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Getting to know the World Class National Finalists
What made you decide to compete in the USBG World Class Competition sponsored by Diageo?
I wanted to test my skills as a bartender overall, and most competitions were only judging you on one drink recipe. The education and community built around this was intimidating at first, but gaining some experience in smaller competitions motivated me to go for something bigger.
My decision to compete came at a really unsure moment in my bartending career. I was feeling really burnt out and had some things happening in my personal life that had forced me to take a small break from bartending and was trying to figure out where that left my return. At the seminar, I had a really great conversation with Tyson & Andy about using World Class as a personal challenge and a tool to get to know myself and my craft better; that it was more about the process and not the end result. I was so inspired by that.
This is my third time competing in the USBG World Class Competition, and each time I compete I get the opportunity to learn more about this amazing craft, and myself at the same time. Coming together and sharing knowledge is what this competition is all about, and I'm just happy to be a part of it.
Back in 2014, the first time I competed in World Class, my sole purpose was to see how I stacked up against some of the best bartenders in the United States. Over the past few years, including this year, I decided to compete to simply challenge myself. World Class is the best competition in the world for personal and professional growth, to educate and stretch one's self both personally and as a bartender.
World Class is a special competition. To me, it is more then a challenge of speed and cocktail knowledge (which it is). It also promotes the idea of thinking beyond the contents of the glass, a different approach to a competition from what I have experienced in previous years. It's made me a better bartender, host, and all around contributor to my bar. For this reason, I decided to compete again in this year's USBG World Class Competition sponsored by Diageo.
~ Justin Park
I've been thinking about this competition since I got into bartending. It always struck me as the most complete test of the things we as bartenders take pride in. And, from everything I've seen up to this point, that's entirely accurate.
~ Austin Carson
The goal was to challenge myself via insertion into the most uncomfortable scenario imaginable. Guess what? IT WORKED. It was also incredibly important to me to represent my city and set a good example by getting involved and motivating others to do the same.
~ Yael Vangroff
World Class has been a goal of mine for many years. I did it before and was not yet ready to do well. I took some time to grow and mature. Now I feel much more prepared to do well.
~ Jonathan Howard
What are you looking forward to most? Have you competed in World Class before and, if so, what was your biggest takeaway?
I have competed in World Class before and the biggest takeaways for me are the people I've met and the experience I've gained. I keep in contact with many of my competitors and the people who run the program. I'm proud to call them my friends. I'm convinced that the experience of performing under pressure has helped me hone my skills and become a better bartender at my home bar.
This will be my third year the in US national final, and the whole process just seems more fun and more delightful every year! I look forward to seeing some of the most inspirational bartenders that I know, and meeting/seeing my co-competitors who are highly creative and influential in their markets. It is a place where I know I will be surrounded by people who I admire and respect.
This is my first world class competition. Although I've been in hospitality most of my life, I've only been behind the stick for a couple years. I'm most looking forward to meeting all the other competitors I've only been "facebook friends" with. A lot of these people I've stalked on instagram or facebook and admired from afar; it's insane to be competing alongside them.
While my competitive spirit is strong, I'm really excited to meet the other finalists, judges and staff. They are the visionaries and professionals that have elevated cocktail culture into what it is today and will no doubt influence its future. I can't wait to share my passion for this amazing career with them. While I've never competed in World Class before, I have the great fortune to work closely almost everyday with several past competitors. Giancarlo Aversa, David Martinez, and Elizabeth Cosby have all been World Class finalists, and I've been able to witness firsthand the myriad benefits they have received from participating in this unique challenge.
What challenge are you looking forward to most and why?
Wild Card. Absolutely. Before I even found out about the challenge, I was doing a local podcast featuring almost the same rules. Someone would give me a base spirit and a story or an idea, and I would have to fit them in a glass. I like the spontaneity required. You have to trust your instinct, and go as far down the rabbit hole as possible in a short time.
