‘Phil’ Nguyen Huu Phu is heading to Milan in January. That’s because he was the winner of the Campari Bartender Vietnam Competition 2019. As his mind turns to the Asian Finals of the competition, we wondered what he’ll be taking with him on his trip.
Read on in Vietnamese
“I’m Phil, bartender at Irusu Lounge…and Campari Bartender Competition Vietnam 2019 champion,” Phil, also known as Nguyễn Hữu Phú, says proudly, showing us his trophy. He took the coveted title ahead of bartenders from some of Saigon’s coolest cocktail dens – Renkon, Rabbit Hole, Drinking & Healing and Cocktail Merchants.
“But competitions aren’t so much fun,” he confesses about the pressure of competing. People had voted for him in a pre-competition poll too, which only added to the pressure. “Then, when I knew it was down to the last two competitors the nerves got even worse!” he laughs. As winner, Phil will head to Milan in mid-January for the World Finals. “What will Milan be like? I’m picturing tall historic buildings, drinking hot espressos in cafes…” he murmurs still in awe of the opportunity.
Incredibly, Phil has only been a bartender for four years. And he’s still only 24. He first caught the bartending bug while working at a five-star hotel in Saigon. As he remembers: “We’d have a daily afternoon briefing where they’d let us test the menu – including the cocktails…” The first cocktail he tried was a “complex, well-balanced” Shirley Temple. He had to wait a while longer to start his bartending career. That was at a bar and restaurant called Saigon’s Lookout that’s now Quince Saigon. After that, eager for more experience, he upgraded to the Social Club of Hotel Des Arts Saigon. “A really professional environment, with a strong brand,” Phil remembers approvingly. There he picked up his first award – winner of the Opihr Oriental Spiced Gin Competition. That was in 2017.
Soon after, the ambitious young bartender moved on. This time to “the totally different environment” of SkyXX Garden & Lounge. “There, we had to be fast and precise – every cocktail had to be consistent – but we also had to present a fun, approachable image to guests,” he remembers. Irusu Lounge, a two-level Japanese-inspired cocktail bar, was a complete change to the high-octane party environment at SkyXX. Individualised service. Creative cocktails. Detailed interior design. And breathtaking views across to Saigon’s Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Former bar manager, Lam Duong – who recently opened Nha Trang cocktail bar Hybrid – made a big impression. And he helped Phu to more competition successes. “Champion of Four Pillars Gin Vietnam, Champion of La Maison Cointreau Vietnam 2019 and now Champion of Campari Bartender Competition 2019,” Phu smiles as we sit down with the bartender to ask what will be in his travel bag to Milan for a special edition of our What’s In My Bag series.
1. Minolta x-700 Film Camera
Phil’s first object is surprisingly old-school. As Milan is a famously fashion-conscious and photogenic location he’s going to take his Minolta film camera. It’s part of the slower life he’s been embracing since joining Irusu Lounge. “If I could choose one cocktail to represent Irusu I would select our Koolada – a variation on the classic Pina Colada. It’s completely different from the original. Our Koolada is carbonated and it’s transparent. It takes a salty taste from miso and sour flavour from passion fruit. It full of contrasts. Irusu is too with its black and gold tones that contrast with the alley outside.”
“Many bars have opened up,” Phil continues, “and lots of them don’t have strong concepts…unlike at Irusu”. Photos also feature prominently at the cocktail lounge too. The walls are filled with photographs by Belgian visual artist Anton Kusters. For his Yakuza series, Kusters – after ten months of negotiations – was allowed to shoot intimate shots of Japanese gangsters. There are images of missing digits. Tattooed bodies. Gangsters bearing their chests.
2. Bar Equipment
The second objects are a more obvious choice for the World Finals of the Campari Bartender Competition. “Bar spoon, boston shaker, strainer, fine strainer and jigger…” Phil lists off confidently.
3 Al Mondo T-Shirt
His Al Mondo T-shirt is another lucky item. Phil designed the logo himself in tribute to his cocktail, the Al Mondo. He feels competitions like the Campari Bartender Competition have forced him to think differently about his craft. And to become more creative. “But I’ve been exploring ingredients for a few years now,” he adds about his #drinkwithphil project. “I study different ingredients, cultural influences, the flavours of spirits and their backstory…”
The project provided Phil with lots of ideas on how to use Campari. “My Al Mondo contains coffee, Cinzano Rosso Vermouth, Campari, pineapple juice and its garnished with pineapple too” he explains. Ingredients that are found all over the world. “That’s the point,” the bartender adds. “My Al Mondo is a tribute to Davide Campari, son of the company founder Gaspare Campari. Davide really built the brand and the story goes that he fell in love with an opera singer who he pursued across Europe and to New York…taking the bitter spirit with him…”
His Al Mondo is a tribute to the globetrotting guy behind the brand.
4 A Red Tie
The red tie is another gift from a close friend. Appearances are important, even in dimly lit bars. “I really fell in love with bartending the day I realised that we have the chance to make people happier,” he nods. Of course, how you look can help build rapport with guests. “And I’ve never had a chance to use it so I’m going to wear it for the competition in Milan…”
Photos by Nam Tran Duy and Khooa Nguyen