“Sorry I’m late,” says Pham Tien Tiep, dropping into the seat opposite me. “I’ve just come from the bartending school I set up to teach hospitality and bar skills to those who can’t afford formal training.”
He shrugs and smiles shyly. We’re here to discuss his new bar on Nguyen Quang Bich, but as the conversation progresses, I realise this article could be about any number of things — the success story of a poor boy from the countryside; the establishment of a pro-bono hospitality school; how to make a great Vietnamese-inspired cocktail; and of course, the opening of a new bar by one of Vietnam’s best known bartenders.
The first thing you notice about Tiep is how young he looks for someone who has accomplished so much. This young spiky haired man has risen fast and has no intention of stopping anytime soon. At the age of 15, he left school and moved to Hanoi from his small village 60km outside of the city.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “I just knew that I should move to Hanoi and find a job.” He then starts to list off the different jobs he’s tried. “I started as a shoe shiner, then got a job as a labourer. After that I worked at a small pho restaurant, then I was in a factory making T-shirts.” These early work experiences went on to shape his future career in ways he could not have predicted at the time. “I learned a lot from those jobs,” he says. “My most famous cocktail came straight out of my time working at the pho stand.”
From KOTO to The Metropole
Tiep landed his big break courtesy of his sister who was enrolled in a course at KOTO; a restaurant and training centre which provides disadvantaged youth with a two-year training programme in hospitality skills and personal development.
“I’ve always loved music and I consider myself a musician,” says Tiep. “So I was pleased when my sister asked me to write a birthday song to thank Mr. Jimmy Pham, the founder of KOTO.”
Mr. Pham was so impressed with the song that he not only offered Tiep a place in the KOTO programme, but also supported him with a formal course in music. It wasn’t until his next job at Le Pub, however, that Tiep discovered his true calling — creating cocktails.
“I saw the other bartenders working with all these glass bottles and shakers and I thought, I love it, I want to do that.” He convinced the Le Pub manager and then co-owner, Matt Law, to promote him to the bar, where he learned how to mix drinks. Within a year he was the bar manager. After a two-year stint, craving more skills and experience Tiep moved on from Le Pub. Despite lacking a high school diploma and the requisite certificate in five-star hospitality, Tiep set his sights on Angelina, a luxury Italian restaurant and bar in the Sofitel Metropole.
“At first they said I wasn’t qualified, but I didn’t stop asking for a chance. I explained that bartending was my dream and promised that if they gave me a shot, I would become the best bartender in Hanoi.”
Smiling cheekily he adds: “After two years of work, I did what I promised.”
Say it with Pho
A couple of years ago, Tiep decided to try out for Vietnam’s national bartending competition — “I was so nervous I would practise for hours with old liquor bottles filled with water.”
There are four rounds of competition that culminate in the presentation of a signature drink from each participant. Citing previous work experience as inspiration, Tiep decided to make a pho cocktail. “I was surrounded by pho all day, every day for one year, so the smells and spices are still very firmly in my mind.”
But Tiep does not believe that a cocktail is simply something to drink. “It is a work of art,” he explains. “It should have a background and a soul.”
So he created a story behind the drink that linked it inextricably to the flavours, culture and history of Hanoi.
“I created the pho cocktail at the Metropole Hotel, just above the war bunkers where the American musician Joan Baez sang to the staff and guests in December 1972 as bombs fell on the city,” he explains. “The alcohol in the cocktail is lit on fire to represent the bombs, while spices, such as chilli and cinnamon reflect the warmness of her voice.”
Needless to say, this drink not only secured Tiep’s success in the competition, but also won him acclaim throughout the country. His victory in Vietnam led him to Brazil where he went on to compete against representatives from 50 other countries.
Mojito Bar, which opened at the end of April, will soon be serving the famous pho cocktail as well as many of Tiep’s other creations, such as a fish-sauce based drink infused with the citrus, spices, and herbs commonly eaten with snails. However, for those with more conventional tastes, the well-trained bartenders will also be serving a range of more traditional cocktails. “We have a great Mojito recipe,” says Tiep reassuringly.
The bar is housed in an old French villa that has been completely renovated.
“We want to make this a place where people can relax, talk and think about life,” says Vu Thang, Tiep’s financial partner and the chief designer of Mojito Bar. “By keeping the historic facade but modernising the interior, we hope to inspire people to reflect on the past but also to look to the future. The second floor replicates a Vietnamese family house; we want people to feel at home. The top floor is covered in glass, and we plan to make it like a garden so our guests can escape the city and feel closer to nature.”
Tiep shrugs in answer to my question about whether there will be more bars to come.
“We want to make sure Mojito Bar is perfect,” he says. “Then we might think of opening more bars. It is better to have one really good bar than several average ones.”
But one thing is for sure, Tiep has no intention of staying still for too long.
“My name is Tien Tiep which means to keep going up, to keep walking forward. So that is what I intend to do.”
Mojito Bar is at 19 Nguyen Quang Bich, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi