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.
Souhail Rostainajad is a new kid on the Gastown block, and he has properly landed in one of Vancouver’s most established bars, Pourhouse, where he is working under industry leader, bar manager Adam Domet and alongside a solid bar team of high fliers—a surefire way to plant some root and stock in the Vancouver bar industry. It’s a fitting place to land in particular because it is the conceptual starting point of the infamous Restaurant Rumble, and Souhail trains in martial arts… he’s got a competitive streak and an eye for assiduousness, so if we don’t see him training for Aprons for Gloves this year, we are hoping to see him sharpen his skills at this year’s Barate Kid!
This is Hailey Pasemko, and she’s the managing force behind the bar program at Wolf in the Fog in Tofino, on Vancouver Island. She came highly recommended as someone to speak to (thank you Alex Black!) and for good reason: Hailey began tending bar at 19 and has maneuvered through the industry with precision and agility, consistently pushing herself to learn more, do more, and make this industry her own. She’s a loaded gun, with wine education, bar education, management experience, and now, she’s forging a path as a forager, the fruits of her labour displayed behind her bar, with self made products such as Salmonberry bitters and Nootka rose syrup. There’s never been a tastier reason to hit up Tofino.
Meet the incomparable Brian Grant. With 20 years in his back pocket in the bar industry, he can school you with stories of what he’s seen and done in and around the Downtown, Yaletown, and Gastown neighbourhoods of Vancouver. He can also school you in a boxing ring, as he is an absolutely beloved and revered coach at Eastside Boxing, and a big part of the annual boxing charity event, Aprons for Gloves. Intimidation need not apply though. In everything he does, Brian is engaging, patient, and inspiring, whether he’s yelling his pep talk in your corner during a boxing match, or pouring your favourite drink at his extremely cozy lounge in East Vancouver that doubles as his distillery for Resurrection Spirits. Starting from the bottom, he has crafted a life in this industry through perseverance and humanity, and he continues to give and give and give some more. A big cheers to this legendary Vancouverite!
This wild child has carved his own path in the industry, securing his place in the bar scene at an early age after passionately needing to be around live music. Currently working the wood in Gastown’s beloved music spot, Guilt & Co. as well as repping the new and alluring spirit called Trakal, he doesn’t stop there, concurrently pursuing acting, music, and his motorcycle license. He’s so damn charismatic, I can’t help but think of Brian Flannagan from the movie Cocktail, but don’t ever tell him I said that. This month’s feature bartender is the one and only Alex Carruthers.
Meet Rhett Williams, a born and raised Vancouverite of the Northern variety, whose boozy beginnings were not actually so wet; with a background in music and years of studying chemistry in university, Rhett’s entry into the realm of spirits started with words before wood, as he found himself writing about cocktail history before his career behind the bar even started. He has since established himself as a staple in the industry, through years of working under the best and up to the top. His most recent venture as general manager at Dark Manor, which he helped open last year, has recently shut the doors. And what an adventure it was. These are the champions we need to see more of in Vancouver; those brave enough to take risks and open independent projects in a city of chains. For these lionhearts, when it doesn’t work out, they move on to the next project, slowly shaping the culture of Vancouver’s bar scene. Keep your eyes on Rhett, as his endless spirit (and dance moves) will without doubt take us somewhere new and exciting.
Laura: OK. Hi Rhett! It’s been a wild year for you. Tell me about what is going on in your world these days?
Rhett: Oh hi! Big life changes for me! I’ve never had so many transitions happening at once—personally and professionally. Excellent opportunity to make some positive changes and create healthy new habits. I’m excited to see where life and I take myself…
L: Now, you’ve had wet fingers behind the bars of some pretty awesome spots in Vancouver, from Pourhouse to Nightingale to Shameful Tiki to opening Dark Manor (which sadly just closed.) How did each spot contribute to your experience with working behind a bar?
