When most people think cocktails, they think America. Of course, as with any cultural phenomenon worth its salt, the mixed drink went global. During the current renaissance of craft cocktails, house-made tinctures, and progressive ice programs, you can get a delicious and ingenious cocktail shaken up in pretty much any corner of the globe.
Houston bartender Yao Lu wants to experience that firsthand. Yao, who can currently be found behind the bar at Houston’s own world-class cocktail house, Anvil Bar & Refuge, but only through this weekend, is about to move to China, to be part of the great cocktail migration. Yao took a few minutes to talk to Eater about his time in the business, and what he hopes to accomplish on the other side of the world.
How long have you been tending bar, and how did you get into the field?
I have been bartending for a little over 4 years now. I was a hospitality major at UH, working at a major hotel chain at the time, when I started bartending to pay tuition, just like any other college kid.
When did you become "serious" about the craft, and what spurred that transition?
At the time, the cocktail renaissance started to catch national attention and I was fascinated by the amount of knowledge, skill and appreciation that can be put into one drink. By then I realized there was so much more to my career than what I'm exposed to in a daily basis. Making Jack & Cokes is only fun for so long; I wanted more and to share the love I had for cocktails with the masses.
How have you seen the industry change, both in Houston and in general, since you began your career?
There is more appreciation of what we do, from both fellow industry workers and the general public. Bartending is no longer a mundane career choice because someone couldn't make it to college. It's being treated at a culinary art and very righteously so.
How do you define your bartending philosophy and style?
Service always comes first. I don’t care if you know how to make a Fourth Regiment or just a gin & tonic. If you’re an asshole, no one is going to come to your bar. A lot of peeps usually forget, patrons come to bars to create moments. We as bartenders have the power to make or break these moments.
Is there anything (ingredient, style, concept) that's captivating you right now?
Japanese styled bartending has always fascinated me. The robotic movements, attention to detail, the ice block that takes 3 days to freeze over, hand carved ice, the hard shake; these techniques have been extremely appealing to me in the past few years, but I never had the chance to actually learn from professionals. [A recent] trip to China opened up that opportunity to further advance myself as a bartender and maybe help any other fellow bartender that might be interested in learning this extremely elegant technique.
When did you first begin considering the move to China?
I started considering future opportunities when I visited Shanghai 2 months ago. When I arrived, I was oblivious to what Shanghai had to offer in the cocktail scene, and the city blew me away. I saw a food and drink oriented society who "don't eat just to get full, don't drink just to get drunk" and a group of young, talented, passionate bartenders, cocktail enthusiasts who are trying to form a community and spread the gospel. Having Shanghainese heritage, I wanted to contribute. Not to mention the city is absolutely gorgeous.
Was that trip a networking expedition?
Yes and no. One of the main reasons I took the trip was to visit my grandfather, who was in poor health. At the time I had just graduated from UH six months ago, and he wanted to congratulate me, so it was very important for me to see him. But also I wanted to keep tabs on the bars in Shanghai. I lived in Shanghai for 6 years in my middle school days, so the city has a very special place in my heart and I wanted to see what the city had to offer to the growing global cocktail scene.
How is it different from the scene in Houston, and in the States, in general?
China has a culinary oriented culture; everything from family reunions to business deals are done at the dinner table, so although craft cocktails are still very much of a novelty, people are quick to catch on and appreciate it.
What impact do you hope to have on the cocktail scene over there?
I wish to work with a group of bartenders to form a diverse community like the one we have in Houston, and to introduce people to cocktails from a grass roots level. The cocktail is one of the first culinary contributions America gave to the world; I just want to expand it into new territory. With Shanghai being a modern city and financial power house, it deserves an awesome cocktail scene.
Are there any techniques or ingredients that you're looking forward to getting exposed to?
Chinese bartenders learn heavily from the Japanese. They are extremely technique oriented with awesome precision and discipline. Making a gin and tonic is a 5 step 3 minute process starting from hand carved ice blocks to stirring till the glass frosts. It's a thing of beauty and I'm very excited to learn these techniques from local bartenders. There's also an entire new inventory of fresh Asian ingredients to experiment with.
Are there any techniques or ingredients you're excited to bring with you?
I want to introduce local Chinese bartenders to a more culinary approach to cocktails. In the past year and a half, I have been lucky to work with some of the most talented bartenders here at Anvil; we draw a lot of inspiration from food and culture. Also I want to help bartenders establish a sense of pride and community, which is the only way to make the cocktail movement work.
Do you expect this to be a permanent move?
I don't expect any kind of timeline. I gave myself specific targets and will stay as long as it takes to see these goals achieved.
What are you going to miss most about Houston?
Definitely the people here. I lived in Houston for the past 6 years and everyone has just been so loving and supportive. This is where I graduated from college, started my career; I very much consider Houston my home.
What (if anything) are you going to be glad to be leaving behind?
Do you have anything you'd consider a "signature drink"?
For Anvil's spring cocktail menu, I had a drink called the "Royal Kris" that came about one day when I was eating at a local Malaysian restaurant. Being one of my favorite genres of food, I realized it was possible to transform all these wonderful tropical, sour, sweet, spicy flavors into liquid ingredients. So I went back to the bar and put together this drink that uses passion fruit, lime, and everybody's favorite condiment, Sriracha. These ingredients were particularly chosen to compliment all the flavors in Malaysian style food. The result, well it made it onto the menu.
0.75oz Passion fruit syrup
1/2 teaspoon Sriracha
Shaken, collins glass, cubes, top with seltzer water.
Red pepper/lime wedge garnish
A "Kris" is an asymmetrical dagger indigenous to Malaysia, which has deep roots in Malaysian traditions and folk tales. Legend has it a 15th century Melakan admiral named Hang Tuah was presented a Kris as a reward from a dual. Later wrongfully put to death due to political reasons, he passed his title and his kris to his comrade who eventually rebelled against royalty and took over the royal palace.