Interview With Charmaine Thio and Lukas Kaufmann | Life In Bold Flavors
Behind one of the best bars in Asia stand two creative, passionate minds– Charmaine Thio and Lukas Kaufmann. Co-bar captains of the magnetic 28 HongKong Street, this dynamic duo continue to change the game with highly inspired, conceptual menus and deliciously well-balanced drinks.
The Hedonist Magazine had the wonderful opportunity to catch up with Charmaine and Lukas to discover the inspiration behind 28 HongKong Street’s latest menu, uncover exclusive secrets from behind the bar, and find out what makes them tick.
What drew the both of you to bartending?
Lukas: I stood behind the bar at the age of 24 after I returned back to Europe from the United States. My very good family friend owned Dubliner Irish Pub in Bratislava and they needed help so I started to work there, learned how to pour beers and shots. I thought it would be a temporary job but after more than a year there, I got offered to join the team of Paparazzi Ristorante where I fell in love with craft cocktails and hospitality. Paparazzi was awarded with “Best Cocktail Menu” at Tales of the Cocktail – and the menu was created by Stanislav Vadrna, who till today is a huge inspiration to me and his philosophy made me fall in love with our industry and craft.
Charmaine: I tell guests I started doing it to pick up girls…Bad jokes aside, I spent a lot of time hanging out at craft cocktail bars during my final year of college. The more time I spent at these bars, the more I was impressed with the bartenders who took their craft seriously and had a wealth of knowledge ranging from scientific principles to cocktail history. Also, it was like watching an artist or performer at work. After I graduated I spent about 2 months on my couch looking for a “real job” in journalism. Six months later, I’d had enough of the anxiety of not having a full- time job so I asked around if anyone was willing to hire and train an English graduate with little to no F&B experience to be a bartender. To my surprise I got a few yeses and my part-time situation is now my real job.
What is the most interesting thing about being behind the bar?
Charmaine: The people on the other side. I love stories and every new person you meet behind the bar has their whole life story to tell, and for me it’s a lot of fun getting to see the world through other people’s experiences.
Lukas: The people, the industry, the camaraderie, the fact that every single day is different, the creative part of our craft, and this is going to sound cliché but I found a job where it doesn’t feel like you’re going to work. I can honestly say that I’m doing what I love!
As co-bar captains, tell us how it is like working with each other and how you both complement one another.
Charmaine: It’s been pretty great so far. I respect hard work and dedication and Lukas definitely has those qualities. I feel like we work well together and definitely support each other. Think about it like we’re a battery that runs the bar and he’s the positive to my negative. I’m the practical ‘Do we really need to spend more money on such things?’, ‘Yes that looks really pretty but we are going to regret it on a Friday night’ type person whereas Lukas is the dreamer and the one who reminds everyone to “be nice”, orders in pizza and tacos on long days.
Lukas: I personally joined the 28 HongKong Street team only five months ago, but working alongside Charmaine has been very pleasant since day 1. I like how we help and support each other in everyday tasks. It’s very encouraging and motivating to work side by side with Charmaine who loves the job, the bar, and the entire team with as much passion and determination as I do.
What is your vision for 28 HongKong Street?
Lukas: 28 HongKong Street is a pioneer establishment in the Singapore cocktail scene, our vision is to keep our guests satisfied, happy and continue the 28 HongKong Street’s legacy.
Charmaine: I hope for it to always stay true to itself. 28’s always been about inclusivity and making people feel at home and comfortable hanging out all night regardless of where they come from, how they’re dressed, where they work or how they like their martinis. It’s also always been about delivering great quality drinks and hospitality. For as long as the bar stays standing we’ll continue to deliver quality artisanal spirits in cocktails with bold, clean flavors, made-from-scratch ingredients and little dashes of personality. We’ve been around for a while now, six and a half years is a long time by Singapore bar standards, and I hope that we’ll one day be seen as an institution in the same way that Employees Only NYC or PDT NYC are regarded.
How do you interpret luxury in a glass at 28 HongKong Street?
Charmaine: Luxury to me is being able to indulge in something that you don’t always have the opportunity to enjoy. Luxury at our bar is really more about being able to take time off from your busy schedule, walk through those black curtains, leave real life behind for a while and just indulge yourself in the moment, whether by yourself or with friends, sipping on whatever your choice of poison is. For me it’s as simple as having a moment to myself while savoring a whisky highball and feeling the energy of the bar.
Lukas: At 28 HongKong Street we do work with some of the best and most unique ingredients and spirits available, so luxury in a glass is pretty much every drink.
Where do you get inspiration for the cocktails on 28 HongKong Street’s menu?
Lukas: For this recent menu, we were inspired by the history and geography of American Hip Hop. The names are obviously inspired by rappers, song lyrics, album titles and the drinks themselves are inspired by the four main regions of hip-hop in America namely the East Coast, West Coast, Midwest & Dirty South. From there we drew inspiration from regional ingredients, drink styles and even cuisine.
What are your favourite drinks to make?
Charmaine: I don’t really have a favourite drink to make. I like making drinks that make my guests happy but that’s about the extent of it.
Lukas: Drinks which please our guests. I love to make all of the drinks, there’s not a drink that I like to make more than others.
What is your best bar trick?
Charmaine: I can make a shot of tequila disappear really quickly.
Lukas: It’s a secret I won’t reveal. You have to come down to the bar to find out for yourself.
Which other bars do you frequent on your days off?
Lukas: The Singapore cocktail scene is so full of great people, friends and personalities that there are just too many great places to name.
Charmaine: I try to see different bars each time. Especially if they launch a new menu or I haven’t seen the team in a while. I do frequent Manhattan a fair bit though, it helps that they’re open on Sunday and have a kickass brunch.
Given the hustle and bustle during service, what do you enjoy doing in your free time to unwind?
Lukas: We are all very busy in this industry, so there is very little free time. However, when there is I like to just relax with a good book and go for food with friends. I also love CrossFit and I love to sleep if there is time for it.
Charmaine: I read on the bus to work. Netflix on the couch. Yoga in the morning. Pole dance in the afternoon/evening. And sleep, yeah sleep is good.
How do you define success both personally and professionally?
Lukas: There is no elevator to success, you have to take stairs.
Charmaine: Success to me is being comfortable with who you are, what you’ve achieved and how you achieved it. Being able to go to sleep at night thinking “I worked for everything I have and didn’t hurt myself or others to get there” I think is the definition of personal and professional success.
What advice would you give to anyone who wishes to venture into bartending?
Lukas: Work hard, be humble and passionate.
Charmaine: Work for the role you want not the role you have. Be humble, everyone who’s made a name for themselves in the industry started as a dishwasher, barback, waiter/waitress, busboy/girl, they just worked hard, worked smart, stuck it out and went places. It’s a physically demanding job so do your best to eat well, exercise and drink responsibly. If you want to make bartending a career it’s important to have the discipline to look after your body even though partying all night all week can be tempting at times.
Our motto at The Hedonist is “You can be, do and have anything you want.” What’s your take on such a statement?
Charmaine: I agree. I always tell people “you are the pilot of your own life”. As long as you’re willing to chart your own course and actively work toward getting what you want I don’t see why life and all it has to offer can’t be yours for the taking.
Lukas: I think this is very true. You can do and have anything you desire if you work hard on it!