Shaking up the scene

Shaking up the scene
(From far left) Cut bartender Jan Jurecka, The Library Bar manager Adam "Eddy" Bursik, Sky on 57 and Flight Bar & Lounge general manager Ivo Stecha, Club Street Social general manager Tomas Gejdos, 28 Hong Kong Street bartender and Proof & Company general manager Zdenek Kastanek, Bread Street Kitchen bar manager William Pravda, Regent Singapore hotel manager Martin Dell, Manhattan Bar manager Tomas Stoila, and Spa Esprit Group head barman Kamil Foltan.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

A Central European invasion is taking place in Singapore's bar and restaurant scene, with Czechs and Slovaks winning awards, inventing new drinks and importing exotic new spirits here.

Cocktail bars Tippling Club and 28 Hong Kong Street have Czechs behind the bar, while Slovaks are working at Wolfgang Puck's Cut and the newly opened Spago at Marina Bay Sands, as well as The Library Bar in Keong Saik Road.

Manhattan Bar at Regent Singapore is managed by Mr Tomas Stoila, 29, a Slovak, and the hotel's manager Martin Dell, 39, is Czech.

Newly revamped Club Street Social restaurant and bar in Gemmill Lane is managed by Slovak Tomas Gejdos, 32, who also oversees the bar's cocktail and wine menu.

Czech Ivo Stecha, 38, is general manager of Sky on 57 and its newly opened Flight Bar & Lounge at Marina Bay Sands.

So why are bartenders and bar managers moving from Europe to this tiny Asian city on the equator?

A lot of it has to do with trailblazer Zdenek Kastanek, 30. In 2013, he was recruited by liquor distributor and bar consultancy Proof & Company as a bartender at 28 Hong Kong Street. At Proof, he rose from "spirit evangelist", which means mixologist and consultant, to general manager.

If his compatriots here sometimes jokingly refer to themselves as the Czech-Slovak mafia, he is no doubt their godfather. Having developed a local following for his creative drinks and showmanship, he has also been named fourth best International Bartender of the Year for four consecutive years at the renowned Spirited Awards held annually in New Orleans. There, 28 Hong Kong Street was named International Cocktail Bar Of The Year last year.

Several newcomers have credited him as an inspiration, including Slovak Jan Jurecka, 26, who moved to Singapore from Sydney seven months ago and is now a bartender at Cut. He says he fell in love with the city on his travels, "mainly thanks to other Czech and Slovak brothers who were already here and showed me around".

The growing cocktail scene is another draw. When Mr Kastanek moved here two years ago, there were only a handful of cocktail bars. Now there are 30, he says, and many are of an international calibre.

Calling Singapore's cocktail scene "one of the most talked about in the world", he says drinkers here are more open to trying new things. He adds: "There is a lot of room for bartenders to take risks and establish new movements than in more mature markets like Sydney, New York and London."

The Czechs and Slovaks have strong drinking cultures - social gatherings are abundant with good food and drinks - and are enthusiastic about their countries and products. So it is no wonder that Czech spirits and drinks are making their way here too.

A rarity five years ago, Czech beer Pilsner Urquell came to the Singapore market last year and is found in more than 40 bars and restaurants in bottles and on draught.

Through Proof, Mr Kastanek has helped import Becherovka, a Czech herbal liquor known for its multi-hued flavour profile and versatility in cocktails.

It used to be rare here, but is found in more than 25 cocktail menus around town now.

Though not as well known, the Czech Republic and Slovakia also produce some reputable red, white and sparkling wines, and Mr Gejdos' wine menu at Club Street Social may be the only restaurant in Singapore to carry them.

"Our good wines, such as red wines from Moravia (a region in the Czech Republic), are priced the same as French, Italian and Spanish wines, but if people don't know them, they don't order them, which I hope we can change," he says.

The hospitality industry has deep roots in both countries. Towards the end of the 19th century, the countries - then part of the AustroHungarian Empire - were flourishing with industry and trade routes. Prague was a European centre of art and architecture.

Classic whiteglove service thrived in restaurants around the city and tourists from all over Europe visited Czech spa towns such as Karlovy Vary (formerly known as Carlsbad).

Mr Jan Janda, deputy head of mission and economic affairs at the Czech embassy in Jakarta, says tourism remained strong in Czechoslovakia, which did not suffer much damage during World War II. During the communist regime which followed, jobs in restaurants and hotels were prestigious and one of the few ways that the average Czechoslovakian could interact with foreigners.

When Czechoslovakia split in the early 1990s, those with jobs in hospitality - many of whom already spoke at least a little English - were some of the first to leave home and look for opportunities in places such as Britain.

Because bartending emphasises personal skills and does not require huge financial commitments, it attracts young men "who are free and courageous to leave the country and try their luck overseas", says Mr Janda.

To this day, he adds, jobs in hospitality, whether as a waiter, a barman or hotel manager, are respected back home. Many Czech and Slovak bartenders in Singapore today had family in the industry and attended vocational high schools which focused on hospitality, where they learnt the ins and outs of how to work in restaurants, kitchens, bars and hotels.

Ms Vivian Pei, 46, assistant director of culinary education of Coriander Leaf group and frequent customer of 28 Hong Kong Street, says the formal training is evident in the way they work.

"I think they combine a more European style of fine service with an American sort of friendliness," she says.

Ms Pei knows many of the Czech-Slovak contingent by name.

"They are very down to earth, approachable, and have a great feeling of fraternity. They encourage one another and help one another out which, in turn, helps the larger bar community."

Mr Stecha, who spent his career working in Four Seasons hotels before moving to Singapore 51/2 years ago to join Marina Bay Sands, says this is all part of Czech and Slovak culture.

"In Czech, we have a saying, 'host do domu, Buh do domu', which literally translates to 'guest in the house, God in the house'."

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