Urban Explorer Series: Interview with Antonio Lai
“An urban explorer is someone who enjoys trying something new, exploring different avenues that will lead him or her to new horizons. Whenever I travel, I like to walk on the streets and discover new avenues outside of my ordinary day-to-day life. If I apply this term to mixology, walking the different streets in the city is like exploring a kaleidoscope of flavours and ingredients in my cocktails.”
Mixologist Extraordinaire & Co-founder of Tastings Group
Our Urban Explorer
Could you please introduce yourself to our guests?
I am Antonio Lai, mixologist and Co-founder of Tastings Group, a Restaurant & Bar group of 6 award-winning venues which include VEA, The Envoy, Origin, Quinary, Room 309 and Draft Land – that focuses on cocktail bars.
How did you first get involved in the world of mixology?
I have been working in the F&B industry for more than 23 years now! I studied in hospitality and at the age of 19, my first job was a waiter at Planet Hollywood, a Hollywood-inspired themed restaurant in Hong Kong. I remember observing the bartenders concocting drinks for guests and how cool they looked juggling beer bottles. In that instance, I knew I wanted to be a bartender! I worked as a waiter there for a few years before moving up to a bartender position for 2 years. After acquiring more experience in this field, starting other business ventures, and exploring the various tastes of the world, I opened Quinary. For the concept of Quinary, I wanted to focus on cocktail culture in Hong Kong and deliver a multi-sensory mixology experience to our guests, with unique and quality ingredients. Back in the day, the term “mixologist” did not exist; the staff behind the bar creating the drinks were simply called bartenders. I knew I wanted to do something like this but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be where I am right now.
How do you think you fit into the term”Urban Explorer”?
An urban explorer is someone who enjoys trying something new, exploring different avenues that will lead him or her to new horizons. Whenever I travel, I like to walk on the streets and discover new avenues outside of my ordinary day-to-day life. If I apply this term to mixology, walking the different streets in the city is like exploring a kaleidoscope of flavours and ingredients in my cocktails. At the moment, I am in the process of experimenting with the flavours of cedarwood and how I can infuse its fragrant, smoky elements into a new cocktail. It is really about getting down to the core of the taste at its most authentic self. Even when I am traveling, I am particularly intrigued by the genuine experiences and local ingredients of that place that inspire me to share it in Hong Kong by infusing them into a cocktail.
With such a busy schedule between concocting your latest cocktail creation to running your business, where do you find the time to explore the city?
When I travel for work in a new city, I always take a day off to go explore the non-tourist parts of the city, the bars and restaurants of that place, to open up my palate to local flavours, whether it is a culinary dish at a restaurant or a drink at a cocktail bar. It is so enriching to capture the unique elements of each place I visit and put it into a cocktail that allows guests to experience it and live vicariously through my interpretation of the city.
With all these hats you wear on a daily basis, what does a day in the life of Mr. Antonio Lai look like?
In a typical day, I generally wake up at 11AM and then head to the office to meet with my colleagues and suppliers to discuss the day-to-day business operations. After that, I will head to the different outlets to prepare for its opening and to ensure we have the right amount of stock to continually sustain our business. Once that is completed, I will head over to VEA from 7-10PM to see that things are running smoothly as dinner time sets in, then make my rounds to Quinary, ORIGIN, Room 309, and Draft Land. As the night comes to a close for me, which is usually at 1AM, I will go home, have supper and then unwind with some video games before heading to bed at 3AM. I still get a good 8 hours of sleep after a 12-hour work day, but I just start later where as everyone else normal is working hours start earlier.
What do you love most about mixology?
I really like mixing and combining a contrast of flavours to come up with something more unique. If I find an ingredient at the market or inside a drink at a bar, I will think of how I can combine them together to create a unique multi-sensory cocktail experience for the customer. Sometimes, there can be two distinct succulent ingredients that come together and taste disastrous, but when there are times when the amalgamation of two unique flavours comes into harmony, it is pure bliss. It’s all about trial and error!
World of Mixology
What brings you the most satisfaction in your work?
The best part of my job is talking to the customers. I enjoy seeing regular faces at my bars and asking them about their day. I like seeing how their appreciation for us evolves from simply a one-time drop-in customer to becoming an avid fan at one of our bars. I also enjoy listening to their comments about our cocktails to get their honest feedback and preference – that is the only way to improve. Many people may not know this but I actually do not drink! I am very sensitive to alcohol and taste in general, so when I create these cocktails, I really have our customers in mind.
Where do you get inspiration from when it comes to creating your cocktails? Is there a creative process involved?
