Words by Jane Ryan
Originally from: Tokyo
At: New York
Shingo Gokan, 29, on beginning his career in Japan, his subsequent arrival in New York without a word of English, winning the Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition and his uncertain plans for the future.
I wanted to do something that wasn't boring when I left school, I was going to work for the supermarket, but in the end I wanted something that would give me a new skill or technique like a pastry chef or bartender. When I first got the job I decided I was only going to do bartending for two years but I became head bartender. To be honest it was quite low level so I decided to move to a new place, a smaller bar to advance my skill. Then I became manager there and I said again that I was going to quit in two years, but somehow I just stayed there.
I wanted a new skill, something special so I decided to take lessons in the Japanese tea ceremony. I also started learning about sherry and then I got a job at a sherry bar. One of my customers asked me to move to New York - he was doing a consulting job in New York and Tokyo and planning to open a bar in New York, he asked if I wanted to go there and I said, 'sure, New York sounds good' so I decided to move.
When I arrived in December 2006 I couldn't speak English at all - nothing, not even a few words. I applied for Angel's Share, where I am working now, but I couldn't speak English, so obviously I didn't get the job. Then I applied at a few other places and ended up landing on my feet making drinks in a restaurant. I worked there for six months, becoming head bartender and during this time the manager of Angel's Share came to see me once or twice. After those six months he asked me to move to his bar.
When I took over in May 2007 the old crew had just quit so there was just myself and one other bartender I had taken with me from the restaurant. It was very hard to begin with because we hired so many people but they always quit, quit, quit so I couldn't take a day off for three months. It was a good experience for me.
Right now, I am thinking that I may finally be able to go back to Japan. Up to now my visa in the US wouldn't allow me to go back, so I haven't been home for six years. I think I'll be there for two months or so. After that I might open my own bar in New York or I might move to Australia.
If I open a bar, I really like classic styles, I don't really like loud places so I would want a small space. I prefer to make classic drinks but I also love to create new drinks, something between New York style and Japanese style. Finally I am also watching London, beginning to understand the European style of bartending and I would like to combine my style with this. When I make a drink and the customer says 'very good', that is my favourite moment in bartending.
The first competition I entered was Bacardi Legacy 2011 and I lost in New York. I competed again this year, after one of the ambassadors in New York invited me in, it is invitation-only so the ambassador can only pick 15 people.
I thought I could win easily in the first year but I was over-confident and I lost. In this second year I didn't have any confidence. I was going to make a totally different cocktail but I changed it at the last moment. I created the basis for that drink in Japan a long time ago - I had been looking for a cocktail with green tea and sherry, so I combined my experience in Japan, my experience in New York, the tea ceremony and sherry. Those are my everything.