December. Whether you intentionally seek it or not, the end of the year is always a reflective time. What is often an occasion to get together might be a time of solitude for others…especially for those who are away from home. If you find yourself playing Love Actually or Bridget Jones’ Diary on repeat mode, I encourage you, instead, to find a local establishment and sit at the bar.
If available, I always choose to sit at the bar whenever I travel someplace new or just craved a wildcard of a night. Sitting at the bar enables two intimate interactions: one with self and one with strangers. And the bonus is, there is (usually) a seat at the bar.
I will admit, it is an uncomfortable thing to do. Yes, there is the initial awkwardness of sitting in your own thoughts or even asking to sit by yourself in a social setting. But think, how many times do you have such moments to yourself? Enjoy the pleasing contentment in appreciating your drink while being one with the place. With the bartender or strangers sitting at the bar, there is oftentimes a curiosity that feeds off each other. Whatever you choose to do with that interaction is up to you. And if you do, you might just uncover the magic of sitting at the bar.
The following are five personal stories about my experience at the bar. You will find that I haven’t named the establishment that I was sitting in. That is intentional, as part of the magic is finding your own path in the most unintentional way. Each story comes with a dish / drink created as a result of those experiences – As a chef, my inspirations have always been driven by interactions with people. Enjoy the holidays and eat well!
Shimokitazawa, Tokyo Japan (2017)
A glimpse into the future. A small gastrobar in Shimokitazawa Tokyo frequented by neighbourhood locals. Something about the place made me feel at home. Perhaps it was the owners welcoming me like a local, or the slow pace of bar / dinner service. A small menu. A level of trust from customers – so as to give complete freedom to the owners to decide what they should eat. There was no rush, allowing for easy conversation – and an eventual invite to their New Years Eve party. I take up the offer. New Year’s Eve. I learn how to make Takoyaki balls as their DJ friend spins records next to me. We eat Toshikoshi soba, a Japanese dish and tradition to reflect upon the past year and cross over to the new year. We drink, we celebrate, we make new traditions as though we’ve been friends all along. Would I see them again? Perhaps, and perhaps not. But such encounters make an impact no matter big or small: An inspiration for my future restaurant and bar – small, local, quality rotating menu and most of all a place for community.
The local inspiration in Shimokitazawa Tokyo.
Shrimp ochazuke, dill and okra.
Scallop ravioli, chicken broth infused with lapsang souchang tea, curry leaf
Small is indeed beautiful. The bathroom speaks.
Williamsburg, New York City (2022)
For chefs. It was after my shift when the inviting glow of the bar beckoned to me. As I sipped on a revitalising orange wine to the ethereal music in the background, four strangers sat at the U shaped bar next to me. After some telling eye contact, a conversation amongst us begun. I didn’t immediately introduce myself as one of the cooks from the kitchen but I listened intently to their praises of the unusual but wildly delicious food we make. Delivering at quality and speed can be physically and mentally brutal. And after my long day, sitting as a stranger with other strangers at the bar was freeing. I gaze at the permanent poster on the wall: “Note to self. Be kind, be kind, be kind.”
Fried skate with a persimmon, shaved fennel and chilli salad
Street 328, Phnom Penh Cambodia (2014)
She joked about her death. Terminal cancer she said, the chemotherapy hadn’t worked. What was she doing in Phnom Penh, >8,000 miles away from home? Fulfilling her final wishes, she said – to celebrate life with old friends, visit the orphanage she used to work with. She sips on her passion fruit martini, caring less about the antibiotics in her system. More jokes about her death. “Muay said I shouldn’t die here, it would create more work for her”.
Sourdough bombollini filled with mango and passion fruit custard cream.
A cocktail of passion fruit and pineapple mezcal.
Emily Hill, Singapore (2019)
How to make a good negroni. A world class bartender decides to come home to create a space for art and culture to thrive, centred around his philosophy of “bartistry”. Just like a negroni, such endeavours are incredibly nuanced. A negroni’s success is one part ingredients, one part ice and the last part is down to you. Yes you, whoever is drinking it. For if you drink it too quickly, the ice and ingredients will not have time to blend. You might not taste the combined brilliance of bitter and sweet on your palate. And if you neglect your negroni, the melted ice will dilute the rest of the ingredients. That negroni was a meditative form of art, just like the bartender coming home to create this space and craft.
The sun sets at Emily hill in 2019
Add 70% of intended ice into a short glass. Pour in equal parts of campari, gin and martini rosso. Stir 2-3 times gently. Add remaining 30% of ice and stir once. Peel the zest of an orange and twist it on top of the drink to release its essence. Sip, at pace.
The classic negroni – my favourite bar drink of all time
Hanoi, Vietnam (2019)
The pleasure of enjoying your own company. Because the magic of sitting at the bar doesn’t necessarily mean you have to socialise. More often than not, it is to celebrate the joys of having that experience to yourself. To be able to order what your heart desires. To eat and drink at your own pace. That time is yours.
Back when I was a management consultant, I sometimes found solace in the fantasy that my work was akin to CIA agents. There is a brief. You cancel your social plans and pack your bags lightly. You fly into said client location. The work ensues, your client’s staff looks at you weird, wondering why you are there. What are we fixing this time? And so, just like that, I was in Hanoi for a complex project. After two long days of healthcare strategy in a poorly lit room (interrogation?), I needed time to myself. Correction, I wanted to treat* myself. I walked into a casual French restaurant and sat at the only available spot in the crowded room. I sipped on my red wine and absorbed the surrounding energy. The pigeon arrives, medium rare with a demi glace – the first bite sends me into transcendental contemplation. I hadn’t liked pigeon before. But here, in Hanoi, that was changing. What a delightful and triumphant moment! I take my time to devour the plate of food before ordering profiteroles. Drenched in a dark chocolate sauce with flaky almonds on top, the profiteroles ignited a thought. I would take some time off in 2020 to cook and travel. To France to learn French cooking from friends’ grandparents. To Sri Lanka to take the 13 hour train again. And to Vietnam, because I fell in love with Hanoi.
*Note: I paid this meal out of my own pocket and not the client’s.
My version of porc aux pruneaux (Pork with prunes) during the 2020 lockdown in Singapore. I did not make it to France due to COVID-19.