R: I was more than happy to start my life over again at the proverbial bottom of the totem pole at Pourhouse, an environment that encapsulated my romance with spirits and cocktails at the time. I had much of the knowledge, but this is where I learned the craft, so to speak. My mentors there, especially Christopher Flett and Brian Grant, gave me the big picture of hospitality: service, a commitment to quality, respect for your peers and your guests, and hard work. I learned most of what I know about this industry from my four years there, and I am ever thankful I had the honour of managing the bar for half that time amongst such great and respected company. The Pourhouse service-well on a weekend night is also where I got my chops and grace under pressure.
Nightingale was a wonderful experience in opening a restaurant, and in being more connected to the business side of things. Working with Cooper Tardivel and Alex Black was an honour, and I’ve never worked with so many friendly and lovely staff. I was learning about food and wine every day. It also challenged how much I had romanticized bartending; it was a great lesson in humility.
The Shameful Tiki Room is a very, very special place—such a unique and challenging bartending experience. It’s a testament to their creativity and insanity that it’s a functioning bar at all, haha. I’m not sure anything can throw me after having made that many drinks that are that complicated—alone—on that bar while that room is full. The prep was at times unreal, but Shea Hogan’s systems were inspiring.
The Dark Manor Inn was also a very unique experience. I had opened a restaurant before, but not with such a small team and with so much responsibility and control—and while still managing another business. This project definitely made me more aware of my limitations and stressed the importance of time and sanity management. Above all else, I’m honoured I was able to assemble such an incredible bar team. My fondest memory from that journey was designing the menu with Jason Earle, Jared Fontaine, and Rod Redford—the most collaborative process I’ve been a part of so far.
L: It was a solid effort getting Dark Manor off the ground, and we were all sad to see it close. I have much admiration for people who get things off the ground in this city, and often, just because something closes, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have opened. What was the most surprising part of your experience with Dark Manor? Anything in hindsight that you would have done differently?
R: Above all else the biggest challenge for us was location. I don’t think any of us anticipated the severity of this challenge, and given the option or the control, a different neighborhood would be the difference.
I’m proud of everything else we accomplished there. I think we created an amazing guest experience, and Rod Moore built one of the coolest rooms in town—by hand. I’m sad more people didn’t get to see it!
L: How would you describe the Vancouver bar scene? What makes it different from other cities that you’ve travelled to, or worked in?
R: I always felt our scene was inherently extra creative from the outset, mostly due to the lack of availability of so many products. When I started, I had to have my brother smuggle things up from the States like maraschino, violette, St. Germain, even American rye. Because of this we were forced to start thinking outside the box, recreate ingredients from scratch, and look to a more culinary approach. On that note, I think we also have had a consistently high level of service by virtue of almost every bar program being attached to great food programs—originally for licensing purposes, but the two just became integrated.
L: Do you think it’s hard for new bartenders to break into the scene in Vancouver? Any sage advice on getting started?
R: At the moment, I actually don’t. It seems we have more bar positions than bartenders at this point! However, finding the right one with an opportunity to learn and grow—this is definitely not easy. The importance of hard work, a drive to always be learning, and a sense of humility can’t be overstated.
My advice is to look for any position in programs you are excited about run by people from whom you want to learn. Be an apprentice or bar back at your favourite bar/restaurant, take the slow shifts, do what it takes to put yourself into an environment with the highest possible expectations and learn everything you possibly can. Read, watch, and ask questions. If you aren’t challenged, you’ll never evolve. Never get too comfortable.
L: I recently saw you shaking up some fancy cocktails at the Deighton Cup in the Rebel Yell tent. What’s the main difference between working behind wood, and working a tent at an event like Deighton Cup?
R: The main difference is that the attendees are not my guests but rather guests of the event. I still have some level of responsibility for their experience, but it’s much more of a smile-and-pump-the-drinks-out vibe. It’s definitely fun to work under changing conditions and environments and with new and different people.
L: Do you ever get the itch to compete in cocktail competitions?
R: Never. It’s a skill set I have not developed. They’re always fun to watch, but I have no desire to compete at this point. I’m probably the least competitive person you’ll meet anyway!
L: If you weren’t in Vancouver, where would you be?
R: San Francisco playing in a band with my brother, or southern Spain stuffing my face with Manchego.
L: The word Manchego is like Pavlov’s bell for me! Ha!
