THE LIFE! INTERVIEW WITH PETER CHUA

Peter Chua says a chance encounter paved the way to him being named one of the world's top six bartenders

Chua playing with his band and sporting a mohawk two years ago (above) and with his cousin when he was 17 years old (left).
Chua playing with his band and sporting a mohawk two years ago (above) and with his cousin when he was 17 years old (left).PHOTOS: COURTESY OF PETER CHUA
A two- year-old Peter Chua (right) and when he was nine years old (far right).
A two- year-old Peter Chua (right) and when he was nine years old (far right).
Chua playing with his band and sporting a mohawk two years ago (above) and with his cousin when he was 17 years old (left).
Chua playing with his band and sporting a mohawk two years ago (above) and with his cousin when he was 17 years old (left).PHOTOS: COURTESY OF PETER CHUA
Chua playing with his band and sporting a mohawk two years ago (above) and with his cousin when he was 17 years old (left).
Chua playing with his band and sporting a mohawk two years ago (above) and with his cousin when he was 17 years old (left).PHOTOS: COURTESY OF PETER CHUA
Bartender Peter Chua with a cocktail he made at the Diageo Reserve World Class global finals called The Violet Watch, which uses ingredients such as lemon juice and homemade butterfly pea curacao syrup.
Bartender Peter Chua with a cocktail he made at the Diageo Reserve World Class global finals called The Violet Watch, which uses ingredients such as lemon juice and homemade butterfly pea curacao syrup.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Acclaimed barman Peter Chua aims to help raise Singapore's profile as a go-to spot for food and drinks

The day Peter Chua returned home after he did Singapore proud by being named one of the world's top six bartenders in London, his bosses had a job for him - deliveries.

Running around and carrying heavy boxes filled with bottles of booze may not be the welcome party one would expect for the biggest star in Singapore's bartending scene right now.

But the 26-year-old senior bartender at 28 Hong Kong Street does not mind.

A down-to-earth Chua, who came dressed casually in a grey short-sleeved shirt and pants for our interview at his bar, tells Life! he really has a chance encounter to thank for his success.

While he was a part-time bartender in 2011, he was asked to fill in for a friend to mix drinks at a house party. The host happened to be Michael Callahan, a seasoned bartender who is an expert in the art of making craft cocktails.

The American was testing his cocktails on his Singaporean friends ahead of plans to open a new bar, an American-styled speakeasy named 28 Hong Kong Street that eventually opened in September 2011 in Chinatown.

Chua was taught to make three drinks, including a version of the classic South Side cocktail using chartreuse, a flavoured liqueur aged with botanicals.

The gregarious barman recounts: "I didn't know anything at all. I didn't know how to shake, I didn't know what chartreuse was and I didn't know how to measure in ounces using a jigger, using different tools. That really piqued my curiosity... there was a lot more to learn."

A jigger is a double-sided cup used to measure and pour spirits when making drinks.

He must have done something right, though, because he was offered a job at Callahan's bar two weeks later.

Last month, Chua competed against 47 of the world's best barmen and emerged among the top six at the Diageo Reserve World Class global finals, held in Edinburgh and London. He is the first Singaporean and South-east Asian to have made it that far in the annual competition, which started in 2009 and is considered highly prestigious in the global bartending community.

American bartender Charles Joly of cocktail bar The Aviary in Chicago was named the overall winner. No rankings are given for the runners-up.

During the finals, Chua had to compete in nine challenges, which included creating cocktails inspired by writers and books, and creating a tray-service that tested the ability of the bartenders to whip up cocktails that had elements of sight, smell, touch and sound.

Since the competition, he says he has received numerous job offers (he will not say how many or how much money he has been offered), but he is content to stay put at 28 Hong Kong Street. He is still the affable, charismatic barman regulars know, with a knack for grabbing customers' attention and wowing them with his creative concoctions.

Callahan describes this as a "hospitality gene", which was what led him to take Chua under his wing. The founder of 28 Hong Kong Street, who is in his 30s , says of their first meeting: "Peter was natural with the guests... he had the genuine desire to make you smile and have a good time. He also had the humility to ask when he was unsure about a drink and the openness to accept criticism."

Callahan also appreciated the Singaporean's "problem-solving nature". He recalls: "These three qualities sold me on Peter right there."

Chua, however, never aimed to be a bartender. Instead, he harboured dreams of becoming a full-time musician like his 60-year-old father, also named Peter, who still sings and plays the guitar at private events and restaurants.

His mum, Emily, 51, is a primary school teacher. He has two younger siblings: Anne Marie, 22, an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, and 18-year-old Anthony, who is studying at Nanyang Polytechnic.

The bartender, who holds a diploma in multimedia and infocomm technology from Nanyang Polytechnic and a bachelor's degree in hospitality management from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, used to play the guitar and sing with a band at live music venues during his polytechnic days. National service put a stop to that and when he completed his stint, he found it hard to secure regular gigs.

So he turned to bartending to earn fast cash - between $6 and $10 an hour back then. He would not say how much he earns now, except that his bosses pay a "fair compensation". He still plays the guitar and writes songs but only as a hobby.

He landed his first bartending job five years ago at Le Noir bar in Clarke Quay, where a good friend was working as a bar supervisor.

