It’s likely you’ve seen Kata Simon dancing with a cocktail shaker behind the counter of one the best craft cocktail bars in Saigon, Below Whiskey Den. If so, you probably enjoyed one of her visually unique – and delicious – concoctions. You might’ve even shared a chat with this vibrant soul. Kata Simon is not only the bar manager at Below Whiskey Den, she is also beverage manager of the organisation that encompasses Broma Not A Bar, Lost Boys Hideout, and Baroness Club. Added to that, Kata Simon won Below Whiskey Den the title of maker of Saigon’s Best Negroni 2019, awarded by Campo, the exclusive distributor in Vietnam of Campari liquor – a key ingredient in the classic cocktail. So, read on to discover how the contents of Kata’s bag reflect how she got to be this good…
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
At 17, Kata Simon started spending time at a local bar in Hungary. “I fell head over heels with the bar lifestyle,” Kata smiles intensely. Wide-eyed she would sit and chat with the patrons and staff or just observe. And she jumped at the chance to work there, even if it was only the weekends.
In 2004, Kata Simon moved to Budapest. She would spend six years there, garnering new experiences. She attended bartending school, while challenging herself to flourish in the new big-city environment. There she got to know Zoltan Nagy, the founder of the school. They were inseparable even when her schooling drew to a close, becoming a long-time mentor who opened Kata’s mind. “Zoltan was a bartending giant of Hungary, and I am who I am today because of him.”
Thanks to him, Kata Simon knew she belonged in hospitality. After graduating, Zoltan helped her snag a job organising events for one of the best bars in Budapest.
After those six “wonderful” years in Budapest, Kata Simon made the move to London. In the British capital, Kata began working at the Coburg Bar at The Connaught Hotel, a renowned five-star establishment.
A year and a half later, in came an offer from Mr. Fogg’s Residence, a cocktail bar respected for its old-world charm. Kata Simon came in as a bar back and shot to the position of head bartender in a year. “They were the best four years of my life,” Kata reminisces, “In those years, I learned the most from my teachers, met loads of beautiful minds, and made many forever friends…”
Despite that, Kata Simon decided it was time for a change in scenery once again after six years in London. And Vietnam called her name. “Life in Asia – especially in Ho Chi Minh City – is not easy,” Kata furrows her brow, “I would say it’s one of the most challenging things I have experienced…”
Here, Kata Simon has more responsibilities than ever. She trains Vietnamese staff from the ground up. The staff had no previous experience with professional bartending so Kata feels she must assume the role of mentor like the ones she’s had.
“I know the trainees look up to me, so they are my motivation,” Kata Simon explains, “For them, I try to be extra creative with different ingredients I have on hand.” The ingredients here in Asia are a world apart from what’s available in Kata’s homeland, so she enjoys trying new flavour combinations and creating daring cocktails like the Tweed with homemade carrot wine and pickled mango puree or her Boulevardier with tomato washed Campari and Sweet Vermouth Aged in a Vietnamese pumpkin.
This mentored turned mentor is excited to imbue younger generations with her wealth of knowledge. “I have so much to teach,” Kata tell us, “not only about cocktails but about the mentality that I adopted that pushes me forward in the industry of hospitality.”
Even in her spare time, Kata Simon has hospitality-related hobbies. When she’s not working behind the bar, she is a cocktail and bar consultant and the director of The Song of Bar & Tender, a side project aimed to create more of a community among bartenders, encouraging masters of bartending to educate newbies about the industry’s ins and outs at talks, panels, and workshops. Kata is fully dedicated to the craft. Till death do they part. “Hospitality is my life,” Kata put her hands on her heart, “It is in my blood, and I’ll go as long as I can.”
While working at Mr. Fogg’s, she met Vietnamese cocktail maestro Pham Tiem Tiep. This Hanoian owns Ne Cocktail Bar and a bartending school. Tiep was the first to breach the subject of a move to Vietnam with Kata, although it was the position at Below Whiskey Den that brought her here.
