At this point in what some people call the “New Golden Age of The Cocktail” there are few people that make splashes by doing things truly out of the ordinary. With dozens of YouTube channels, magazines, and (clears throat) websites letting you know about cocktail creation, new products and bartending in general, sometimes finding something outstanding can be difficult. About a year ago Chris Lowder, accomplished bar consultant and all around nice guy made his training manuals public. Anyone, anywhere could download, read and learn from his teachings for free, without ever setting foot in the same room as him. This stood out as something outstanding and so we asked Chris a handful of questions about his career, his life and why he decided to give away all this knowledge.
Bartender Atlas: When, where and what style of bartending were you doing when you first started out?
Chris Lowder: I first started bartending while living in Philadelphia working as a Chinese-English translator. I had four years of experience working as a cook while studying in high school and university, and was unhappy with my translation desk job. I wanted to get back into hospitality and thought that the bar sounded like a fun way to do that, so I started taking weekend classes at a bartending school… “Bartending School”, by the way, was a complete disaster – we spent our days learning how to free pour colored water (the orange one is pineapple juice… or you can pretend it’s tonic water!) and stack shot glasses in interesting ways.
While it was a waste of time and money, I do have to say that Bartender School got my confidence up to start applying to bar jobs, and I’m grateful for that. More than anything, I really wanted to work at Momofuku – I loved Dave Chang’s story about moving to Japan to learn soba and ramen, and related to that journey. After searching around, I discovered that the Momofuku HR policy dictated that managers have to post all internal job positions online on Craig’slist, whether it was for busser, dishwasher, host, whatever. I’m not afraid of hard work and starting from the bottom, just as long as I get to work amongst the best. I applied to literally every single job posting that Momofuku put online, every single day, for every single restaurant until the HR managers just got sick of seeing my name in their inbox. Eventually, they gave up and called me. As luck would have it, Booker and Dax was in the process of opening and Dave Arnold needed a barback who could also be responsible for all of his scientific methods and complex ingredient prep. I drove up to New York for the day, got the job, and moved to New York that weekend.
BA: What important steps did you take to get from there to working in East Asia?
CL: I had originally moved to Japan and China when I was 19, and studied abroad there for about three years or so. My major in university was East Asian Studies, and I studied to become a professional Chinese-English translator. The studies worked out, and I had the time of my life living in China’s booming international cities, meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds. After moving to New York and transitioning into bartending, I spent a few years bartending at Amor y Amargo, and then the NoMad Hotel as bartender and later as bar manager. My time at NoMad was a very exciting and educational period in my career; I had never expected that I would be able to manage a team through awards at James Beard, Tales of the Cocktail, 50 Best… It was truly an amazing experience. All the while, though, I had this growing sense that there was this enormous world out there in Asia that could really benefit from my experiences and education, and that it would be deeply meaningful to use my foreign language skills to share everything I had learned in New York with the markets out East.
I reached out to a guy named Jason Williams whom I had met over Facebook, and was (and still is!) working as Creative Director for a group called Proof & Company in Asia. I didn’t know much about Proof, but I did know that they were behind some amazing bars in Asia like Manhattan Bar and 28 Hong Kong Street, and that they stood for quality and credibility. I talked to Jason about a few roles that may be a good fit, and we landed on the soon-to-open Four Seasons, Seoul. Four Seasons was looking for a Head Bartender/Bar Manager who would be able to run their flagship cocktail bar Charles H. while also managing the hotel’s other 11 beverage programs. I passed through my interviews, took the job, and moved to Korea. That year, our bar Charles H. was awarded 24th best bar in Asia, 52nd best in the World, and was also a Tales of the Cocktail finalist for World’s Best Bar Menu and Best New International Cocktail Bar. I’m very proud of the team at Four Seasons Seoul for those accomplishments, and so happy that we could shine a light on the Korean bar scene.
BA: At what point in this journey did you meet Micaela, your partner?
CL: I met Micaela at a brand dinner in New York – I was managing NoMad hotel, and she was running the bar at a place in TriBeCa called Distilled. One thing we both initially connected over was that we had both lived in China (she had just spent a summer bartending in Shanghai) and we were both thinking about moving back to Asia. We were in love and inseparable immediately. When I got the offer to move to Korea, it was a no-brainer; We went to City Hall 48 hours later, got married, and applied for her Korean visa.
BA: So Romantic! Can you describe the role that you have with Proof & Co./Sarment?
CL: My job at Proof & Company is a role called a “Spirits Evangelist.” This is our term at Proof & Company for the team of creatives who work together in the mission of “raising the standard of drinking in our markets.” Working together with a team of creatives under this broad mission statement gives us a lot of flexibility in our work, and basically means that my job is to use everything I know about running great bars, making great cocktails, training restaurant staff, designing solid menus, and navigating Asia in order to help people make and enjoy fine beverages. Some days that means traveling to remote Chinese cities to do a bar industry education on different rum styles and classic South American cocktails. Some days that means going to the Four Seasons hotel and doing an internal workshop on hotel bar management best practices. And some days that means spending time in the office with the team, tasting spirits and planning the cocktail menu and events calendar for a new cocktail bar that we’re working on. The work is challenging and infinitely diverse, and I think that the mission is truly beautiful.
