chatto (a prolific Canadian food and beverage writer, Toronto Life Magazine).
Alas, let’s pick out competition order. Murphy’s Law states that “ladies first” will happen across the board – not only will I pick first, but I’ll pick my own name. Groovy. Here was the order, and it’s important to note – I’ll explain why when we get down to David and Nishan’s performances: Lauren (1), David (2), Wes (3), Nishan (4), Fabien (5), Rob (6). As I prepped for my performance, Jonathan and I pulled all the spoon stands and tincture trays from the basement and place one set in front of each of the three judges: Frankie Solarik(Barchef), Kevin Brauch (Thirsty Traveler), Catherine Santos (Diageo/Ketel One). After a lengthy and flattering introduction, I was mic’ed up and on stage. Yes, yes, let Lauren be the guinea pig who irons out the glitches, and I sure did.
My presentation went very smoothly, except when I learned last minute that there was no vodka on the stage, and my strainer was leaking like a sieve. Right. It’s ok though, the problems were quickly averted. I poured the drink out, and let it rest for a few minutes. Meanwhile, I have a 10L jug of liquid nitrogen at my feet. Pouring carefully, the liquid and smoke spill out of the doer. With its temperature sitting around (-700F), the liquid nitro acts as a “frozen deep fryer”. To my left, a big bowl of recently “set” lemon curd with sake, cherry blossoms and Ketel One await their chilly bath. Using hot spoons, I quickly form quenelles, and plop into the liquid nitro. Using a slotted spoon (while still telling bad tasteless jokes to the audience) I move the curd around, same as you would deep frying churros in hot oil. Just as they’re done (literally 20 seconds) I submerge the last spoon for each spoon tower, and the curd quenelle sits atop. This palate cleanser was inspired by the “dragon’s breath” pre-dinner fix at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Restaurant in London. Called “dragon’s breath” for the icy “smoke” that leaves the nose in front of you once you exhale while biting through the ball of curd. Each judge received one as a palate cleanser, the idea being that citrus and vodka cleanse the palate of tinctures, beer, cigarettes, etc.. as well as make you thirst and salivate. Now, flamed lemon peel and cocktail is served. I through Jonathan in the back kitchen to make as many “dragon’s breath” as possible before the liquid nitro completely evaporated (which didn’t take long). I may have also cracked the table top on stage with the super freeze of the liquid nitro. Either way, my cocktail, the “Nolet Pratt” (inspired by the Nolet family of Ketel One and 3 homemade vermouths) and performance led me to a second place finish in the national competition.
Here’s the recipe:
1.50 oz Ketel One Vodka
0.75 oz Smaak van Noyaux “dry vermouth” (Taste of Noyaux)
0.75 oz Vermouth von Kersen “sweet vermouth” (Cherry Vermouth)
0.50 oz Orgeat
0.25 oz Quince Vinegar
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Top with flamed lemon peel.
Cherry Blossom “Dragon’s Breath” Palate Cleanser
4 egg yolks
4 whole eggs
1.50 cup white sugar
0.75 cup fresh lemon juice
0.75 cup cherry blossom “sake” dry vermouth
Over an inch and a half of “full tilt” boiling water, whisk all ingredients together at top human speed in a metal bowl – keep whisking until firm ribbons form. Transfer to an ice-bath immediately, and gently whisk to cool down. Let set covered in fridge until ready to use.
Second up was David with his super cool cocktail, a traditional punch with a very unusual ingredient – sichuan buttons. Now, earlier I mentioned the importance of order with competitors, here’s why: sichuan buttons destroy your palate in a pleasant way for a while… they numb and create an interesting sensation tough to describe in the mouth. David, being a professor of cocktail, explains to the audience and judges the five components of a traditional punch – tea, citrus, sugar, spirit, spices. There would also be an addition of homemade gingerbeer to top of the cocktail.
As per the usual, for those of you who are familiar with David’s performance style, he’s informative, funny, confident and super engaging to watch. This would take David to his first place victory in Toronto later that evening. Vancouver completely conquered the competition!
Here’s the recipe:
2.00 oz sichuan button infused Ketel One Vodka (20 buttons)
0.75 oz lemon juice
0.75 oz Paris – Singapore Tea Syrup (TWG produces this tea exclusively for its executive business class on Singapore Airlines – green tea & cherry blossom tea)
1.00 dash of Scrappy’s Cardamom Bitters (Seattle based)
Shake and strain over cubes, and top with gingerbeer and a wee sichuan button.
Wes’ cocktail was alcohol forward with the essence of lillet, and a smokey glass spritz. It was simple, but his cocktail-geek like presentation warmed my heart – us geeks must stick together.
Nishan was fourth to perform, and had the most complex of all the presentations. As he built his cocktails, his two assistants from Blowfish carefully put together the molecular components of Nishan’s cocktails on the judge’s plates. It was while Nishan was doing a Ketel One pour-out of the final ounce in the first bottle of vodka, that he perked up with a horrified look on his face, “THIS ISN’T VODKA. IT’S WATER!” Each of us (except David as he brought his own bottle from Vancouver) looked on in dismay as we realized the instant misinterpretation of our cocktails. The sad part, is that we never had a chance to remake them – we should have. Wes, Nishan and I just stared at each other without expression. Another 45 minutes goes by, as Nishan remakes his cocktails… the crowd is rowdy and losing interest at this point… the animated comments are emerging from the judges table… Nishan’s cocktail was a vibrant green colour, with a salt rim, cucumber, yuzu juice and homemade yuzu bitters.
As Fabien heads to the stage, we couldn’t help try and decipher this water bottle vodka mishap. How’d this happen? A couple of scenarios: it was the dummy bottle from the photoshoot and interviews earlier; it was Fabien’s practice bottle for his “flare” component. Either way, that sucked. Fabien was launching the Ketel One bottle from side to side, behind him, in front, got some vodka on the screen – it was pretty awesome… the crowd was dying for the cheeky entertainment. His cocktail was a savoury approach to Ketel One, with tomato water, Pernod, and fresh herbs.
Lastly, Rob hits the podium. Rob is lovable for a couple of reasons: he made me a brown butter bourbon old fashioned which was insanely delicious, and he tells it like it is – honesty all the way. Get a bit of juice in him, and he’ll tell you anything… His cocktail, boldly called the Voltron was spirit forward with some Green Chartreuse lovin’; additions of citrus and bitters to balance.
The deliberation afterwards took an awfully long time. One can only assume someone got hit by a truck in the back alley, or they all went for Dim Sum… but neither were true.
After a lengthy speech by Kevin Brauch, it was announced that David came first, Lauren in second, Nishan and Fabien tied for third. Vancouver takes top positions, and David’s heading to Amsterdam! No one was more deserving of the win than he. Congratulations to everyone, but most importantly congratulations to Vancouver, our community of skilled bartenders and our teaching, promotion, and general steering of contemporary cocktail culture in Canada. Bravo!