Vaunted Vancouver bartender David Wolowidnyk is a tactician behind the bar at West, but even he has room to learn and improve. That’s exactly what happened in January during his memorable visit with Kazuo Ueda at Tokyo’s Tender Bar. During my June 4 stop at West, he explained that visit in vivid detail, an account that hopefully will translate for professional bartenders and amateur drinksmiths alike.
Joshua Lurie: How did you end up having Kazuo Ueda’s cocktails?
David Wolowidnyk: My wife and I found ourselves in Tokyo, we’re walking along, and I had the Tender Bar on my list. I looked up and I saw the sign. It was 11 o’clock in the evening and I said, “Honey, we have to go in.” She said, “We were just on the way back to the hotel.” “The hotel can wait, it will still be there. We have to go in.” We went in for a cocktail, and he slid his cocktail book across the bar and he said, “This is our cocktail menu.” Or his assistant said this, because Ueda-san doesn’t speak any English. One of his assistants, who also acts as his translator, slid the cocktail book across the bar. It was also his cocktail book. My wife said, “Hey, you have that same book.” He said, “Well if you have that here, then Ueda-san would be happy to sign it for you.” I said, “Well, I didn’t expect to be here at the Tender Bar this evening, so I didn’t bring the book with me, but knowing if he has the time, I would like to come back and perhaps have Ueda-san sign my book at that time.”
JL: You had the book with you in Japan?
DW: I had it with me in Japan, because I knew at some point that I would like to have Ueda-san sign it, but I didn’t want to be presumptuous. While we were sitting there enjoying, I asked Ueda-san, through his translator, when we returned for Ueda-san to sign the book, if he might have a spare moment to show Ueda-san my straining and shaking techniques and perhaps offer me advice, from his opinion, on how I might improve myself. With a grin, he checked his calendar and said, “How does three o’clock on Saturday sound?” Which was a very exciting moment for me, because it was a man who I’d respected his skill set, and he was willing to offer me some of his own time to give me suggestions.
JL: How did it go when you returned on Saturday at three?
DW: Well I was there about 20 minutes before, and it’s in an office building, fifth floor. You take the elevator up to a tiny little office door, and that’s where the bar is. I waited outside patiently for the right time, because coming too early is not necessarily complimentary. Japanese like to be on time. They don’t like to be too early, they don’t like to be late. Being late is a terrible insult to whoever might be hosting the meeting. So you have to be right on time. It was 2:59 when I was just putting my hand on the doorknob, because I wanted to be appropriately on time. Ueda-san was standing, in full uniform, behind the bar, with one assistant, in full uniform, standing behind the bar, patiently waiting for my arrival. It was picture perfect, culturally perfect to what the Japanese people are like. They’re calm, they’re cool, they’re collected, they’re respectful of other people’s time. They hope that other people are respectful of theirs. It’s a society or culture of honor, so we set about having our conversation. It was very comfortable. He spoke in an authoritative yet non-degrading way.
When we talked about technique, we discussed the philosophy of serving guests, finding out what their likes and dislikes are. We talked about the philosophy of flavor, and the perception of flavor, because it’s something that I also believe – and I know he shares the same opinion – that flavor starts at the door, because a lot has to do with impression. People have been saying for a long time that we eat with our eyes, and we do. We look at something and start to anticipate the dish or drink or whatever. We can see it on the billboards. We see it in our advertising. The advertising moguls of this world know it better than anyone else, that people eat with their eyes. They drink with their eyes. If something looks wonderful, it must taste wonderful, but it’s not just that dish. It’s not just that drink, it’s the setting. It’s everything around it, so when people first walk in the door, if they see an empty bar, if they see unkempt bar staff, if they see empty glassware still sitting on the end of the bar, or the bar still in need of some wiping, or a mound of glassware that still has to be polished coming out of the dishwasher, all of those things lead up to a mediocre experience.
JL: What sort of feedback did he end up giving you?
DW: A couple of very interesting points. Probably the one that I thought was most scientifically interesting was that of shaking. I’ve had a friendly debate with other bartenders on the subject, and everybody’s welcome to their own opinion. I would tend to agree with Kazuo’s philosophy on shaking. Metal on metal will cool much faster than glass and metal combined. What I’m referring to is the most common North American cocktail shaker, the Boston shaker, of one half glass and one half metal. That glass, unless it’s kept cold, it’s going to take a lot of thermal energy to cool down that glass to the point that it’s no longer stealing energy from the liquid, which is in turn stealing energy from the ice. That ice has to work extra hard to cool down that liquid, because that liquid keeps getting robbed of its thermal energy. It’s one of the most inefficient ways of chilling a cocktail. When we shake, there are some very important factors. Not only is it chilling, but it’s appropriate dilution and aeration. Aeration is a very key component when shaking a cocktail because it can take acidity and spread it out over the palate more gently. It can take alcohol and spread it out over the palate more gently, because those tiny bubbles of aeration can soften the edge of alcohol. They can soften the intensity of the acidity and bring harmony to a drink. The same drink can be shaken in two different styles by two different people, and you can have dramatically different results. This is a proven technique.
JL: How did that conversation affect your approach at the bar?