Bob Louison

4 Oct. 2019
The Asian Adventures of a French Pioneer

Some glass ceilings just cannot be broken. Sometimes, you’re better off moving to a new challenge where the ceilings are higher or easier to break. Back in 2008, when Bob Louison realized that he could not grow professionally in France — most operators thinking his skillset was somewhat too advanced or unaffordable for them — he took a big leap in the unknown and bought a one-way ticket to Beijing: «  I had met a lot of Asian bartenders over the years and I was sat at home in Paris not really knowing what to do when I saw a report on TV about the Beijing Olympics and how it was going to change a lot of things. I talked with my friends and they told me to come. I landed in the afternoon, at 8pm I already had a flat, key in hands. Within a week, I had a job. And I thought ‘why would anyone stay in France?’ »

Until then, Bob’s career had been a mix of the usual and the not so common at the time. Like many, he started in his students days but got the bug. « I wanted to help my parents pay for my education but within three days I knew it was what I wanted to do. I was tough telling them I wanted to become a bartender and for a while I did both things ». First, he worked at various places in Paris, around the Champs Elysées, learning the craft at a time when cocktail culture was really in its infancy. Then came the call of a friend, who told him he had a room waiting in London if he wanted to try his luck. Three days after landing, he was hired at the Atlantic, then post-Dick Bradsell but still very much a hotspot. « I was told I’d have to begin as a barback. I didn’t mind, it allowed me to work on my English and to learn from the team ». Today, Bob credits London as the defining moment in his career, learning all about the classics but also the set up of a bar or guest psychology — things that still stand him in good stead today.

After a year or so in London, Bob’s next big move was New York, where he landed at a French restaurant. « I learned about wine but above all I learned about floor service. At the time, I hated it but it was so useful », he recalls now. The Big Apple was not for him, though, and he went back to Europe. First, Paris, where he had his first role as a manager — a real eye-opener — and then Ibiza « because I thought Spanish would be very useful », before returning — once more — to France to work mostly in events and do some brand stuff. If this all reads a bit like a LinkedIn profile, we’re sorry… But that’s what impressed us about the way Bob is explaining how he got to where he is now: at every step, it seems the focus was on expanding his skillset, whether linguistic or operational. And that’s how this very ambitious and driven young man finally hit the famed glass ceiling and decided a change of scenery was necessary.

It was radical. « We didn’t have any bitters in China back then », he says. « We had to make them ourselves ». But for someone with a can-do attitude, this is both very exciting and gratifying, especially when the city is buzzing. And somewhere where the city really was buzzing was China Doll 3.3, owned by a Chinese actress. « She was friends with Jackie Chan and he’d come. And I don’t know how they did it but it became the bar where all the athletes from the Olympics would come after they were done. It was crazy. » There was an opportunity. Bob was one of the first foreign bartenders in Beijing at a time when things seem about to take up. He launched a consulting business and went on the ride of a lifetime, seeing first hand how Asia went straight from disco drinks to full on craft movement.

« I had the sense that I was like a bartender in New York in the late 80’s. Everything is to be done and you get to see and have a hand in how it happens », Bob tells us. With Singapore exploding through the influx of foreign bartenders bringing their very diverse experience to town and Hong Kong or Shanghai growing, Bob focused on a lesser known market. « You didn’t hear about Seoul at all, so I went to see. On my first trip in 2010, there was just a couple of Japanese style bars, that’s it. And I thought I could be based there, carry on with my consulting business across Asia and see what would happen ». The man who had spent so much of his career — and still does — learning had also found out a passion for teaching. Once settled in Seoul, he organized masterclasses, tasting, etc. This community building exercise culminated with the Seoul Bar Week he organized in 2017 — the first such event by and for bartenders. Inevitably, he was asked to consult on bar openings. One project in particular convinced him to really work behind the bar again: Pussyfoot Saloon, launched in October 2017. For this project, he channelled all his experience — drinks, design, marketing, management, training… It worked: it was named the « One to Watch » at the 2019 Asia’s 50 Best Bars. 

Although Bob feels there’s much more to come from Korea, especially if local bartenders can find a style and if they break through the language barrier — he reckons some of the best bars in the country remain unknown because bartenders and owners can’t speak English — it won’t happen under his watch. Last spring, he announced he was leaving Pussyfoot Saloon and would relocate. And in August the news fell: Bob was named as the new bar manager at Hong Kong’s legendary Lobster Bar. The 18th best bar in the world in 2015, the Lobster has been out of the top 50 for the last two years. « I had other opportunities, including opening my own bar, but it felt like the right time. When you’re helping a scene develop, it’s not only the bartenders you need to train, it’s also the clients. At the Lobster Bar, I’m asked to bring a new perspective — the scene is more advanced and the team is very good. I felt I was at point in my career to do that ». It’s a new challenge for Bob Louison, but we don’t think there will be a glass ceiling problem this time around.

François Monti