For this edition of Bartender Spotlight, I spoke with Will Tsui, who tends bar at Rich Table in Hayes Valley and Lazy Bear in the Mission. Will lives in Oakland, in Jack London Square, where he invited me over for a cocktail on a Monday morning. He made me a Vieux Banane, a drink using banana juice, which he'll be using for an upcoming bartender competition. He made himself a Negroni.
A few days later, we met up again at Tupper & Reed in Berkeley, where General Manager Daniel Sheel let Will get behind the bar to make me another drink – this time a JNGLBRD.
Get the Vieux Banane and JNGLBRD recipes posted below the interview!
How did you get started as a bartender?
I was working IT and would bartend part-time. I got really lucky. I took one of those stupid bartending classes. Waste of money. Three-hundred fifty dollars. So dumb. I actually started over in the Elmwood at Shen Hua on College. I would do IT [during the week] then work the weekend over [at Shen Hua]. Even though I was at Shen Hua working, it was still my weekend and I was still having fun. I would bring in all these different toys, like the whole nitrous infusion thing. I was like, "Ahhhhhhh, sick!" [My boss] would be like, "What are you doing?" I'd say, "Oh you know, just trying out new things. You guys got some herbs back there?" And he'd say, "Yeah whatever. Take whatever you want." Eventually I left my IT job. It was either go to another IT company or bartend full-time. Then I got a job offer from Hotel Nikko. I realized I could survive off this for a little bit, and I haven't looked back.
How long ago was that?
Five years ago now? I was at Hotel Nikko for two years. That's really where I honed and cut my teeth. It was a good place to do it. It was very service driven. It really kind of hammered in that sense of hospitality and what the service industry is. The Japanese hotel service is like up here [gestures and reaches with hand], and they pound it in you, like five-star, five-diamond service, like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. That's something that I take with me to my other jobs – that level of service, which I enjoy. It's fun winning over a guest, especially when they come and they're in a bad mood and you're able to turn it around.
Did you have a lot of regulars at Hotel Nikko?
Yeah! I had some dude that would fly in every couple of months. He was the wildest dude. He didn't speak very good English but he had a man-servant.
Whoa. All right!
He was an older Japanese gentleman and he traveled with a younger guy from Africa who spoke English and also Japanese and would act as his translator. His name was Tomo something, but they called him "Tommy." So his translator was like, "Tommy would like to fly you to Vegas with him today." And I'm like, "Oh, I'm working." He's like, "Or tomorrow, whenever you're off. The flight is at seven and we'll be back by dinner." I was like, "Uhhh, I don't know. Seven is pretty early and I get out of here pretty late." He said, "That's OK. If anything, join us for dinner. Wherever you like. Feel free to bring a friend." So I bring my lady friend at the time and we go to Ruth's Chris and we ball out. Between the four of us, our bill came out to $2000. We had three bottles of wine. It was ridiculous. Tommy picks up the tab and asks me, "How are you getting home?" I told him that I drove. He then says, "Well, here's two hundred dollars. Call a cab. Get home safe." This guy is awesome! This guy is amazing.
I've had some weird shit happen to me at Hotel Nikko. It's different when you're a hotel bar. The guests that come see you are also staying there. So they stay longer [at the bar]. It feels like home [to them], so they act differently.
How is bartending at Rich Table?
At Rich Table, it's essentially Michelin-level food, but casual fine dining. It's more like a traditional restaurant, where you have your reservations but you also have walk-ins. The flow every night is different, which is nice. It's extremely dynamic. You always have to prepare for variables for the night. Like, "Oh this party is late, so now our bar is going to be slammed because everyone is sitting down waiting for tables." You have that odd ebb and flow, which is good. You have to get a sense for the flow of a place before you really feel comfortable getting behind the bar and killing it.
How did you hear about Umami Mart?
I heard of Umami Mart from... I don't remember. I might have just been walking around the area. I grew up in Oakland. I grew up by Lake Merritt and my Mom still lives over there. I remember Old Oakland was like a ghost town, super sleepy. I left for college, and then I moved to Korea for two years, and then I came back [to Oakland] and everything had changed. I was like, "Whoa, there's all this cool shit now in Oakland." I was just walking around exploring the new area and I stumbled upon you guys.
Now I'm going to ask our traditional Bartender Spotlight questions. Favorite cocktail?
Ooooh. My favorite cocktail... It's probably going to be a Negroni variation, or a shot and a beer. I actually don't drink that many cocktails when I go out. And that's because...
You're making them all day.
Yeah, it's hard to get out of that head space, especially after work, and that's usually when I go drinking. Like on a day off, I feel like I'm more receptive to getting a cocktail. But after work, the last thing I want to think about is a cocktail. Usually I'll just get a neat spirit and definitely a beer. A deconstructed boilermaker. But if I'm going out and having dinner, I'll probably have a pre-dinner Negroni riff or something.
That is true.
What's your Instagram handle?
@everythinginacoupe. I love coupes. I like to collect old vintage couples. Nice crystal.
You get them at flea markets?
There's an estate sale down the street. They usually have some cool stuff. The [Oakland Museum's] White Elephant Sale is a really good one. And the flea market, once in a while you find some gems.
Favorite bar tool?
I love my shakers. Big fan of my spoons. And definitely my mixing glasses. I really like bar tools. For me, it's something that you touch every day. It feels good when you can hold it in your hand and it inspires confidence because you're so familiar with it. It's almost like a comfort thing. Having your own set of bar tools. They're mine. They feel good in my hand. I know what they feel like. I know what the balance is. I could close my eyes and reach for it. It's like an instant sense of recognition. You're just like, "Ahhhhh yes, there it is."
Favorite bar snack or bar food?
Anything fried. I think bar food is definitely underrated. I think bar food should be more of a thing. More bars should serve food. Once in a while there should be hot dogs. They're pretty fucking good. You go in and look at it and be like, "It's probably been there for six hours. I'll take one. Give it to me."
This is my last one. Favorite bar in the Bay Area?
Ooooh. Favorite bar... I have a lot of favorite bars. The bars that I go to when I shouldn't be at another bar are probably my favorite bars. And usually that's Merchants. Every time I'm at Merchants, I have way too much fun. They have a stripper pole. They have a pool table. Drinks are super cheap. And it's close. After a long night of drinking, I'm like, "Ohhhhhh, what's one more?" And it's close by and I could walk home. And it's always the worst and the best decision. It's a little special place.
And I just discovered Merchant's opens at 7 a.m. Tremendous.
There's one other place that I know that opens at 6 a.m. – Ace's in San Francisco. Oh man, this is where you go when dreams die.
1.5 oz Rum agricole
.75 oz Campari
.75 oz Lime
.5 oz Gomme
1.5 oz Soda water
1.25 oz Rye
1.0 oz Banana juice
.75 oz Calvados
1 barspoon Benedictine
1 dash Angostura bitters
2 drops Black tea tincture