BA: What is the concept, in training staff, that the most people have the hardest time adopting or understanding? Do you see a variance in this from country to country?
CL: No matter what skill you are trying to learn in what industry, the hardest part is always the same. Worthwhile skills are difficult and take time to master. In any craft or sport, there is a whole lot of unsexy hard work that goes into truly becoming great at something. When people first start bartending, many want to cut the heavy lifting and go straight for the fun stuff – What’s going to be my signature drink? How can I do some cool flair? How can I make my own infusions? How can I make smoked cocktails or do fat-washing or use liquid nitrogen? These eye-catching gimmicks may feel nice in the visually-driven world of Instagram and brand competitions, but they are ultimately a distraction from the day-in, day-out work of getting to know your guests, training your palate, maintaining the systems in your bar, learning about the products that you sell, and learning the theory behind classic cocktails. Bartending is hard work, and it takes a lot of time and discipline to stay focused on becoming the best bartender that you can be, and working with your team to give solid service, drinks, and hospitality day in and day out.
BA: What led to your decision to make your training manuals public a few years ago? A lot of people in your position would have held out for a publishing deal or put together a YouTube channel or something.
CL: When you go to enough bars, hotels and restaurants and train enough bar teams in enough countries, you begin to realize how all bars around the world are struggling with the same core central issues: Bar service is chaotic. Everyone has a million things to do. Bartenders don’t usually have a structured training program and are left to self-educate. Managers also aren’t usually formally trained in management and leadership, and most are left to “figure it out” and hope that the bar makes good money with as few problems as possible. The road ahead is confusing at best, leading bartenders and bar managers to often feel like they’re just treading water – going from service to service without really feeling like they’re making significant progress in improving as a professional. You hear a lot of people quitting their bar jobs after a year or so, moving from bar to bar to find new challenges. This leads to a real issue in the industry with professional turnover and employee longevity, and it all comes from this lack of guidance on how to self-study and professionally develop.
When I go and teach teams around the world, everybody wants to learn the sexy thing. The shiny thing. The liquid nitrogen, the fat-washing, the crazy garnishes, the fancy shaking technique. But the second I step behind their bars, I realize that what these teams really need is an education of the basics: basic product knowledge, basic syrups preparation, hygiene education, par list and mise en place management, hospitality 101. The problem is that none of that critical core content is sexy. None of it is “Instagrammable” or “YouTube-worthy.” There’s lots of books about “101 Jamaican Rum Cocktails” and lots of Instagram channels about sexy flair techniques, but virtually nothing written to help people get from zero to one. Nothing to help guide people through the intimidating-yet-necessary world of figuring out where and how to get started.
This is why I ultimately decided to freely release three manuals into the community – one to teach core drinks recipes to bartenders, one to teach basic syrup and infusion techniques, and one to serve as a template for a bar service manual for a manager or a head bartender to reference when building out their bar’s culture and programming. I believe in free education, and I believe that anyone who wants to improve should have access to this kind of information to give them a fair starting block to build from in this industry.
Since launching these manuals, I have spent a tremendous amount of time with the Proof & Co. team to develop JERRY – a new industry gold standard for a holistic, mobile-first, bottom-up platform to teach bar and restaurant industry about beverage, hospitality, management, and ethics. JERRY has just launched internationally a few months ago and is being adopted by heaps of major cocktail bar groups and top-tier hotels as their team platform for staff training. I’m very proud of that.
BA: In all your experience training, is there a drink that literally anyone can perfect? Does a perfect drink exist?
CL: Food and beverage are artforms, and all art is subjective. “Perfection” is all about time, place, and audience. It’s a moment in time. My brother made me a Martini once when I was visiting his family in the States, after a long day of hanging out with his two-year-old son. He’s a librarian and knows nothing about cocktails, but I got him a kit for Christmas and he’s a good man who keeps his vermouth refrigerated. In that moment, sitting on the couch with family, that Martini was perfect. Not one day of training required.
BA: Where is “home” to you?
CL: Planet Earth, in whatever place my wife and I can be together most often. That can be a tricky proposition, as I spend my time traveling through regional China teaching bartenders, and Micaela manages 1/3 of the world’s population for Maison Ferrand. But I have realized that enjoying life and finding daily growth and pleasure is a deeply personal exercise, and so there’s not a lot that I need around me to externalize happiness. I am grateful to teach people and contribute to the community, and I can do that mostly anywhere. As long as the food is good, caffeine is not too far away, and my wife and I can sneak off somewhere for some 1:1 time, that’s pretty much all I need to feel like I’m at home.
Thanks Chris for taking the time to chat with us!