Shaking up the scene

(From far left) Cut bartender Jan Jurecka, The Library Bar manager Adam "Eddy" Bursík, 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 g
(From far left) Cut bartender Jan Jurecka, The Library Bar manager Adam "Eddy" Bursík, 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.PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI AND DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Czechs and Slovaks helming bars and restaurants here are creating new drinks and introducing exotic new spirits

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'."

Zdenek Kastanek, 30, Czech

General manager and "spirit evangelist" at Proof & Company and bartender at 28 Hong Kong Street

More commonly referred to as "Zee", this bartender, who has worked in Prague, Australia and London, has been turning heads with his cocktail creations, convivial manner and drive.

Since 2012, he has been named fourth best International Bartender of the Year at the industry's Spirited Awards, held at the Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, the same festival where 28 Hong Kong Street won International Cocktail Bar Of The Year last year.

He credits his success to his parents. His father worked in hospitality for 25 years, running hotels in Moravia, Czech Republic, and Germany. When he was not trailing his father around the hotels and bars he managed, he was in the kitchen with his mother, a teacher, watching her cook.

By age 10, he decided he wanted to open a hotel of his own, so at 15, his parents allowed him to go to boarding school in Brno to study classic, French-style hospitality. There, he learnt everything from working in the kitchen and as a waiter to being a front-end staff member. When he finished the four-year diploma, he went straight to Prague, where he found a job in Postel, a respected cocktail bar.

A year later, he made his way to Sydney, where he started work at some of the best bars in the country, such as Hugo's Bar Pizza and The Lincoln. He worked two full-time jobs seven days a week and started entering international cocktail competitions.

He also managed the awardwinning member's club bar Quo Vadis in London before he was headhunted to Singapore by liquor distributor and bar consultancy Proof & Company. The company's commercial director, Mr Paul Gabie, said Mr Kastanek had already been on their radar for a few years before he was hired.

While Mr Kastanek plans on staying in Singapore with his American wife Melody, 32, a retail manager, for the next two or three years, he still looks forward to opening his own hotel in the future.

Favourite cocktail: Pisco Sour, made with Campo De Encanto pisco, fresh citrus juice, simple syrup and egg white

28 Hong Kong Street

Where: 28 Hong Kong Street

When: Monday to Wednesday, 5.30pm to 1am; Thursday, 5.30pm to 2am; Friday and Saturday, 5.30pm to 3am


Tomas Gejdos, 32, Slovak

General manager of Club Street Social

Originally from Povazska Bystrica, a small town near the Czech-Slovak border, this sommelier studied sports in high school, where he was training to be a soccer player.

Upon graduation, he ditched soccer for adventure, leaving for London and working his way up the food and beverage scene as a sommelier. He worked at some of the city's best restaurants, including The Grill at The Dorchester hotel and three-Michelin-starred The Fat Duck by Heston Blumenthal.

In 2011, he moved to Singapore to work as head waiter and sommelier at Restaurant Andre.

It was not until he joined modern Australian barbecue restaurant Burnt Ends as head bartender in 2013 that he started to experiment with cocktails.

"As a sommelier, I felt I had to be very adult with the customers, but with cocktails, I'm like a kid. I feel I can have fun in the way I interact with people and mix, play and taste the drinks," says Mr Gejdos, who is engaged to Singaporean air stewardess Masyita Johari, 27.

Still, his passion for wines has influenced his approach to mixology, which includes ageing cocktails in oak barrels to enhance their flavours.

There are 20 barrel-aged cocktails on the menu at Club Street Social, including Middle Earth. Its name is a joke to remind people that the Czech Republic and Slovakia are in central, not eastern, Europe, and the cocktail uses ingredients from the region, including Becherovka, a Czech herbal liquor; Slovak tokaj, a sweet wine; as well as orange and Slovak honey collected by his father, a beekeeper.

He has also been experimenting with creating refreshing, beerstrength cocktails combining Becherovka with kombucha, a fermented tea.

His wine menu features 150 wines, including unusual grape varieties as well as a few wines from the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Favourite cocktail: Beton, made with Becherovka and tonic

Club Street Social

Where: 5 Gemmill Lane

When: Monday to Saturday, noon to midnight


Kamil Foltan, 30, Czech

Head barman for Spa Esprit Group's bar-restaurants Tippling Club, Ding Dong, Open Door Policy and Open Farm Community

Mr Kamil Foltan's passion for travel and hospitality has taken him from his home in the Czech Republic to Greece, Spain, Britain and Singapore over the past 10 years.

He studied hospitality and tourism in high school. It was during this time that he became friends with 28 Hong Kong Street bartender Zdenek Kastanek. They met in a bar in Brno, the Czech Republic's second-biggest city, 15 years ago.

It was Mr Kastanek who later told him about an opportunity with the Lo & Behold Group at The Black Swan, which was then about to open in the Central Business District in 2013.

Of his move here, he says: "Singapore is the most cosmopolitan city in Asia and it has sun. After almost five years living in London, I was looking for a big change."

At the time, he was running a small, eccentric bar in the Zetter Townhouse hotel in London, with a drinks menu designed by legendary British mixologist Tony Conigliaro, who is known for incorporating the instruments and techniques of molecular gastronomy in his avantgarde cocktails.

Mr Foltan joined Tippling Club and its associated bars in June last year, where he develops the cocktail menus and trains staff across all the outlets.

He plans to stay in Singapore for the next two or three years.

His favourite time in Singapore so far? Meeting his fiancee, Australian photographer Zurina Bryant, 44.

Favourite cocktail: Classic Manhattan, made with rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and aromatic bitters

Tippling Club

Where: 38 Tanjong Pagar Road

When: Monday to Friday, noon to midnight; Saturday, 6pm to midnight


Correction note: An earlier version of this article said Mr Zdenek Kastanek's wife is Melanie. Her name should be Melody. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2015, with the headline 'Shaking up the scene'. Print Edition | Subscribe