With pop-up restaurants and kitchen takeovers at every corner, it’s a tough game staying creative in the restaurant scene today. But Bombay Canteen found a way – open up your bar instead. Last month saw the restaurant set up its very first Canteen Cocktail Takeover, with cocktail masters Owen Gibler and Jameel Frith. The duo dropped in to town for a one-night-only crossover behind the bar, a masterclass for local cocktail enthusiasts, and a special treat: a custom- designed cocktail for MW magazine, using locally sourced ingredients and drawing from a wealth of global experience.
Gibler is Beverage Director and Principal Bartender at the Hong Kong outpost of Employees Only, the famous
New York neo-speakeasy that made eight consecutive appearances on Drinks International’s ‘World’s 50 Best Bars’ list. Together with Frith, he serves up as many laugh as he does award- winning drinks. When I first meet them, seven hours into their tightly scheduled 48-hour trip, they’re getting comfortable behind the bar, pointing at fruits and spices, peeling ginger, getting pally with the staff. Over a quick cup of tea, we manage to chat about everything from the varieties of apples available on the East Coast to the ethics of using local ingredients. Gibler, a quick- talking, quick-witted, tightly- wound bundle of energy, bounces his jokes perfectly off his colleague’s solid and well-chosen one-liners.
Later that night, I see both their personalities put to the test, serving endless drinks to a crowd three-people deep at the bar for hours on end. Gibler performs beautifully for his audience, pulling faces and whooping as he powers through. Frith plants his feet, puts his head down and churns out one excellent cocktail after the other to the adoring crowd. The five EO specials on the menu – the EO Gimlet, the Waterloo, Rocket Fuel, Lions Tale and Rhymes with Red – go smoothly with the mood-lighting and the jazz, though unlike most Canteen nights, there is no room for dancing.
When asked what made them decide to sign up for this, Gibler’s answer was quite blunt. “It’s India.” Arijit Bose, brand ambassador for Monkey 47 gin, is a mutual friend of the Bombay Canteen management, and the EO team introduced the two. With branches in Hong Kong, Singapore, New York and Miami, EO has a history of adapting to local tastes and ingredients. Heroing local produce also happens to be the core tenet of Bombay Canteen’s food philosophy, and the two are excited to shake out something new together. “The only line I try to tread, and it’s key to not being jerks, is I really want to use local stuff, but I want to have a good idea of how to do that, and not just walk around and butcher someone’s idea of how they’ve done something for a very long time,” says Gibler. “There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about things, instead of just walking around poking things saying ‘oh, that might be tasty!”. Frith tells me that it all depends on who’s showing them the way. “We’re open and we’re asking questions, so if the person is forthcoming in their answers, then it doesn’t take us [too long].” With a nod to the Canteen staff busy prepping for the night, he smiles and adds, “And we got a solid team back there.”