It may be a surprise to others but my inspiration actually comes from eating. If I taste something that moves me, I will usually write it down in my notes and try to recreate the flavours in a cocktail. I generally strive to spend 1-2 hours a day in my lab, pushing myself to create something new every day. After numerous trial and error and I feel that the cocktail is what I had envisioned, I will share it with my staff, and most importantly, my guests so that I can get their opinion. With that said, it is the efforts and hard work of the entire team that is the heart and soul of our cocktail menu. Each season, we will gather everyone together from the team with their cocktail ideas and go through each one to see which of them will work. If it tastes good and fall in line with our menu, we will feature it!
For newbie cocktail drinkers, what cocktail would you recommend they try first and why?
I would recommend every newbie to start with something light and basic, and slowly work their way up to something stronger. We always recommend our customers the Early Grey Caviar Martini at Quinary. What is so unique about this cocktail is that there is Earl Grey tea caviar at the bottom of the drink, then drizzled with Earl Grey tea foam made from algin and lecithin that is specially created with molecular techniques. It is quite refreshing and photogenic! After that, they can start off with something stronger. Even within the course of the night, they should start off with a lighter cocktail then progressively work their way up to a harder liquor.
Do you think taste and presentation are equally important?
Taste is always the most important factor and takes precedence over presentation. I will generally fuse together an array of opposing flavours in one drink and if I like the taste of it, I will think about how I want to present it so that it tells a story about the cocktail. At the end of the day, I believe that if a cocktail tastes good but the presentation is mediocre, guests will still order the drink because it delights their palate. However, if the presentation is striking yet the taste itself is not up to the expectation, it just won’t work. So to me, taste is everything.
What makes a good cocktail?
That really depends on who it is we are serving! It is about understanding what our guests’ preferences are and what they like, then recommending a drink that is suitable to their taste. What I think is a good cocktail may not be the same as the person next to me as they have their own preference of what they like in a drink.
Out of all the cocktails you have created, which one is your favourite?
I must say that the Early Grey Caviar Martini at Quinary is my all-time favourite and one of the best-selling drinks at Quinary. It can be non-alcoholic (as I do not drink alcohol), and it is easy to drink, refreshing, looks good and tastes good.
With the popularity of ORI-GIN, Quinary and ROOM 309 and many other bars you have opened, what do you think are the essential ingredients for success?
Passion. You have to love what you are doing. It is also about hard work and luck. Some people work hard but do not have the chance to shine, and the contrary. You have to prepare for any challenges and opportunities that come your way if and when it comes. But even with success, there is always pressure and different issues you face every day – from allocating staff to managing the day-to-day operations. We are not a big company but there are so many challenges we encounter on a daily basis, so I can only imagine how many issues arise in a large corporation!
You have taken part in numerous collaborations with other bars as a guest bartender. What do you enjoy most about it?
I love sharing our cocktails to different people across various cultures and cities. We let them try our signature drinks and sometimes we will create a new drink if we have a sponsored partner we are working with. Ultimately, rather than having the guests come into our bars, we bring the full experience to them.
Exploring The City
As an entrepreneur, how often would you say you travel?
Due to the nature of my work, I travel at least once a month to another city or country to be a guest bartender for different bars.
So where does your inspiration for travel come from?
I find great fascination in watching travel shows and different travel programs as it sparks new interests in me to explore the world. Through these programs, it gives me more insight into new countries that I would not have thought to visit otherwise. Also, the great thing about watching travel shows is that you get to live vicariously through these hosts and get a good sense of the destination without having to get your hands dirty!
What other destinations are on your bucket list?
In Asia, Hokkaido, Japan would be on the top of my list so I can watch the Sakura cherry blossoms while feasting on fresh Japanese seafood. On an international level, I would love to visit Manchester, England to watch a Manchester United F.C. football match because I am a huge fan! I always visit to London but I still have not had the chance to visit Manchester even though it is only a few hours away!
What do you enjoy most about the city? Are there certain elements or characteristics that are uniquely Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is such a fascinating city and rich in its vast array of culinary delights. It is gastronomy heaven here and you can practically find every type of cuisine that you can think of – from Asian cuisines like Japanese and Vietnamese to European cuisines like French and Italian. There are numerous Michelin-star restaurants in the city that is just as delicious as the rich Chinese cuisine in the city. Amongst some of the renowned local dishes, dim sum, yellow goose and wonton noodles are my favourites. I recommend you try the wonton noodles at Mak’s Noodle, which I go there twice a month to get my noodle fix. I also suggest any new visitor to make a stop at Ho Lee Fook restaurant and to try the delightful street foods that can only be found in Hong Kong, like our egg waffle and cart noodles. (For those of you who may not know, a cart noodles is an à la carte noodle dish which diners can choose an assortment of toppings to put into their noodle bowl like fish balls, veggies and wonton. The dish was popularised in Hong Kong in the 1950s through independent street vendors operating on roadsides and in public housing estates in low-income districts, using carts. Hence, the name “cart noodles” manifested.)
In 3 words, how would you describe Hong Kong?
Fascinating, Lively, Convenient