I am most looking forward to the Viva Mexico challenge. We have two bartenders at PDT, Victor and Luis, who are both from Mexico and are the backbone to our staff. They have been with us all ten years we have been open, and they've trained me from the beginning of my career. I consider them very much my family. They mean a great deal to me personally, and it's been an honor to work with them and learn more about their culture. I can't wait to share a piece of that with the judges.
I'm not sure if I have just one challenge that I'm most looking forward to. I really enjoy the different challenges that all the rounds bring, in their different ways. I love the creativity that the Viva Mexico round will allow as there aren't too many rules or guidelines. I love the food pairing and market challenges because they are such a creative outlet based around the ingredients. Dealer's Choice is always a blast, especially for someone like me, who doesn't work in a cocktail bar and rarely finds himself in that scenario very often at work. Lastly, I won the speed round at last year's World Class National Final, so trying to even push myself further and improve on that round has been extremely rewarding already.
Well I honestly am looking forward to all of them! There is a uniqueness to each of them that calls on different strengths that a well rounded bartender should have. But I'm most looking forward to the Viva Mexico challenge. As a Mexican American with a family background that has fought for Hispanic representation in the US, I get to offer a really personal perspective on this. My grandfather spent his life dedicated to fighting for Hispanic rights in California and I get to honor his life through a drink, and that is really special for me.
~ Alexis Mijares
The market challenge- It makes for an interesting 'think on your feet, iron chef/chopped' sort of event, spanning two days. I think that every bartender has wanted to do this! I know I have.
~ Joshua Hiller
I am most looking forward to the food pairing challenge. I've spent most of my career in restaurants and I really look forward to showing the judges that part of what I do.
~ Jonathan Howard
What has been your preparation leading up to the competition?
Asking people for help has been the biggest part of my success thus far. Getting to know my Portland bar community better. People have helped with tasting my drinks, timing my speed rounds, and fine-tuning my organization and technique. I'm doing a little bit every day to prepare. Flashcards, speedpour drills, and exploring supermarkets looking for unusual ingredients. I even created an online quiz-game for the cocktail recipes I wasn't familiar with to memorize them.
Kind of back to basics. I've really enjoyed researching the classics and focusing on the bartending basics (polishing them up, really) that my career at times pulls me away from. I love it behind the bar and this has been a fantastic excuse to get after it.
Balance. Balancing work, personal life, and this incredible experience we like to call the World Class competition.
A lot of late nights and early mornings. Coffee. Stress. My wife has been such a big part of my preparation for me, supportive when I need it and there to remind me there is always room for improvement.
~ Justin Park
Working my normal schedule, mentally preparing and making sure guests at my bar have a world class experience...It's not just about the competition, its embodying a style of hospitality.
~ Harrison Ginsberg
Besides rehearsing my speed round a million times, I've taken a good deal of time to really educate myself with detailed knowledge of the portfolio. In addition to representing ourselves, we are here to represent the wonderful quality of these spirits. Familiarizing myself with them will help with creating new drinks for the challenges especially the ala minute ones such as Dealer's Choice.
~ A-K Hada
After attending a live seminar or viewing a webinar, how did that specific takeaway advance your skills or mindset when working at your bar and/or team?
During an all day seminar put on by Tyson Buhler, Charles Joly and Sean Kenyon, they introduced a concept that I suppose was always present, but I hadn't paid specific attention to. A great bar engages all of the senses; I've really tried to be cognizant of that. Dim lighting can lend an air of intimacy, smacking an herb or flaming a peel can be an auditory, olfactory, and visual signal to a guest that their drink is complete and is ready to be enjoyed.
It just made me zoom out. I realized that, yes, I'm a part of a particular bar team. But that team is also a part of a broader community of bar teams. It's been really humbling to think about our staff making a place for cocktails in our smaller market, and further.
~ Nicholas Pascuzzi
The seminars make you think on different levels and take your mind to places you might have missed or not known they were there. It opens up your perspective on service and beverage creativity and leaves you fresh and ready to take on more and try new things.
