Words by: Jane Ryan
"I'm slowing slipping into obscurity in the bar world."
Famous last words from Matthew Bax, artist, entrepreneur and bartender. Of course the Australian-turned-international bar owner is hardly disappearing from the hospitality world's radar, despite what he may sometimes wish for. Ever since the launch of Der Raum in Melbourne in 2001 Matt has been at the forefront of the cocktail evolution. And while he may slink off for the occasional art-inspired sabbatical, the bar world isn't ready to give him up just yet.
Matt is an interesting person to profile. He didn't cut his teeth beneath notable industry icons, or even behind notable bars. He's constantly travelling so forget a lengthy phone call, let alone meeting face to face. But he is mentioned over and over again by bartenders across the world, an international community that's seen his work in bars, who have visited Gamsei or Tippling Club, who have been inspired by his vision and his ideas. He's also wonderfully candid about his problems and failures.
Matt's journey into the world of alcohol, produce and flavour started relatively young. Growing up in rural South Australia, in Naracoorte on the border of the famous Coonawarra wine region, Matt says he was given appreciation for wine, "although I was too young to drink it. I learned that big is not always better. Great products can be found anywhere and often the most special involve a journey."
Thanks to his father's teaching job Matt landed a position is a well-to-do school in Adelaide for high school and went on to study Commerce at Flinders University. By this stage no thoughts of bartending had even stumbled across his mind. Instead Matt knew he wanted to be a painter, for 'as long as he could remember,' albeit a famous one.
After graduating he took a job which could not be more opposite to bartending and art if it tried. In part due to the recession and lack of employment around Matt found himself suited up and working an as accountant. A stint of travelling and a pretty girl combined to land him in Munich where he worked for KPMG while launching his first art show, to much success.
Not too surprisingly, accountancy and being an artist didn't seem to be weren't the most compatible of jobs. So instead of a corporate job by day and art by night Matt decided to flip his life and open a bar. Thanks to Munich's great classic cocktail scene, in part due to the fame of Schumann's American bar, Matt wanted to "bring a taste of European cocktails to Melbourne." So he headed home.
"I was completely naïve, I really had no idea. What went wrong? Everything. I almost went bust after two to three months and it was borderline poverty for about four years. I slept in the bar for over two years to keep it afloat."
But despite his non-existent experience, Der Raum is lauded as having set new standards for quality, style, skill and innovation. A notion that Matt says makes him very proud. "It's lovely to hear that our efforts were noticed."
As one of Melbourne's first dedicated cocktail bars, Der Raum, meaning 'the room' in German, focused heavily on the classics which is where Matt's vision has always focused. But, in a horrific turn of events, it was discovered the manager and personal friend of Matt has been stealing and defrauding the company.
"Even when you think you know what you are doing, it can all go wrong. After 11 years we discovered that the long term manager had been stealing. I thought he was a close friend so it cut very deeply. It brought about the decision to close the doors early on the Der Raum. I just couldn't risk our reputation or put our clients at risk."
Sadly the situation didn't end with Der Raum closing in 2012, as the perpetrator fled overseas and continued to trade on the bar's name and drink recipes. Only this month has he be tried and found guilty. "Theft and fraud is far too commonplace in our industry and too many repeat offenders are still able to find positions."
As a bartender Matt doesn't fit into the classic categories of ultra-theatrical and precise such as Nightjar's Marian Beke or larger-than-life, charismatic, like Portobello Star's Jake Burger.
"I'm too clumsy or too old to put on a good show, I'm really just interested in what the drink tastes and looks like, and the idea behind it. I find the performance side of things weird, I mean Ben Shewry, Rene or Magnus don't come and flip food around at Attica, Noma or Faviken. I think the best in the game hide the magic.
"I'm sure Munich was expecting a molecular circus but over the years I've learned to hide more and more of our tricks. The best food has moved on and I think it's time we paid attention in the drinks world. Not every fancy new drink has to blow nitro smoke up its arse."
Asked to namecheck some of his inventions Matt lists Smokey Old Bastard; Teacher's Tipple; Bax Beet Pinot; Pharmacy; Fuck the Subprime and Pyrus Communis.
In 2008 Matt moved to Singapore to open up Tippling Club alongside Ryan Clift, a chef and friend. Having discussed Ryan's desire to showcase his talent they decided to open a place where both could play and complement each others skill set. The project that resulted pushed the boundaries of matching cocktails to food, attempting a level hitherto unseen.
Of course setting up a venue in Singapore had its challenges. "Staffing remains a big problem in Singapore. "The rich kids don't want to work in hospitality so you are forced to look outside Singapore. It's hard to train young foreign staff with little exposure to really top end concepts and progressive techniques. We had to bring in staff from Der Raum to pull off the bar side of things. Although there were a few exceptions and I'd offer those staff a job anywhere. Products were also an issue, fresh produce simply isn't as good as in Australia or Europe and booze was pretty restricted. We made it work but it was expensive smuggling in certain brands."
Leaving Singapore after a two year stay saw Matt return to Melbourne to launch Bar Americano in 2011. With a great deal of momentum behind him, Matt says the team found their feet a lot quicker than 10 years previous launching Der Raum. "We also had a much better team than we started Der Raum with all those years ago. I would hope I had learned a few things since then."
Running a truly unique and phenomenal concept, the menu program at Bar Americano is solely based on one classic cocktail book per year. 2013 saw Robert Vermeire's Cocktails How to Mix Them feature, now it's Hugo Ensslin's Recipes for Mixed Drinks. The actual menu guests are handed looks exactly like the books with their original recipes included.
