Steve Leong has spent nearly a decade behind the bar honing his craft and it all paid off at the Southeast Asia (SEA) Diageo World Class Finals earlier this month. The annual bartending competition is marked by a series of challenges designed for an all-rounded assessment of skills; it's not just about how the cocktail tastes — a bartender's speed, conversational skills, and of course knowledge, are key as well.
This year's shake-off held in Bangkok saw 28 bartenders from six countries in the region going head to head for the title and opportunity to advance to the global leg of the competition. Leong proved his chops to the panel of judges (mixology experts Marian Beke of Nightjar and Jeff Bell of PDT, to name but a few) and clinched the award alongside Shawn Chong of Malaysia in a draw. He will be representing our sunny isle in the global stages of the competition from here on, which takes place late August in Johannesburg, South Africa. We speak to Leong about the competition, the challenges he faced, and his initial foray into the craft.
Tell us a little bit about how you got into bartending.
I started out working as a server, but the bartenders in their element behind the bar caught my attention right from the get-go. Over time, my interest grew and I went online and read anything and everything I could find on the craft. My former manager recognised that and gave me the opportunity to try my hand at it.
If I had to describe myself in three words, I would say that I am... enthusiastic, driven, and consistent.
Take us through your journey with the World Class competition.
There really is an unimaginable amount of preparation that goes into those short 10-minute cocktail presentations that take place in front of the panel. There were hiccups along the way, but the silver lining was the strengthening of friendships within the bartending community in Southeast Asia. To be lucky enough to have peers who did their best to help me is in itself an experience I hold dear.
My main takeaway from the competition is... that I've learnt how to work and thrive under extreme pressure.
What was the greatest challenge you encountered during the competition?
The Cocktails Against the Clock challenge (the speed round) was tough. I was not familiar with the portable bar set-up used for that segment and I didn't know how big the bar station was going to be. It was really difficult to prep for it under those circumstances. Having to be quick and precise in an unknown environment is really tough, but that goes without saying of course.
What is your take on the importance of the presentation of a drink, especially in Asia where the bells and whistles have a great appeal?
It is very important and it's also the first impression you'll make on the judges (or guests). However, the taste of a drink and the balance of it cannot be compromised, too. I could never pick one over the other; they are a package deal, and neither should be overlooked. I — and probably everyone else — would not want a drink that looks good but is not well balanced.
Tell us about your favourite spirit to incorporate in your drinks.
That's a difficult question. Different spirits have varying flavour profiles naturally, and if I had to choose one, it'll have to be Ron Zacapa rum. It's sweet with vanilla and cocoa notes, and there isn't another spirit quite like it. It helps that its array of flavours suit my palate too.
My favourite drink to make is... a Tanqueray No.10 martini with La Quintinye extra dry vermouth.
How about your favourite bar?
I'm definitely loyal to Tess Bar & Kitchen on this one. In any case, I don't particularly have a favourite bar for any one specific reason. The company, people and atmostphere of the place are the most important factors for me.
In the next five years... I hope I'll be the owner of my own bar. It's also my dream to be great at what I do and recognised internationally as a bartender.
Keen to try your hand at one of Leong's winning recipes? We have it right here.
Going by the name of Tender 10, Leong's recipe is essentially a classic cocktail rejigged with a local twist and served in a chicken bowl, no less. The next time you're at Tess Bar & Kitchen for that weekday nightcap, try convincing Leong to whip one up for you.
Here's what you'll need
60ml Tanqueray No.10
30ml La Quintinye extra dry vermouth
22ml homemade chicken rice liqueur (ginger liqueur, garlic, sesame oil, pandan, chinese parsley)
Chinese parsley, to garnish
Chicken drumstick, to garnish
How to make it
Pour the Tanqueray No.10, La Quintinye extra dry vermouth, and homemade chicken rice liqueur into a mixing glass with ice. Stir well and pour over an ice cube in your serving glassware (a chicken bowl). Finish off by garnishing the drink with Chinese parsley and a chicken drumstick.