How does a new kid in town snag a job at one of Vancouver’s most reputable bars and win a respected bar competition in little more than a hot rotation around the sun? Dylan Zrobek, an Edmonton native, touched down in Vancouver in October 2018, and within a few weeks had secured work at the Keefer Bar, under the highly trained eyes of bar veterans Amber Bruce and Keenan Hood. Despite his relatively light experience, Amber said he had the right energy, and the willingness to work: “A lot of people want the glory without having to do the grind. He’s put in the work, and it shows. He keeps his cool, remains calm and humble.” And that steadfast nature clearly worked in his favour given he just brought home the 2020 Barate Kid Championship Belt, a bar competition that is focused on speed, agility, and quick thinking. If you haven’t seen him in action yet, you can catch Dylan working at the upcoming Keefer Bar 10-year anniversary party on February 10. Don’t miss out, the Keefer knows how to dish out a wild night.
Laura: OK. Hello Dylan! So tell me about what is going on in your world these days?
Dylan: Well, there’s not usually much going on in my world, but I was just in Seattle for the first time last week! I actually tried to go a few years ago and didn’t know my passport was expired, so the trip was overdue. I went to see an artist who’s not coming to Canada (Larry June), turns out there’s also a lot of great places to eat and drink… go figure.
L: I mean, you also just won the Barate Kid competition, but I appreciate your modesty… what places stuck out to you in Seattle?
D: Chop Suey in Capitol Hill; Navy Strength (because I’m a sucker for Tiki); the beer list at No Anchor; the Back Bar at Canon was ridiculous; and Screwdriver was a really chill lower key spot.
L: You are new on the scene in Vancouver, having moved out from Edmonton just over a year ago. How would you describe the Vancouver bar scene? What makes it different from other cities that you’ve travelled to, or worked in?
D: I have so many friends from Edmonton out here it feels like home, ha ha. There are actually a lot of similarities between the industry in Edmonton and Vancouver: both are relatively small, tight-knit communities doing some really cool shit. I think the biggest difference in Vancouver would be the influx of tourism and urban density that make a small city feel larger. I haven’t travelled much so I can’t offer a lot in that respect, but I’m sure the inhibitory liquor legislation in Canada is not news to anyone.
L: Landing at the Keefer bar is a pretty awesome score for a new kid on the block! What was it like interviewing for a job in a city that’s new to you? How did everything unfold for you at Keefer?
D: For sure, it’s pretty much best case scenario. I actually went to Keefer for the first time a few weeks before I started and laughed with my friend thinking how I’d love to work there but was nowhere near qualified. I had a lot of hospitality experience but not much in cocktail bars, so I was sweating in the interview. Luckily Amber and Keenan looked past that and thought I was worth training, so I’ve just been trying to prove them right ever since.
L: It’s always nice to see a new name pop up as champion for a bartending competition, especially Barate Kid given its focus on technical skill and speed. Have you competed before? What were the other competitions like in comparison to Barate Kid?
D: Barate Kid is pretty unique as far as competitions go. Keenan and Gez started it nine years ago at the Keefer—the original for-bartenders/by-bartenders competition—so it’s got a certain cachet within the community. I’ve done a few of those brand competitions and I’m learning to appreciate the ways by which they can contribute to product knowledge and service delivery. Comparatively though, Barate Kid is like a fun test of how well you can handle yourself during a busy service.
L: So how did Barate Kid go down exactly? What was the final skill test that garnered you the belt? Was there a part that you found most challenging?
D: The competition was stiff! I’m sure Joseph can tell you that last round was ridiculous, but it was a challenge from the start because everyone showed up ready. It’s awesome to see the standard of bartenders we have in this city is so high. I love competing with my friends though so the head-to-head format was a lot of fun, and really it’s just what we all do every night. Like, how fast can you make the drinks, how good do they taste, and would someone want to sit at your bar?
L: Do you (or did you ever) have a mentor? How about for Barate Kid? I feel like there must have been some good training sessions at Keefer Bar, given the event originated within those walls!
D: Amber Bruce. I really can’t say enough about her. Keenan has a wealth of knowledge, and Hugo has been in this industry since he was allowed to drink—the Keefer has a special thing going on. Can I just shout out all my friends who helped me learn this bartending thing though? James Grant from Edmonton (currently at this new spot called Pablo); Nich Box of the Acorn (whose cocktail list is sorely underrated); Kris Calderon and Riley Maggs—they’re two of the most hospitable bartenders I know—Riley recently moved here and started at the Keefer! (Kris is in Ottawa but I’m working on having him move here soon.)
L: What was it about making cocktails that drew you into the industry?
D: I was set on the hospitality industry long before I thought much of cocktails. I was actually pretty convinced I was going to make coffee for the rest of my life. I always loved making things for people, whether it be the first coffee of their day or the nightcap on their way home. I’m such a night owl though, so it didn’t take much to convince me that bars were more my speed than cafés. The creativity of working with cocktails is invigorating, but the best piece of advice I’ve received is that we’re here to serve people, not drinks.
L: The sweet, sweet language of hospitality! Amen to that. How about when you’re the one being served… do you have a go-to drink?
D: All I ever drink at home is Pacifico or El Jimador. But if I’m out for a cocktail, a Negroni.
L: What’s your guilty pleasure drink?
D: I mean, I don’t feel guilt about it, but I have a bad sweet tooth. Alize and juice, Piña Coladas (shout out to Bao Bei), or literally anything blue.
L: Oh hell yes those Piña Coladas at Bao Bei are delicious!! What about a drink that makes you cringe (to drink or to make)?
D: I’ll make anything that makes you happy, but please don’t make me drink tomato juice or olive juice.
L: The late nights are not always easy to juggle. What keeps you sane and balanced outside of work?
D: I run a lot. Otherwise, I obsess over music, read, and use Netflix as an excuse to eat way too much popcorn. I think finding any reason to get up in the morning is important to maintain sanity. Having diverse passions and maintaining friendships with people far-removed from the industry definitely helps to keep me grounded and give me perspective.
L: I think that’s some of the best advice I’ve heard yet, particularly about the diversity of friendships—hospitality is so family-like, but it can be very all-encompassing, so I appreciate the importance of staying connected to the outside world, and I appreciate you sharing that with everyone.
Any fun events or competitions that we can expect to see you at in the near future?
D: Come see me at the bar, five nights a week! We actually do have an event coming up at Keefer Bar though. It’s our 10-year anniversary party on Monday, February 10th so come on through! There will be live music, cheap drinks, and a *rumoured* tattoo artist on deck. It’s gonna be a good time. Otherwise, if I’m not at Keefer, you can probably (read: definitely) find me at Tocador…
L: Thanks so much Dylan. See you on the 10th for sure! Thanks for taking the time with me.
Dog or cat? Dog
Negroni or Boulevardier? Negroni
Most overhyped bar trend? Those twists that sit on the rims of coupes, if only because they poke me in the cheek and I’m an ardent zest-and-discard kind of guy.
Most despised bar term? Mixologist, when used in place of bartender, for how it emphasizes drink making over hospitality.
Most underutilized spirit? I feel like Jaeger was in a toxic relationship with Red Bull for a long time, but it’s looking single and ready to mingle lately.
First drink you ever had? Probably Black Label Ice or whatever trash beer my older cousins were drinking.
Pinot or Cabernet? They don’t make champagne from Cabernet… so you tell me.
Go-to hangover cure? A good run and a shower beer.
High school prom song? I don’t think I stayed for the song.
THC or CBD? Depends on the day.
Thanks again Dylan!
—by Laura Starr