In quick succession, and following the accolades of Bar Americano, came the loosely-termed predecessor of Der Raum; Bar Económico. Still a rum bar, the group describe it as 'the bastard child of owner Matthew Bax's travels in Latin America.' He describes the bar as his Melbourne Rum Brothel. The name comes from a rundown hotel he saw in Merida, Mexico. "I love the creation side of opening a bar, but the execution phase is a pain. It's a nightmare. But I find it hard to stand still so sitting on ideas can be just as frustrating."
The word predecessor is a confusing label for Bar Económico, because Der Raum technically re-opened under the new concept and name Gamsei, in Munich. More on that later. So while Bar Económico is the latest offering from Matt in Melbourne and does pay homage to the classic rum cocktails there is a different level of mixology occurring. For drinks styled more closely to Der Raum's, as the website says, 'you will need a plane ticket to Munich, Germany.'
But Bar Económico is famous for more than being a replacement of Der Raum. Using a ticketing system the bartenders don't deal with the cash or card malarkey. Instead guests purchase their drink tickets and then head over to the bar. The back bar is mostly made up of rum but they do carry one bottle of gin, scotch, bourbon and vodka.
Gamsei is different to any cocktail bar you'll have stepped into. Just as Der Raum was in 2001. Which is perhaps why the term predecessor is more aptly applied here than to Bar Económico.
At Gamsei they serve regional cocktails. Every ingredient is either foraged by the staff or grown locally by the surrounding regional farmers. 'We think of it something like an appellation principal applied to mixed drinks.' The concept does mean that the menu is very much subject to nature's whim.
Matt's argument for going to all this trouble is beautifully articulated on the bars website: "Gamsei is my little protest to what I see as the globalisation (or Americanisation) of cocktail bars. All across the planet the very same classic drinks (mostly prohibition era) are being served, disturbingly from the same tattooed guys all dressed in the same Boardwalk Empire costumes. I want to drink something different when I travel, something I can't taste in my hometown. I want something, rare, unique, unusual & challenging. Travelling is about new experiences, new tastes, new smells perhaps new emotions. We don't (or we shouldn't!) drink Bavarian Beer and eat Sausages & Sauerkraut in Italy. So why don't the same rules apply to cocktail bars? Who says we must make the same (dare I say it boring) old classics? Not I."
In the end Matt says it changed the way he bartends and that he loves the restrictions of the seasons. Then there's Munich itself. Gamsei would have been easier to open in Berlin, he says, because the Munich scene is quite conservative but it's hard to beat for classics. "I'd say it leads Berlin. Schumanns is brilliant for the history and then you have newer places like Goldene Bar and Bar Gabanyi."
The success of Matt's bars have, of course, touched more lives than the guests who stumble in and out. His latest protégée was the manager of Gamsei, Johannes Hartmann. "I really could not have run the place without him. He's a very rare find in this industry, someone totally committed to service and delivering a memorable experience to every customer. It's in his blood, it comes so naturally to him. I strongly suspect he will become one of the great restauranteurs of our time."
And it's this relationship with food and fresh produce that has woven itself throughout Matt's career. He lists Charles Schumann has a major influence despite never working with him. "I learnt a great deal from a chap called Paul Aron who was an early bartender at Der Raum. But most of my influences are chefs; Ben Shewry, Ferran Adria, Andoni Luis Aduriz and Magnus Nilsson."
So what of the future for Matt? He has always continued to paint throughout the highs and lows of his bartending career. It's his first passion and it's what he will most likely continue to do long after the bar world has moved on. At the moment Matt uses Trink Tank, his company name, as a fusion between the two, 'a place to play without wearing any nametags.'
And balancing the two for the moment? "It can be tough at times, I wouldn't say art dealers love it, although I'm sure I'm slowing slipping into obscurity in the bar world so maybe it won't be such an issue anymore."
That doesn't mean though that his two careers don't cross over. "Art gives me the courage to take risks in the bar and when those risks come off it keeps the studio lights on and shelves stocked with paint."
For the moment home is Melbourne, although that is an extremely recent move. When we corresponded Matt had been back two days and was coping with the fallout of an international displacement of his items. Will he be back behind the bar in Australia? That seems unlikely for the moment.
"I haven't been for a while but that's only because I have been away with other projects. I have amazing bartenders working for me including Hayden Lambert (ex-Merchant) and Jakob Etzold (ex-Stagger Lee). They are far more talented so I'd only bring down the quality of the service. I set the menu programme but it's totally a team effort."
He doesn't have any plans to open in his birthplace of South Australia, or even Sydney for that matter. "My concepts are hard enough to understand in the best cocktail cities. I'm not sure Adelaide is ready for my rubbish. Melbourne is really where it's at in Australia. I can't imagine why I would do a bar outside Victoria, I love visiting Sydney but I think Melbourne still has the slightly better food and drink scene. I'd like to explore the idea one day but for now I'm excited about being home so I can play with my two bars here."
When I ask what his average day is like he replies that he has no idea, no concept of one, having spent the last three years running from airport to airport.
"I hope the new schedule will start with a surf. Breakfast is normally a coffee, thankfully I'm now back in Melbourne where coffee is a religion. You have no idea how good the coffee is here! I have a great team so my day to day commitments in the bar are not excessive, most of my bar work is playing around with drink ideas and, of course meetings. I try to paint everyday so I'm in the studio a lot."
Right now Matt is drawing his art influence from Bacon, Rothko, Kiefer and Twombly. Will he give up the bar for full-time painting soon? "I'll continue to run bars as long as I still find it interesting."
We hope that will be some time yet.