Our Bartender Profile series continues with Anai Rocha of Zeta Bar where she talks to us about her background, her most memorable and emotional bartending experience, and shares her views on how the Sydney bar scene can evolve with the recent alcohol laws.
Anai Rocha at Bartender of the Year Competition – Photo © by Kevin Burke
Corinne: Tell us a little about yourself, your family and where you grew up.
Anai: I am the eldest of 3. I was born in Santiago de Chile and I came to Australia when I was 11 years old in 1996. I remember being thrown into a primary school when I didn’t know a word of English, but hey! what better way to learn than getting thrown in the deep end.
How did you get into bartending?
I began bartending when I was 19, as a way to earn cash while studying architecture. I remember thinking it would be very cool to be a bartender and study at the same time, little did I know I would come this far. When I finished my diploma I decided my heart belonged to the bar, once my mind was made up I turned my attention to being better at my trade and studied my ass off.
Tell us a little about your bartending career.
I started off small, in pubs (Alexandria Hotel), then moved to nightclubs, slowly clawing my way up to cocktail bars. Once I got a taste it was all I wanted to know about. The love of cocktails began in Cohi Bar, this was when I decided I wanted to learn more about the trade. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of great bartenders, some of the best Sydney has to offer along the way, they taught me a lot. Whilst having bucket loads of fun! I’ve worked at Goldfish, 360 Bar, LoFi, The Wild Rover and then some. But my most prized possession would have to be my current employer, Zeta Bar. These guys have taken my skills to the next level, and I am so grateful to them. With their support I was able to make the Top Ten Bartender of the Year (BOTY) awards in September, which is no small task.
What is your most memorable bartending experience to date?
I think finding out I made BOTY was a huge moment. It was also such a humbling moment after working so hard, and I still couldn’t believe it. I remember Corinne and Kevin of Gourmantic congratulating me, and I thought it was about making the top twenty, and they were saying to me, “No, you made top ten”, and I kept repeating “no, I made top 20”. Then I cried!
Who has been an influence or a source of inspiration to you?
Aside from one famous guy, who did one of the most inspiring presentations that I have ever attended, Tony Conigliaro, it would have to be the people that I have worked with. It’s a beautiful thing to experience the passion others have for this industry, to see it live every day, having fun, making people smile, that’s where it’s at. I have met some amazing characters in my 10 years behind the bar and they are definitely the most bountiful source of inspiration.
What are some of the challenges you face as a bartender?
Missing family’s birthdays and other important events that are held on weekends, I think my mum would say that’s a big one. Lack of vitamin D, excessive drinking habits, weird sleeping patterns, the job should come with a warning label, “Bad for your health, GREAT FOR THE SOUL”. But on a serious note, one of the main challenges is dealing with people’s reactions when they ask what do you do for a living. “I am a bartender, no I don’t have another job, this is my trade and I love it”… Then they explode.
What are your favourite ingredients that define your style of cocktail?
My style of cocktail is whatever the person at my bar needs down their throats at that point in time. Something flirty (Charlie Chaplin), something hearty (Old Fashioned, Sazerac), surprise birthday shots (Fernet Branca, hahaha SURPRISE!). As far as ingredients, I do have a pet favorite that changes from season to season. I went through a stage of smoking everything, a stage of almond milk in all my cocktails, at the moment my dehydrator is getting the better of me.
What excites you about the Sydney bar scene?
It is this ridiculously vibrant living organism. It is always switched on, there’s always something happening, comps, rum clubs, gin clubs, tastings etc. It is so easy to get involved, and once you do, to meet so many people, bartenders, distillers, foodies, the talented, the passionate and the crazy larrikins.
Is there anything about the Sydney bar scene that you’d like to see change?
The abolishment of lockout laws! We live in an iconic city and it is an embarrassment as a nation to put up with this level of nanny laws that will destroy businesses and punish so many within our industry.
How do you see the Sydney bar scene evolving in the near future?
If this new laws are to stick, I think we may be seeing earlier opening times, customers beginning their nights earlier in the afternoon therefore new venues throwing their attention to the day/afternoon drinkers and creating more outdoor friendly spaces, with refreshing menus to match.
What cocktail trends or spirits interest you at the moment?
I’ve been going back to my roots lately. I have to say Chilean Pisco has caught my eye again. Although I grew up with it, I’m only recently beginning to understand and really appreciate it. It has definitive categories just like tequila; 30 degrees Pisco Tradicional, 35 degrees Pisco Especial, 40 degrees Pisco Reservado, 43degrees and up Gran Pisco. And some cracking brands, such as Mistral, Alto del Carmen, Artesanos del Cochiguaz, Capel’s Moai Reservado, Tress Erres etc. They may be hard to find but definitely worth the trouble.
When you’re not behind the bar, what do you like to drink?
Depending on the day, time, weather, and my mood, it could be any of the following and then some; shot and a beer, bubbles, cider, Aviation, Sazerac, peaty whisky neat, Shiraz, Mezcal in a flask or carrot juice.
And finally, is there a special cocktail of your creation that you’d like to share with Gourmantic?
This is one of the drinks I made on stage at the bar awards, a particular favorite of mine due to the high bitters content yet nicely balanced with the sweetness of the rum and honey.
45ml (coffee smoked) Havana 7
20ml Black Walnut Bitters
5ml Honey Syrup
Garnish: Dehydrated maple candied Pecan on the side + coffee smoke
Glass: Crystal rocks glass
Method: With smoking gun, smoke half filled Havana7 bottle with crushed coffee beans, let sit for an hour or until smoke disappears. Add all ingredients to mixing glass, stir, double strain. Smoke the whole drink again and serve with a side of candied pecan.
The Bartender Profile series continues next week.
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