However, Tiep and Kata kept in touch, and last summer she and her team at Below joined hands with her old friend and his team at Ne Cocktail Bar. It was a Hanoi-Saigon exchange. Visiting bartenders held masterclasses and guest shifts at both Below and Ne.
“We also scoured the markets in Hanoi and Saigon for interesting ingredients,” Kata adds, “and made a video to showcase Vietnam’s beauty for all the world to see.”
Kata Simon tells us that each profession has its own “thing” that belongs to it. For bartending, that “thing” is indisputably a jigger. A jigger is the little metal contraption bartenders use to measure liquor. Kata’s jigger of choice is the “Cabala” which to the untrained eye looks like any other jigger but Kata claims that it’s higher quality in its metal composition, shape, and proportions.
The Cabala has been by Kata’s side since her days at Mr. Fogg’s Residence four years ago. With it, Kata feels complete. In it are all the memories Kata created at that establishment.
Every time Kata Simon grabs the Cabala, she gets a different flash of memory.
She also tells us that a jigger is not just a tool. The way each bartender moves and interacts with the equipment manifests his or her individual personality. “Being behind the bar is a performance,” Kata flashes a smile, “And I always tell my people ‘Be sexy’!”
2. Buddhist Necklace
A few years back, Kata Simon hit an all-time low. Everything in her world seemed to be spiralling downward: family, career, and love life. One day, Kata came across a Buddha picture on the internet. It was a painting of a small monk boy standing before an immense stone statue of a peaceful, cross-legged Buddha. “I felt this indescribable calm wash over me,” Kata closes her eyes, “and I immediately delved into research about the Buddhist way of life.”
After gaining an understanding of Buddhism, Kata picked herself back up again. Knowing of this bartender’s penchant for this religion, one of Kata’s good friends brought her a Buddha necklace from a Chinese temple. And Kata has worn it every day since she received it. It makes her feel safe. “I also have this special Buddha picture tattooed on my arm!” Kata says as she rolls up her sleeve to show us.
Kata Simon loves many music genres, but it’s classical music that is her true love. When Kata Simon was around nine years of age, her father would play classical music on a big record player in the living room. “It was our time. A time to teach. And a time to learn.”
With classical music, Kata’s mind shuts out the whole world. This way, she can focus on her thoughts. Nothing interrupts her while she’s in this zone of concentration.
So, on her little black and white earbuds, Kata Simon listens to her personally curated selection of classical pieces while working. “There’s Vivaldi, Bach, and Beethoven among other legendary composers…”
Bartenders and bar managers have a lot to remember. Kata Simon prefers to note things down the old-fashioned way: in a leather-bound notebook. Naturally this one has an image of the Buddha on the front.
Kata’s little notebook is full of cocktail ideas, project ideas, even ideas for new garnishes to wow customers. Being a bartender requires effort and an open mind. But most of all, bartending requires love. If one has a true love of a craft, the brain never stops working on it Kata believes.
For her, bartending is an art rather than merely a job. “I’m always on the lookout for something new, something different,” Kata says, “Sometimes ideas can come and go in a flash. So if I don’t jot them down, they get lost in the ether.”
Kata Simon used to play a little game with her family at Sunday lunch. Two people would pull at opposite ends of the Y-shaped wishbone of a chicken. The person who ended up with the bigger piece made a wish.
Kata went 28 years never getting to be that person. (It would always be her mother.) “But once – only once – on our last Sunday lunch before I left Hungary, I tried my luck and I got it!” Kata does a silent cheer.
She wished to have great people surrounding her throughout her journey out in the big wide world. Since she’s left her homeland, she’s carried this big piece of the wishbone with her in a canvas bag. It’s been eight years. And Kata’s wish came true. So she vows to keep the wishbone forever…
Photos by Nam Tran Duy and Khooa Nguyen