With more than 15 years of experience, countless nominations for International Bartender of the Year, and many collective and individual awards, Zdenek Kastanek is one of the most recognizable figures of the cocktail industry. Since late 2012, he has set his stall in Singapore with the Proof & Company import / consulting / education firm and is still bartending at 28 Hong Kong Street. We’ve caught up with him and asked him about the road from Bystrice, Czech Republic, to the Garden City.
“I’ve been on the road for 12 years, but I started as a chef in 1999. My dad was a maître d’ in a hotel and he got me summer jobs as chef apprentice. Being a chef was my dream and I went to school for that. I was placed in a 5* hotel, where I was peeling potatoes. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a necessary step, but I was used to cook already”, Zdenek told us. At the same time, a teacher at his school was an IBA member. He placed a shaker in his hands, and provided him with an alternative to potato peeling. “I followed a cocktail course, and one of my classmates was Alex Kratena!”. The Czech dream team, soon to be launched on an unexpecting London, was taking shape.
First, though, Zdenek headed for Australia, at the time (2005-2006) a developing scene. “Australia is now a cocktail world leader. And I also saw great thing happening back home, with lots of really, really cool bars opening in Prague or Brno.” London, where he went to work at Qvo Vadis with Paul Mant, was different. “The standards are set and the pie is cut. Fighting over that piece of pie was nice, but after a while, I started to wonder whether I wanted to stay in a big city such as London or if I found it more enjoyable to help a smaller scene, to be part of an upcoming movement…”
Soon, opportunity came knocking: while giving trainings in India, Zdenek received a call from Michael Callahan at 28 Hong Kong Street. “He asked me if I’d be up for moving to Singapore and helping him push the bar even further. He also told me about the plans for Proof & Company, and 12 hours later I was in town. The idea they had was raw but great fun, it got me excited and I signed up”.
Zdenek describes 28 Hong Kong Street as a New York style bar, with great ingredients and simple garnishes. And a focus on quality that goes beyond drinks: “Food is at the centre of our attention. People come in specifically for it.” Another reason for the ex-chef to feel at home there, then? “You can’t run an interesting bar today without being able to use basic kitchen techniques, anyway. And the chef background gives you the ability to transform ideas into flavours. But frankly, above all I know how hard a job it is and it has helped me climb the ladder: if you want to do well in positions of leadership, you need to know the trade from A to Z”.
When he moved full time to Singapore in January 2013, the town budding scene centred around 28 and The Tippling Club. It has grown exponentially since then. “When we launched Singapore Cocktail Week in 2016, 15 bars signed up and we were shocked that there were so many. This, year, 50 bars were on board! Even when I first visited, you could see that something was cooking”. Proof & Company had a hand in this, with its work on the Manhattan Bar only the best-known example of their nurturing of the local scene. And Zdenek and his partners are looking to do the same across Asia – craft cocktails in Burma?!? No wonder then, that the man was longlisted for ‘Best Bar Mentor’ at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.