"He taught me the basics of pouring, such as how to hold a bottle, how to use a jigger and the right way to pour. It was from there that I was able to build a proper foundation in craft bartending," he says.

After five months at Le Noir, he worked at several nightclubs and bars around town, including former nightspots Mink and Royal Room at Pan Pacific Singapore.

But his approach to mixing and pouring cocktails changed at 28 Hong Kong Street. Chua recalls the time Callahan created a drink called the Michelada, a savoury and carbonated tequila-based drink mixed with beer, hot sauce, black pepper and soya sauce.

"Just when you thought you knew it all, you realise you can also play with things such as beer and spirits and cooking ingredients such as pepper and hot sauce. The ideas just keep growing and there are no limits to making drinks."

He now experiments with drinks whenever he can, with the bar setting aside a budget each month for bartenders to whip up new cocktails or create bespoke drinks for customers. He draws ideas from everywhere - books, advertisements or what he sees on television.

"I see something unique and cool and I think about how to incorporate it into a drink. It sparks inspiration."

He says a dream about eating peach yogurt one time resulted in "an intense craving" and he ended up making a drink that tasted like what he imagined.

But he is quick to add: "Creativity doesn't get you all the way. Hard work still plays a big part."

That means countless hours studying spirits and techniques, creating syrups or liqueurs for drink ideas he has, and constant trial and error while making drinks and working with flavours.

He managed to show off some of the skills he picked up from Callahan and another mentor, fellow bartender Zdenek Kastanek, at the Diageo global finals.

Chua, who ranked among the top five for a few of the nine bartending challenges he had to compete in, created innovative drinks inspired by Singaporean culture. They included Four Corners Colonial Sour, a cocktail inspired by

"uncles sitting around at the void deck drinking Tiger beer and eating peanuts".

The golden-hued concoction resembled a mug of Tiger beer and was made with Johnnie Walker Blue Label Scotch whisky, apricot liqueur, lemon juice, manuka honey syrup and Allspice dram liqueur, topped with a Tiger beer chilli foam using egg white. It was served on a tray with peanuts on the side.

He recounts: "I took a picture of my dad eating peanuts and drinking Tiger beer in a Chinese restaurant on his 60th birthday and told the judges, 'This is the norm. Go ahead and eat the peanuts and feel free to throw the shells on the floor'.

"They found it funny because the judges have been to Singapore and found it familiar."

Chua believes his performance at the global competition has raised awareness of the drinking scene here and in South-east Asia. "Most of the better bartenders have been from the Americas or Europe, and Asia finally had some prominent exposure... It brought awareness of what we are doing in this corner of the world."

More importantly, the competition affirmed his career choice. He says: "I've been privileged to work in a place where they have shaped me and created a proper career path for me. That's why I decided to join the Diageo competition."

His job as a bartender has also taught him self-discipline and to manage his temperament, says Chua, who professes to having "a low tolerance for ignorance and rude manners".

"To me, it's a mutual thing. If you want someone to be nice to you, you have to be nice to him first. But if you want to be rude, it makes it hard for the other person. But I learn to control myself and not take it to heart."

He has had his fair share of rude customers, some blatantly rude and physically abusive, and dealing with outrageous requests such as those who "want to drink fire".

Asked if he ever gets hit on by female patrons, Chua says it hardly happens, although he says his girlfriend Emillynn Uy, 23, who also works at 28 Hong Kong Street as a door hostess, would beg to differ. He says: "She will tell me to be wary of certain female guests she sees attempting to do so. My favourite weapon is telling them how awesome my girlfriend is and that she is standing right there."

His parents have been very supportive, although he jokes that his mother "used to think I was an alcoholic".

"Contrary to popular belief, as much as drinking is very much a part of my life, the last thing I want to do is go out and party after work. Maybe a cold beer, that's it," he says.

While Mrs Chua admits that a career as a bartender was not what she would have preferred because of the late nights and socialising required, she now approves of her son's decision to bartend full-time. He has shown himself to be hardworking and focused, traits he has displayed since he was a child, she says.

"There was once he imagined himself to be the cartoon character He-Man and raised a sword in the air while shouting, 'I've got power'. His pants dropped in that instance. It drew lots of laughter from us but he ignored us," she recounts. "The fact that he was in his underwear and still continued to perform showed how focused he was in accomplishing what he had set out to do."

She adds with pride: "Peter does what is best for himself and others and has created an impact and will make a difference to the local bartending scene."

His girlfriend describes him as someone who "comes off as very macho but is very soft inside". But she adds: "He knows what he wants and he's very driven and works hard."

Chua is resolved to "gain more credibility" as a bartender and his long-term goal is to help raise Singapore's profile as a go-to destination for food and tipple.

"I want to be able to say that Singapore has reached a point where everyone comes here not just to shop, but also to drink and eat; and to say that I played a part in that movement."

He also dreams of opening his own bar someday. "I think every bartender has a dream to open his own bar, to impart his own vibe and personality to a place. How a bar is made is not based only on the decor and the service staff, but also the owner's personality," he says.

His mentor Callahan says: "It has been a pleasure to watch him unveil more and more talent as he matures in the role of an international barman.

"I look forward to the day I can visit him in his own bar... we at 28 Hong Kong Street will miss him dearly when that day comes."

melk@sph.com.sg