Words by Jane Ryan
Photography by Trent van der Jagt
Evan says he plans on coming out of isolation looking like either Brad Pitt from Fight Club or Tom Hardy in the 2011 film Warrior. He also says, perhaps more seriously, that when this industry re-opens it will not be in the same capacity as before.
We will need time to rebuild, and to decide just how much luggage we're carrying into the new world of hospitality. If anyone is equipped to face this challenging new world however, it's Evan Stroeve.
As general manager of Bulletin Place, the tiny bar in Sydney's CBD that is easily one of, if not the, country's most preeminent cocktail spot, Evan has had to work hard at honing his skills. He's become an expert on local produce and the sustainable usage of foraged ingredients, he's learnt how to manage a tight team, and guide them through the grueling task of creating a new menu every day. Most importantly though is not what Evan's learnt, but rather what he's never forgotten from his first job, which is authentic hospitality.
The Stroeve Origin Story
Before the awards and the lauded bars came about, before the cocktail competitions and even before he barbacked at Shady Pines, Evan got his first lesson in hospitality in a red brick pub called Elephant & Castle hotel on Keppel Street in Bathurst. He says when it came to the regulars "you'd have a schooner glass up on the bar before they'd walked in."
It may be in a slightly different setting, with a handful of good years to separate the two, but that core pillar of hospitality hasn't dissipated from Evan's style of hosting. "We have our regulars at Bulletin Place," he says, "they come in two to three times a week and we know their life story. We're their friend and also their bartender."
No doubt these are the first faces Evan and his team will be seeing the day the restrictions lift.
Evan moved to Sydney to study journalism but two years into his degree he says he became disillusioned with the career spanning before him. "I was barbacking at Shady Pines and it sparked my decision to turn to the dark side. I fell in love with the culture, the familiarity with the customers and the industry. I had this obsession to progress to bartender and once I set my mind to it took six months."
From Shady Pines, Evan bounced around the Swillhouse group, with stints at Baxter's Inn and Hubert's, before returning to the Darlinghurst bar on Langley Street. In total he spent the better part of four years at Shadys, becoming head bartender, then bar manager under Paul Hammond (who Evan describes as the most prolific technically bartender he's ever seen) and finally progressing to general manager.
As easy as that all sounds summarised into a sentence or two, learning to make original drinks takes time. "I learnt about flavour by working under Jimmy Irvine, who was a mentor in terms of cocktail creation – he gave me a lot of freedom to explore that. I started to enter comps and did quite well, but that element of my bartending has really come into its own at Bulletin Place. There's a magnifying glass on your ability to create and harness flavours with a new menu every day. It's super challenging but really engaging."
On Making Drinks
Asked if there's any particular drinks he's been proud of creating, Evan stretches back no further than one week (at the time of the interview, pre-coronavirus shutdown), when he came up with a gimlet using native lemon aspen cordial and mango wine. The fast-pace environment of Bulletin means it's always forward looking and there's forever an opportunity to put ideas to consumers every day of the week.
"People understand the spotlight's on the menu behind the bar. They read it and think 'I like those two things so I will like that drink' and using that logic you will never see more words than you need on that menu. Rather than writing two-year-old fermented mango wine, we just write mango wine," explains Evan.
Describing the juicy bit of his job as menu and drink creation, the other side as manager is perhaps best illustrated as dry. That's the part where the ice machine breaks, deliveries don't turn up and staff get sick when there's no one to cover them. Before the nation-wide shutdown of bars, Evan's day-to-day at Bulletin Place was, in his words, often chaotic but rarely boring.
"Bulletin Place has such a pure way of approaching bartending – our drinks have always been about making people happy and shocked at that delicious factor. When we opened no one was doing it, be it a fresh Mango Daiquiri, a Passionfruit Collins or a Manhattan, the fundamentals are the same. We present delicious products to the consumer," he says.
On Growers & Producers
Beyond the carefully layering of flavours, what seems to spark joy most in Evan is the connection to the suppliers and growers. "We change our menu everyday and that's such an important part of our offering, it's a connection with those people and their produce. Our separate Meet the Grower Menu, that's been my baby," says Evan.
This additional drinks list at the bar focuses on a different person or grower each month by using their produce in two cocktails. The team really do go and meet these growers too, perhaps heading off on a foraging course, or putting in a day of free labour at a farm, all the while gaining insight into what a grower does and how it helps Bulletin Place do what it does best.
"We have such a rich history of native produce and indigenous culture here. None of this has been recognised on an industry-wide level yet, but it's slowly starting to become part of our culinary identity. Linking with different suppliers has really galvanised my philosophy around it, and that is really basic – you have to understand where the money goes and what purchasing power is. That's the nuts and bolts."
Evan's advice to those of us looking for more information on where our produce comes from, is to set off to the markets and get chatting. "Don't just think you can go out foraging with an indigenous tribe though, the people who have developed those relationships, where they go out to rural communities, have developed them over 20 plus years."
On Foundations and Futures
When asked what he'd do as a fresh bartender starting out today, Evan answers easily. "I don't think there's a better bar to learn in than Bulletin Place. The Milk & Honey alumni, whether it's The Everleigh in Melbourne, Bulletin Place in Sydney or Satan's Whiskers in London, all produced bars that really put an emphasis on the fundamentals before everywhere else, from the correct round building to economy of movement behind the bar," he says.
"From there I'd go to the always amazing, forward thinking bars like Byrdi and Scout – but I'd want to make sure I nail the foundations first."
Having nailed them and now overseeing these very core foundations, the next question, pre-shutdown was, what is next? "I'm perpetually tempted by New York and London, they are the mecca of hospitality, and this is the kind of career that can take you anywhere. My end goal is to have my own place, but I don't know what it'll be, except customers and hospitality will be at the core. I know that sounds mundane, but Swillhouse built their empire on it, that and the whiskey apples," he jokes.
Of course these days none of us are dreaming so loftily. Back in the land of an industry on its knees and how is Evan Stroeve, apart from re-sculpting his muscles, coping?
On Surviving the Shutdown
Firstly, we won't be seeing bottled cocktails from Bulletin Place anytime soon. The team don't feel their unique story and connection to growers translates into a takeaway service. So Evan moved back home to Bathurst for some down time.
"We operate in such a frantic, chaotic industry – the hours are crazy, the lights are dim, we're all on the way to back problems – this is the first time we've all had to stop and smell the roses, and maybe tick boxes we've always wanted to tick," he says, "I would add to that, everyone is reacting differently. If you're not feeling up to that, be patient, this experience is as collective as it is traumatic. Having a routine and structure has certainly kept me sane."
Going from a social job to self-isolating for two weeks before staying with his family was a huge adjustment for Evan. The connection to his peers and his regulars turned out to be the pillars a lot of his life rested on. "I wouldn't be surprised, if like myself, many people are grieving."
So now he gives himself a daily routine, and says to stay in a creative headspace if possible.
"Read, bury your head in as many cocktail books as possible. Many brands are providing access to free training. Universities are putting on free courses. I just started two free courses – beginners chemistry and biology purely because I always regret not studying them at uni and you see them in bartending every day," says Evan.
So like we say, if anyone is equipped to weather the storm of a post-coronavirus world, it's Evan Stroeve. TBC on if he'll be facing the oncoming challenges looking more like Tom Hardy or Brad Pitt.