How Californian-born Jesse Vida has been bringing his touch to World's and Asia's 50 Best powerhouse ATLAS Bar Singapore
World Best Bar
Nov 17, 2020
10 January 2019
San Francisco-born Jesse Vida was named head bartender at the iconic Singaporean venue back in November 2018, after over a decade in the industry where the self-taught mixologist worked his way up to some of the best bars in New York City (Dutch Kills, Booker & Dax, The Dead Rabbit, BlackTail NYC).
After two years working as head bartender at BlackTail, where he was namely in charge of developing the award-winning bar’s ambitious bar programme, Jesse’s growing need for change was met with a perfectly-timed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Singapore was calling, and to work at the breathtaking ATLAS Bar, no less.
A mecca for gin lovers around the globe, the opulent Parkview Square lobby bar, famously last spotted on HBO’s Westworld, houses close to 1,400 different gins in a bespoke gin tower overlooking a grand, gilded Art Deco lounge.
Just shy of two years into his tenure, we caught up with Vida to find out how he has settled into this new role, share some of his expert tips with our readers, and find out what’s changed at ATLAS Bar since reopening in June.
What’s the current climate like in Singapore?
Certainly glad to be in post lockdown here in Singapore, needless to say it’s been a tough year for most and the F+B industry is extremely challenged through all of this. We’re staying on our toes and doing the best we can with the regulations. Since we reopened after an almost 3 month lockdown Singapore has had a strict no alcohol past 10:30pm rule, no groups larger than 5 persons, and a 1-meter distance rule between all parties. We strictly abide by these government requirements and have adjusted our service as needed to maximise our efficiency and guest experience. So all in all it’s not perfect but we aren’t complaining, many areas of the world are much worse off than we are here in Singapore.
For those who don’t know you, could you quickly run us through your resume, starting when you first found out you wanted to become a bartender?
So my elevator pitch of a resume would kick off in late 2007 in my hometown of San Francisco, California. I started bar backing at a couple of bars, one has been closed for some time the other, Beretta is still going strong. I worked my way up from bar back to food runner, host, server, brunch bartender, and eventually a full time bartender over the next couple of years. After almost 5 years working in some great bars in San Francisco I decided to make the plunge into New York City in 2011. I had almost no connections and basically took the first job I could get as I was completely out of money. At this point I was all in on a career in hospitality, so I set my goals of where I wanted to work slowly got my foot in the door and started to make a network in NYC. After stints at Momofuku Ssam Bar, Booker & Dax, and Dutch Kills I got the opportunity to bartend at the Dead Rabbit in 2013. I started off part time and eventually became a full time member, this lead to the opportunity to be the opening bar manager of BlackTail NYC. Then after almost 7 years in NYC I jumped across the globe taking the on the role of Head Bartender of ATLAS Bar Singapore in November 2018, the role that I currently hold to this day.
Walk us through your creative process when developing a bar programme. What’s the starting point? Where do you get your ideas from?
When it comes to the creative process of developing a bar program the first thing that needs to be understood is the focus or identity if you will. Once this has been fully digested a plan from creating the experience can move forward. Curating the experience is also part of the creative process in my opinion, what about you bar brings guests in, makes them want to stay, return visit, and what separates your experience from the other great bars around you? When it comes to cocktails in particular I start with the concept of the cocktail menu, considering if there’s a certain style of spirit base focus. From there I will lay out a plan of what type of cocktails we need so I know where to focus the team and my own focus. I approach cocktails in a culinary way, the original inspiration whether it be a particular flavour or spirit base. Let’s say for example I want to make a drink with gin and celery, I’ll start by doing a simple gin sour with muddled celery, if that works then I’ll add a complimentary flavour, if that also works then I’ll add another and so on until I’m happy with the cocktail. It’s a methodical process and simple in certain ways, but really achieving that balance takes patience and humility.
And in terms of your M.O., is there a specific type of drink that you personally always find yourself going back to? A favorite spirit, a go-to technique?
In terms of my style I really like classic cocktails with expert technique in execution. In my mind there’s nothing more amazing then a perfectly stirred ice cold Martini. All of my cocktails are based on classics like Martinis, Negronis, Old Fashioneds, Margaritas…etc. I just layer them in a way to bring them to the modern palate. I would describe my style as simple and approachable to the average drinker, but also layered and complex to someone who really knows cocktails.
Since starting at ATLAS, how have you been putting your imprint on the drinks programme and overall operations?
When I first started at ATLAS my biggest focus bar far was on the culture of the bar team. Culture outweighs everything in a bar, the team has to be the main focus because without all of them performing their best and also enjoying their work environment you will never achieve prolonged success. I took the first 2/3 months to simply work with the team, without making any changes I just learned their systems and got to know them. The team was very green at that time and I was also coming from the U.S. where we have a very different style to the more European influence ATLAS had. After instilling technical training programs, written tests, and nightly post shift meetings the culture began to form. Launching our first menu “Interbellum” under my guidance was a huge part of putting my imprint externally. After pitching the concept to ownership and upper management, we got it approved and went pedal to the metal on not only creating world class cocktails but also really going all in on the menu as a whole. We launched it in August 2019, keeping a few ATLAS staple cocktails but then offering a myriad of brand new drinks to showcase something new. Interbellum was recently named the world’s best cocktail menu 2020 by the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited awards which was amazing, and this really gave us some boost to see the world appreciated what we had done with that part of the ATLAS bar program. Lastly from operations fresh eyes always helps a lot for a pre-existing program, there were many little things from how we batched, to garnish preparations and many small items I was able to help optimize. It’s been a journey, very challenging at time and also very rewarding. That said we are still very much in the stage of growth and learning, we still have many areas in which we can improve and that will never stop.