Okay, so bartending has a pretty wet and wild reputation as a job, particularly for those who have not worked in the industry. What is a misconception people have about bartending?
R: That it’s wet and wild—I have been fortunate to work in quite professional environments! Truly though, I feel the average person is unaware of how much sweat, blood, time, and passion this job demands.
L: Amen to that. And speaking of hard earned reputations, what would you say is the most underrated bar, or cocktail list, in this city?
R: I think “underrated” implies it is generally rated low, which is not true, but I always felt like Crowbar had a creative and super fun list and wasn’t talked about enough.
L: What’s your guilty pleasure drink?
R: A pitcher of slushy Margarita or a Bellini (also slushy, obvs.)
L: Yes! You and me, Cactus Club, ASAP! How about the most memorable drink you’ve ever had?
R: That’s a tough one, but the first that comes to mind is drinking a Sazerac at Arnaud’s French 75 in New Orleans and Chris Hannah asks if I want to enjoy it while walking through the museum upstairs.
L: That sounds like a fun night! What keeps you sane and balanced outside of work though?
R: The hours have always been one of the biggest challenges for me in this industry, and I feel this is an ongoing process. Exercise, yoga, fresh air, and taking some time every day for solitude.
L: …and Manchego cheese!
Dog or cat? Dog
Negroni or Boulevardier? Negroni
Most overhyped bar trend?
Most despised bar term? Mixologist, cocktologist, cocktailian – any attempt at separating ourselves from the word “bartender.”
Most underutilized spirit? Eau de vie
First drink you ever had? Grandmummie’s gin & tonic 🙂
Pinot or Cabernet? Pinot
Go-to hangover cure? Carbs and electrolytes
High school prom song? Oh gosh I don’t remember that, but the first time I ever danced with a girl was to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”
THC or CBD? CBD
Thanks for your time, Rhett!
Meet Matt Hassen, an Okanagan-based slash Vancouver-raised bartender who is currently Bar Manager at the Sage Pub in Osoyoos. With almost two decades banked in the industry, Matt is a veteran by every standard, with footprints stamped in many hot Vancouver locales, and an even hotter print stamped in Nicaragua, where he helped design a bar for a Surf Hotel. It is Matt’s vigor that will melt you to pieces though, and not just because he is an animal rescue advocate who frequently fosters furry little kiddos. Matt has eternally stamped himself into the lives of everyone in our hospitality family through his courageous battle with kidney failure, and a transplant that came from a colleague-friend who is now like family. Now recovering in the Okanagan where he is closer to family, Matt is in full life mode as he relishes in the industry that had his back, spreading positive vibes and love, and keeping himself in the game through cocktail competitions and travel. Catch him while you can, because his 2021 life plan has him Jeep-bound all the way to Chile!
Meet Joey Donnelly, a maritime treasure of a human, who has made a solid east-coast stamp on the west-coast hospitality industry here in BC. He is the GM of Clough Club in Gastown (his last name is unrelated to the Donnelly Group) and even after almost a decade in Vancouver (with eight years under his belt at the Clough), he still greets you from behind the bar with genuine maritimer charm and an enthusiastic drawl of, “Hey Bahd!” He also owns a couple of restaurants in Tofino with some of his old ‘Scotian pals’ (being the much-admired Lil’ Ronnie’s Backyard BBQ, of which a second location just opened in early June 2019), and he sits on the Board of Directors for the newly formed mental health initiative, Mind The Bar, which serves as a resource for Vancouver hospitality workers struggling with thoughts of suicide, addictions, depression, or workplace harassment. Despite his efforts to be low-key, Joey is absolutely beloved in the industry, from colleagues to patrons to musicians to CEOs. If you don’t know him, you should. Hailing from the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, this is Joey Donnelly.
Meet Cyan Moir, a hard-working, Chihuahua-loving industry veteran who wears all sorts of hats in Vancouver, from established publican to skat master (belated spoiler alert). She brings skill, experience, and mega style to the local scene, but, as a true scion from Quadra Island, she curbs pretension and just wants to host a good time…for humans and Chihuahuas alike.