I have been served by the ideal bartender, and she is Denise Nam. She is young, lovely, and holds court at Felix, the sleek Philippe Starck–designed aerie atop Hong Kong’s Peninsula hotel. 6 Before having a drink with my wife at Felix’s bar—for me, a Beefeater martini straight up with two olives minus the skewers, and for her, Chardonnay—I had never given much thought to the attributes of the perfect bartender. Oh, I have always held specific bartender traits in disdain. The short list includes bartenders who call customers “buddy,” “pal,” or “dude”; who dry glasses with the same cloth they use to wipe off the bar; who become flustered when the room becomes crowded and slosh your drink all over the counter upon delivery; who push product (“Just got in this new Mongolian vodka . . .”); who feel the need to invent odd drinks just because they can (“It’s made out of Jagermeister, Baileys, and curdled goat’s milk.”); who pay more attention to Tiger’s putt than your empty glass; who do not allow the Guinness to settle properly before filling the glass; who . . .
Perhaps the list is a tad longer than I imagined. The point is that I have always judged bartenders by their negatives instead of their positives. Then I arrived at the Felix bar, and Denise Nam became my ideal. I will concede that the setting in which she plies her trade has much to do with my idealization of her talents.
At Felix, the stylish, successful clientele sit at the top of one of the world’s most elegant hotels, enjoying a breathtaking view. Even Felix’s restrooms are spectacular. The urinals are built into floor-to-ceiling windows, so when you pay a visit to the men’s room, it seems as though you are floating in the clouds, doing your business from the heavens—a notion that would appeal to anyone’s inner master of the universe.
Thus the expectations of Felix’s patrons are elevated, and Denise does not disappoint. Indeed, she displays a number of attributes that other bartenders would do well to emulate. Among them are the following:
Poise. The first lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If—“If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs”—seem particularly well-suited to bartenders. A bar should offer sanctuary from the hyperkinetic nature of the real world. Even in crowded, noisy establishments such as Felix, the bartender must be an island of coolness and reason. The last thing anyone wants when enjoying a fine glass of scotch is a manic bartender. You want someone like Denise, who goes about her business in a Zen-like manner that soothes the harried soul.
Expertise. Thanks to the unbridled shenanigans of spirit manufacturers’ marketing departments, as well as worldwide corruption of what constitutes a martini, bartenders need to know how to make zillions of different drinks. In the hour or so I sat at Felix, my fellow patrons threw all sorts of requests at Denise: a black feather, a blood and sand, and a dog’s nose. The last—a combination of beer, gin, brown sugar, and nutmeg—is a throwback to the days of British colonialism in Hong Kong. She never flinched, never faltered, although she did grimace at the thought of someone downing a dog’s nose.
A sense of humor. This does not mean regularly accessing your stockpile of bad jokes. It is the ability to foster a genial give-and-take with the folks seated at the bar. For example, a gentleman seated next to me at the Felix bar ordered, I kid you not, a Hershey bar martini. To which Denise replied, “This is a bar, not a candy store.” Then she smiled and made the darned thing.
Finally, the ideal bartender must possess tact. I learned to appreciate this quality from my father, a man of strong drinking convictions who believed that a bartender should never ask a patron if he or she would like “another” drink. “This insinuates that the customer has had too much to drink,” my father would say. “A good bartender should always ask, ‘Would you like a drink?’ no matter how many you’ve had.”
It is a subtle distinction, to be sure, but one by which I have always measured my bartenders.
“Would you like a martini?” Denise asked after I had finished the first one.
“That would be great,” I replied.
And it was.