Vietnamese award-winning bartender Phạm TiếnTiếp is the perfect example of the rags-to-riches success story. From a poor countryside boy to a champion bartender, and currently, a Master of Mixology, his life is one of challenges and surprises.
He talks with Thúy Hằng about his determination to achieve his life’s goals and his unlimited indulgence for the art of mixology.
Inner Sanctum: You tried out several jobs before becoming a bartender. Can you tell us about that period of your life?
Wow, it is a long story. I was born in a small village in the northern province of Hưng Yên, and I experienced a hard childhood. At the age of 15, I left school and moved to Hà Nội to find a job. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I started off as a shoeshine boy, and then moved on to become a waiter in a phở stand and later a textile worker.
While working as a waiter at a bar in the Old Quarter area, I was mesmerised by the lissome and skillful movements of foreign bartenders working at the bar.
Since I found it hard to resist the aromatic fragrance of those drinks, I asked the manager if I could work at the bar, but my request was denied. I didn’t give up. I started to learn English on my own to be able to understand the different liquors used in cocktails. I also managed to practice mixology every single day.
Finally, an opportunity came to me when the bartender quit his job and the manager called me to work on probation. The night before taking over the job, I stayed awake the whole night to remember all the cocktail recipes and mixing methods. I got another opportunity when my drinks appealed to the taste buds of a regular bar-goer, who is an employee of luxury hotel Sofitel Metropole. She said that my creativeness in mixology could blossom further in a better working environment. She did not just talk; she also went on to act. She helped me submit my job application to the hotel. But my application was rejected because I didn’t have any academic or vocational certification, which is a must for any prestige job. When my adoptive father — a kind-hearted Australian man — heard about the rejection, he wanted to comfort me by taking me to the Metropole for a nice meal. As it was my first fine-dining experience in life, I had to borrow a proper shirt from my friend to "dress up" for the occasion.
My life is filled with unexpected and interesting events. By chance, we met the hotel’s food and beverage manager at that lunch, who said that he could see my determination, confidence and desire. After the talk, he made a decision that went on to change my whole life: he agreed to act as a guarantor to enable me to get a job at the hotel. I promised him I would be "the best bartender in Hà Nội". I knew this was my golden opportunity and I needed to grab it. In addition, I also regarded that promise as my goal.
At the end of 2009, I started to work at the hotel’s Le Club and after a year, I became the bar manager. Within a two-year stint, craving more skills and experiences, I set my sights on Angelina – a luxury restaurant and bar in the hotel. Following two years of work there, I did what I had promised and dreamt about – to be the best bartender in town.
Inner Sanctum: What brought you to Diegeo Reserve World Class — the global search for the world’s best bartender?
In 2012, I created the "Phở" cocktail at the historic hotel, just above the war bunkers where American singer Joan Baez sang to the guests in December 1972 as bombs fell on the city. The alcohol in the cocktail is lit on fire to represent the bombs, while spices, such as chili, cinnamon and star anise, reflect the warmness of her voice. I won Best Bartender of Vietnam with this drink and became the first Vietnamese representative to attend the global final of "Diegeo Reserve World Class 2012" held in Rio de Janeiro, which had 50 of the world’s best bartenders participating. Due to some mistakes during ingredient preparation, I couldn’t bag any significant title at the competition, but I was happy to be there and be amongst the best bartenders from around the world.
Inner Sanctum: Does every cocktail of yours have a story behind it?
Yes, it does. My other drinks come with stories that are linked inextricably to the flavour, culture and history of Hà Nội.
“Full moon” cocktail recalls the dream of a little girl about her late mother. She meets her mother on a full moon night and enjoys her delicious sweet and sour fish soup. This story touched my heart because I also lost my mother when I was very young. The cocktail is flavoured with herbs and spices – fish mint, dill, Vietnamese coriander, pineapple and tomato, which also make up a sweet and sour fish soup.
“Under the Bridge” is inspired by my own story when I came to Hà Nội and lived in a boardroom right under the Long Biên Bridge. The delectable smell of ốc luộc or boiled snails from a nearby food stall seduced me every day but I didn’t dare to eat them because I had little money. Then I tried to work more the next day to make some extra money for that cheap snack. I’ve never forgotten the feeling when I was packed in between the other poor workers, sipping the dish’s aromatic dipping sauce. Several kinds of herb species create the harmony flavour for the sauce. At that moment, I felt, like the sauce, we, the people arriving from different places across the country, were so closely sitting together in a small food stall and sharing our stories about our home villages. I created “Under the Bridge” with the same ingredients used to make the dipping fish sauce served with boiled snails, including lemongrass, ginger, kumquat, lime leaves and fish sauce.Inner Sanctum: What is your key to success?
It is passion, endeavor, hard training and keeping focused on my goals.
Inner Sanctum: Why did you decide to quit your job at Sofitel Metropole, where you built your fame?
After six years of working there, I want to challenge myself and therefore, moved to work at La Plume, an elegant bar and bistro in Hà Nội. Here, in the role of Master of Mixology, I not only continue introducing a true mixology culture to cocktail lovers, but also handle the work of a manager. I have a group of more than 10 bartenders and staff members, to whom I teach a monthly class. The class offers them not only training in mixing skills and techniques, but also knowledge on how to behave with different kinds of clients, including the very select or those who get drunk.
The new position also requires me to interact more with the clientele to understand their tastes better, thus being able to satisfy their demands in particular and to develop our business in general.
Inner Sanctum: What is your next plan?
I plan to open a training course for professional bartenders. Alongside techniques on mixology, the course will also equip attendees with up-to-date trends on drinks, bartending performance and bar mixing tools.
I’m currently writing a book, which I intend to call I – Bartender. It is about my life and stories of my career. I expect to release the book next year.
I will also obviously continue to create new drinks that are inspired by Vietnamese spices and cuisine. VNS