Vancouver-born Paul Gabie, a partner at the much-feted 28 Hong Kong Street and CEO of Proof & Company, which is the mastermind behind some of Asia’s finest bars, talks about the importance of good design and hospitality, and why Singapore could well be the next great cocktail city. He was also a specialist judge at the recent Smith Awards which was looking to award the hottest hotel bar.
How important is good design in the F&B business? Design is so integrated to guest experience. There are so many layers to guest experience now — aside from food and drink, there’s also music and hospitality. We need good design to build world class bars, and there’s been a flourishing of that in Singapore.
Why are boutique bars are so popular now? People are looking for more personal and individual experiences, and they love the idea of discovering something that their friends don’t know about, and then sharing it with them — it’s this whole idea of stumbling upon a hidden gem and making a personal discovery. And Singapore is now quite famous for cocktail bars, and there is a series of them, in fact. Even when it comes to the type of spirits — people have moved on from drinking Bombay Sapphire and are now drinking Chase, which is an independent, family-run Single Estate from Britain.
What trends do you see happening in the Asian hospitality industry? How do these stack up in the global arena? Asia has historically been a destination for some iconic hotels, back when the Raffles Hotel itself was one of the most iconic hotels in Asia, along with others in Shanghai and Hong Kong. So it is not surprising that there is this turn towards Asia where most of the growth is happening now; in some ways, the great hotels in Asia now represent a return those historical times when they were celebrated. Asia is coming to the fore and setting standards, but if you think about it, it’s basically what they used to do.
Why do you think the boutique hotel concept is so hot in Asia? In my opinion, The Siam in Bangkok is probably one of the greatest boutique hotels in the world now — it’s just beautiful. It has some of that Asian history and the thing about The Siam is that the history of the place is very personal and a lot of the collections within the hotel are owned by the family that runs it. So there is a very innate sense of individual expression, and a very personal and intimate experience about it.
Robert Backhouse of distinguished Australian Architectural firm, Hassell, has described Singapore as the ‘centre of gravity’ for the world’s hospitality. Do you agree? In terms of bars and beverages, it certainly has been flourishing in Singapore, and Singapore really does hold its own (compared with other cities). Singapore is not a top cocktail city yet — historically, the greatest bar cities in the world have been London, Tokyo and New York — but if you look at the list for the top 100 bars in the world that was just out recently, Singapore has five on that list. Hong Kong has three, and I think Shanghai and Beijing might have one each. Without a doubt, in the last few years, Singapore has been regarded as the city to watch. I am not saying that Singapore has surpassed Tokyo, but there is so much happening here, especially in the last few years.
What sets the bars in Singapore ahead of others? There is no objective way of measuring, but there is this collaborative community that has emerged here in Singapore. The last three or four years have seen such a flourishing of bartenders here, both local ones and those who have international backgrounds, that it has really put Singapore on the map with an entire range of styles and techniques using local and international flavours — and creating unique flavours on top of that. There is just a really rich community right now that is growing. 28 Hong Kong Street opened in 2011, and since then there has been another 25 good cocktail bars that have opened. Also, there was a gin and tonic festival happening last month (in September) with 30 bars participating this year. There isn’t anything like this in Hong Kong, for instance.
Have you observed any particular trends happening? Singapore has historically been known for hotel bars, and I think there is a real trend now back towards the hotel bar — just think of Antidote at Fairmont Hotel and Manhattan at Regent Hotel. I think people are going to be quite excited about this ‘return of the great hotel bar’!
Apart from projects that you are involved in, are there bars in Singapore that you personally appreciate? I know this guy, Anthony Zhong, who used to be a bartender at CUT and Jigger & Pony. He recently opened Shin Gi Tai, which is literally a one-man bar, and he makes my favourite Negroni. He is a great example of a talented, young Singaporean bartender who went overseas to train and learn these amazing skills in Tokyo, before coming back and opening his own place. He is probably the most talented bartender I know.
Speaking of talent, do you find there is more talent now? We know Singapore has been short on hospitality staff, and it has been a question of getting people excited about it. If you went back to 20 to 30 years ago in America, it wasn’t prestigious to work in a bar or restaurant. but it has become a more respected profession as celebrity chefs and bartenders got more famous. It’s definitely starting to change when you see bars winning awards. The team at 28 Hong Kong Street is an example of this – many of their families were originally not supportive of them working in a bar. But then they went on to receive awards in London, and it started to generate an understanding that there is a real career in bars and hospitality. It is a change that will continue happen and will take time, but it is changing in Singapore. There is truly a much richer community here now.