After attending a live seminar before the season began, I returned back to my home bar and completely re-thought many of my cocktails at my venue. The instructors at the seminars, being World Class Alumni, always share invaluable information that you can immediately use with your beverage team.
Andy Seymour's Demo Time is life altering.
~ Chris Cardone
Diageo always has useful presentations that help bartenders think beyond the basics of what's in the glass, and go into more detail, whether it is about the product, the senses, the experience or the whole package.
It's such a great, collaborative atmosphere. Moreover, the World Class team is so inclusive and willing to help bartenders in pursuit of career advancement. I think that's amazing and it's something I want to continue to be a part of.
~ Austin Carson
I mean, you listen to Andrew Meltzer & Tyson Buhler talk about the senses and just try not to be inspired! I thought I considered the senses and sensory components pretty often when designing a menu or guest experiences, but the live seminar took it to a new level and has expired some really interesting concepts that I have tabled for now that I look forward to piecing together once this competition is over.
~ Yael Vangroff
Do you have any rituals right before competition time?
I listen to Queen and try to get a song stuck in my head that rocks, but isn't annoying after an hour or two. "Don't Stop Me Now" works really well.
Every time I compete, be it World Class or any other competition, I can always be found pacing the green room area talking to myself. When it comes to practice and prep for every competition, I usually spend several days or weeks running through the motions of what I physically have to do. When it comes to my speech however, I always create it just moments before I have to get behind the bar so its fluid, fresh, and an unrehearsed version of my true self.
Breath, pace, set my mind right and enjoy good music.
When I wake up, I like to stretch and do some push ups. Then at the venue, it's all about music. I love listening to music with my over the ear headphones before competition and through out the competition day. It could be anything, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, The Clash, Beatles, Drake, Daft Punk or even a baseball game.
~ Giancarlo Aversa
I get up early, have a solid breakfast, and listen to jazz. I'm excitable enough as it is, so some relaxation is key.
~ Jonathan Howard
What is the best piece of bartending advice you've received?
Learn like you are going to teach... And always remain humble.
I don't think I can name one single one. I've been lucky to know many skilled bartenders and I've had so much great advice given to me over my career to pick one out of them all!
It's not so much of a specific piece of advice, but over the past few years, I've heard this quote brought up multiple times at different seminars I've attended. It really rung true with me and is very relevant to our craft. It's a quote from the late Maya Angelou, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." I love this quote. Obviously the product we serve has to be top notch. But even top notch cocktails will be forgotten if you are failing at providing excellent guest service. At its core our job is service. So I strive for excellent and consistent cocktails and guests experience.
As a lead figure at two bars, it is important to teach others and show others your knowledge. So many people have taught me so much over the years, it is important to pass that knowledge on.
~ Harrison Ginsberg
My previous manager, Nate Jones, told me that each interaction with a guest is an opportunity to make a connection; to exceed their expectations and craft an amazing, memorable experience no matter how briefly they might be sitting at my bar.
~ Casey Miller
Wow! That's a great question. I don't know if it is so much advice but more so a mentality in approach. At the end of the day, it's a bar. It's booze. It should be fun and we should enjoy what we do. We have the privilege of taking care of people and impacting their day - so do that. Be accountable to your profession. We chose this craft, so always strive for the unachievable perfect shift, but enjoy it!! Have fun!! And always put the guest first. You are there for them, they are not there for you. Remember that. Hospitality first.
~ Alexis Mijares
The best advice I've been given by my closest circle of mentors is simple and invaluable- "Be myself!"
~ A-K Hada
Fail fast and fail often. This doesn't necessarily apply to bartending, but to life as a whole.
~ Yael Vangroff
The USBG World Class Sponsored by Diageo National Final will be held in San Diego, June 13-14. After nine months of programming that spanned 29 cities, 3 webinars, 5 Regional Competitions and over 120 hours of education offered to USBG Members, we are about to crown one winner.
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