From a waiter to one of South-East Asia's best bartenders, Shawn Chong's career has been an eventful one, and proof that there is more to bartending as a career than most people realise.
At the recent Diageo Reserve World Class regional competition in Bangkok, Chong tied with Singapore's Steve Leong for the title of South-East Asia's Bartender of the Year, and will be representing Malaysia in the Global Finals will be held in Cape Town, South Africa in September.
Launched in 2009, the Diageo Reserve World Class is a global training programme and platform aimed at developing new talents in bartending and drinks. Over 15,000 bartenders have gone through the programme, run by global beverage conglomerate Diageo, which also includes an annual Bartender Of The Year competition.
The South-East Asian regional finals involved 28 participants from six countries. The other bartenders who represented Malaysia in Bangkok along with Chong were M. Hanafi of Prego, Osmund Illah of Hubba Hubba, and Insan Sharily of Tate, The Intermark.
A week after his big win, we visited Chong at his bar, Omakase + Appreciate, where he whipped up two of the cocktails he made during the competition in Bangkok. Watching the fluid way he mixed and shook the cocktails, it was hard to believe that a mere six years ago, Chong was still figuring out his career path.
"If I hadn't become a bartender, I would probably have been working my way up to become a general manager in some hotel somewhere," he mused during this interview.
The World Class programme has played a huge part in pushing Chong (full name Chong Yi Shawn) into becoming a bartender. When the competition was first introduced in Malaysia back in 2009, Chong was a waiter in Hilton KL's Senses restaurant. "Somehow, I won the internal competition that was held to choose the participant from Hilton. And somehow, I won the actual competition as well!" he said with a wry smile.
Back then, the World Class was just a simple competition - one drink, one contest. Now, it has grown into a six month-long programme, with three training sessions and three competitions involving Diageo Reserve brands such as Haig Club, Tanqueray Ten and Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve. And that's just the Malaysian leg.
It was only after his win in 2009 that the Petaling Jaya-born 28-year-old started considering bartending as a proper career. "It was always a hobby for me, making drinks. But I never knew then that it could become a proper career!" he said. "I'd always wanted to be involved in the food and beverage industry, but not specifically as a bartender. So you could say that Diageo World Class actually gave me my life's calling."
He was still a rookie bartender when he was transferred to the hotel's bar (called Vintage Bank at the time), and had to learn the ropes. "The year 2010 was a tough year for me because I had to learn how to work behind a bar, and learn new skills," he said, adding that he also entered the World Class competition that year, but didn't do well.
Chong left Hilton at the end of 2010 for a manager's position at restaurant/bar Hoofed, though he wasn't exactly a bartender there either. That year, he joined World Class again, and won for the second time, representing Malaysia in the Global Finals in New Delhi.
"I'd quit Hoofed to go to India, so when I came back, I had no job, no money, and no avenue to improve my skills on a daily basis," he said.
He then took a job teaching Beverage Studies, and continued to freelance as a bartender at events, but the urge to mix drinks grew too strong. He started talking to fellow bartender Karl Too about starting their own cocktail bar, and by 2013, the two maverick bartenders opened Omakase + Appreciate.
"That itch to mix drinks was so great that I just HAD to open this bar. Otherwise, how could I become a better bartender?" he said.
The two years since Omakase opened are when he truly began considering himself a bartender.
"This is where I started building my foundations, learning the classics and how to twist them, and practising my skills and techniques, which I did not get to do at my previous jobs," he said.
Mostly though, he relished the chance to finally getting down to the core of the business: mixing drinks.
"It was not easy - we had to set it up on our own, and learn how to run our own bar. But there was no one controlling us, and we had the freedom to mix whatever we wanted. Whether it's an Old-Fashioned or a simple whisky sour, every single drink I make is a chance to practise and to improve myself," he said.
After two years of having his own bar, Chong decided to give the World Class Competition another shot, partly to see where his level was at the moment.
Obviously, he was much better prepared this time around. "My better understanding of classic cocktails actually helped me develop better recipes, as compared with 2011 when I was just coming up with ideas and trying to piece them together. Now, it's a lot easier for me to come up with something new, or to add a twist to a classic cocktail to turn it into a competition-style cocktail," he said.
He has also learnt how to multi-task, how to talk to customers while mixing, how to be more efficient, and how to work fast. In Bangkok, one of the challenges he won was the Speed Challenge, in which contestants had to make eight different drinks in eight minutes. Chong was so good at it that he made one extra drink, for good measure!
Now that Chong has cemented his position as one of Malaysia's best bartenders (he'll be gunning for a top six finish at the Global Finals in Cape Town next month), he hopes that the cocktail culture in Malaysia will continue to grow as well, and that more people will see bartending as a viable career.
"Cocktail culture in Malaysia is starting to improve. People are realising that there is a market for cocktails like the Old-Fashioned, Manhattan, or Martini," he said, adding that his own favourites would be the gin and tonic, or Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky with water.
For Chong, there are just no shortcuts to success in this industry. "First of all, you need to have the interest. Then, you need to pay your dues, you need to spend time honing your skills and building your foundations. If you're looking for promotions or to move up the ladder, you're not going to get that," he shrugged. "We're bartenders. We mix drinks."
Made for the "occasion challenge", where bartenders had to interpret an occasion or a holiday into a cocktail. Chong's drink was inspired by United States' Independence Day. He has tried to recreate the flavours of a beer in a cocktail using Johnie Walker Gold Label, Umeshu plum brandy, lemon juice, Caol Ila single malt whisky, egg white (to recreate the beer's head of foam), and a beer reduction made using Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale.
The drink tastes exactly like a craft beer would, with the slight hoppiness from the beer reduction, the sweet plum notes of the umeshu, the honeyed whisky notes of the Gold Label, and the smokiness of the Caol Ila coming together as one, but remain distinct enough to stand out on their own.
Made for the "Five Star Classics challenge" this was Chong's twist on classic cocktails Tom Collins and The Last Word. It is made using Tanqueray Ten, Ketel One, maraschino syrup, lime juice, Chartreuse (a French herbal liqueur), and topped up with sour plum soda. The result: a refreshing tipple that really brings out the citrus notes of the gin, while the sour plum gives an otherwise very Western drink a distinct Asian twist.