Katherine Wasiel of The Rook began her bartending career while on a solo adventure in New York City. From her early aspirations to become a volcanologist, her three and a half year bartending career saw her win third place in a major cocktail competition. Katherine chats to us about her beginnings, inspirations, mentors and challenges of the profession.
Katherine Wasiel at the Australian Bartender Awards 2012 – Photo © by Kevin Burke
Corinne: Tell us a little about yourself, your family and where you grew up.
Katherine: Growing up in South East Queensland was my parents’ dream for us five kids. We were safe and had a childhood filled with nature, books, and strong family values. Having a Polish/German, Filipino/Spanish background, I was and still am passionate as hell. Growing up, I always wanted to learn and become every profession possible. I was such an over-achiever. At one point, I wanted to be a volcanologist, so after high school, I studied Science at the University of Queensland, and graduated with a major in Geology.
Something inside however was niggling me to be artistic and creative. I thought, well I’m 21 so why don’t I go on a solo adventure to New York City where I can experience an array of cultures in the one metropolis? That began my bartending career three and a half years ago.
How did you get into bartending?
It all started when I had zero luck holding a constant job and was at the time, trudging around the city in a blizzard (an average winter’s day for New Yorker’s) looking for work. I came across this cosy bar which had a fireplace in the back and I applied for a job knowing I had little to no cocktail bar experience. They called me back a week or two later and said I could have a trial and if I was keen to learn, I’d start from the bottom and work my way up. From there, The Clover Club was my home. I was always working one or two other jobs and that really helped me understand hospitality and make new friends.
Tell us a little about your bartending career.
I moved back to Brisbane two years ago and worked at The Bowery with my mentor and still one of the best bartenders, Steve McDermott. That place was mental. Having a high volume classic cocktail bar in a smaller city means your standard has to be impeccable; you can’t get away with an extra dash of bitters or the wrong citrus garnish. You are the place where people come to enjoy the classic cocktail culture and also to learn. A lot of great bartenders have come from Brisbane and have had their time behind the stick here.
I moved to Sydney early last year to study acting full time so I had to sacrifice my input into the bartending industry a little, but you can still find me at least three shifts a week at The Rook. I am again blessed to be working with another mentor and good friend, Cristiano Beretta. A perfect example of balancing skill and hard work with true kindness and understanding.
What is your most memorable bartending experience to date?
My most memorable experience to date is when my parents saw me bartend for the first time at the Top 10 presentation at the 2012 Australian Bartender of the Year Competition. It was my first major competition and my second competition overall. Somehow I placed 3rd which was actually frightening. I didn’t mean to, I just wanted to experience Sydney and brush up on my skills when preparing for it.
Who has been an influence or a source of inspiration to you?
There are so many influences, two of which I’ve mentioned. Every bartender I met in New York influenced me because I was so raw and inexperienced. I just used to watch and listen. Jason Williams is a bartender/bar manager I admire and respect, who continues to inspire everyone in the industry with his tireless and awe-inspiring contributions.
What are some of the challenges you face as a bartender?
Late nights and standing up for hours on end is challenging and can have negative physical effects if you ignore it. Don’t try and be tough. We are not saving lives. Invest in stretching/yoga and plenty of rest and water in between. Find a balance with the hospitality lifestyle so you’re not paying for it in the future.
What are some of the challenges you face as a bartender?
My favourite ingredients in a cocktail that define my current style have to be the humble lemon juice, a quirky bitters, and new world gins. It’s a style that continuously evolves but stays pretty closely to classic styles of cocktails. Next month I’m bound to be excited with some other fantastic product. Did I mention Mezcal Gin?!!!!!!
What excites you about the Sydney bar scene?
Putting the fun back into bars, regardless of its style. There are more and more choices becoming available where you don’t feel like you have to order something you don’t like, just to ‘fit in’. That relies almost entirely on efficient, friendly service.
Is there anything about the Sydney bar scene that you’d like to see change?
The new lockout rules. It’s choking the people who work in the industry, and the general public who know how to behave themselves. A quick-fix is not the solution. Having a lockout can be useful, but not at 1:30am, and not without extra police and public transport services.
How do you see the Sydney bar scene evolving in the near future?
More aware of the products we use; not just booze and fresh fruit, but knowing where all meat and animal products that you use are coming from. You may have made the perfect whiskey sour, but if they were bulk ordered cage eggs you used, how credible are you? Also detergents, recycling of glass and paper, and also grey water. When you start to think about it, bars use excessive amounts of water and products for convenience. Just do a little bit for the environment so the bar you work at and the ones you visit can stay open.
What cocktail trends or spirits interest you at the moment?
Mezcal Gin, new world gins, sherry and cocktail wise; short, sharp and simple.
When you’re not behind the bar, what do you like to drink?
Organic ciders, negronis, and digestifs instead of dessert.
And finally, is there a special cocktail of your creation that you’d like to share with Gourmantic?
45 ml gin
5ml lemon myrtle syrup
dash orange bitters
Stirred, served up in a absinthe rinsed coupette.
Smoke cocktail with Ceylon Orange pekoe tea.
Garnish with a lemon twist
The Bartender Profile series continues next week.
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