What can one expect when stepping inside the lounge? What is it that makes the venue and experience so special?
Stepping into ATLAS Bar for the very first time is quite literally a jaw dropping experience. It is a grand beautiful space with high ceilings and expertly detailed art deco design. We try and match that elegance with our service, menu offerings, glassware, uniforms, and every detail we can muster. Many guests enter to enjoy the beauty of the space, luckily for us many of them also enjoy the service and offerings equally which is what makes ATLAS Bar what it is altogether.
The bar has put out a new series of unique, gin-centric experiences to invite its guests to discover its outstanding collection. Could you tell us a bit about that?
We launched the Gin Tower Experience a couple of months ago, it is a really special experience and a great way to get guests to engage in our gin collection. The way it works is a senior bartender will host a party for a tour of the gin tower, while on the tower the guest selects a bottle of gin, afterwards there is a brief tableside chat and tasting on said gin, finally we will send out a round of gin + tonics that have been expertly paired with a specific garnish. Guests that have engaged in the experience have really seemed to enjoy it.
With #ATLASatHome, ATLAS has been allowing its Singaporean customers to enjoy the bar’s experience from the comfort of their homes. What has the reception been like? In your opinion, are cocktails for takeaway or delivery going to remain a fixture of this new bar world reality?
I believe takeaway and delivery cocktails will remain as part of cocktail bar offerings for the foreseeable future. #ATLASatHome has been part of our success story while pivoting with all of 2020’s curve balls being thrown at the world. It helped us stay focussed and bring in some revenue during the lockdown, and even still today we have daily deliveries and takeaways 3 months into our phase 2 of opening. We believe in being proactive and adapting with the market, I hope that delivery drinks are here to stay permanently.
We also noticed a #worldATLAS operation popping up on your Instagram. What’s the idea behind it?
The global cocktail bar community has greatly advanced due to guest shifts, mater classes, and cocktail conventions. Due to the current travel restrictions all of these have ceased or moved to an online platform. I’m proud to say we got well ahead of this and started launching our #worldATLAS programs even before the lockdown started. We want to continue to engage the global bar community, this gives us that opportunity to do so while sharing it with our guests. We started at showcasing a new bar from a different country around the world every two weeks during the lockdown. We would do in interview via IG live and have them showcase their cocktails, in partnership with a sponsoring brand and sending over a profit share back to the bar based on proceeds. Since we’ve been back in service every two weeks was a bit intense so now it’s every month. We are just about to launch our next bar next week, guests can come in and order a two cocktail flight with a paired bite that all represent the bar. By the end of 2020 we will have featured ten different bars from China to North America, Thailand to Europe, it’s been a really fun and cool activation and we’ve learned a lot working with some of the world’s best bars!
Are you hopeful that the bar industry will keep coming up with new ways to support and reinvent itself?
I am hopeful the bar industry will keep coming up with ways to support and reinvent itself, I’m also very confident this will continue to happen. There are such creative, opportunistic entrepreneurial type personalities in this business, we will survive and someday thrive again through innovation and invention.
For all our readers who can’t make it to their nearest bar right now, what are the must-have spirits and ingredients one should always have to make great cocktails at home?
I would recommend 1 bottle each of sweet and dry vermouth, angostura bitters, orange bitters, Campari, dry gin, aged rum, whiskey. I know that seems like a lot but if you can’t spend money on cocktails you can make so many great simple drinks at home with those ingredients.
Can you tell us one ingredient you wish more people knew about?
Clairin, a Haitian sugar cane spirit that is a beautiful representation of what many know as rum. It’s organic by nature, uniquely earthy and funky, and has a good kick to it as well. I can’t get enough!
How about an ingredient that’s well-known, but underrated?
Spanish Sherry is well known and used by bartenders but not enough by consumers! Dry vermouth is also one that can be used for more than just a martini.
What is your favourite cocktail to make at home and why?
Whiskey highball, or a Martini. Both are simple, elegant, and all about the quality of ingredient.
Can you give us a pro bartending tip to impress our friends?
Home Martini pro tip, take a bottle of gin and stick it in your freezer, a bottle of dry vermouth and keep that in the refrigerator. Offer to a make a friend a martini, give them a chilled glass with a shot of dry vermouth and a splash of water and then bring out your frosty ice cold gin. Make a show of pouring it into the glass in front of them and give it a quick stir, you’ll blow their mind and the drink will be delicious.
Thank you so much for your time Jesse. One last question: do you have a message for all the bartenders reading us around the world? Take this time to do the things you haven’t been able to do before Covid happened, come out of this refreshed and ready to take the next step in your career. Let’s all push on and keep F+B alive and thriving.