“Some people know what they want to do early on in life. Some find it in high school or even in college. I found my calling pretty late at 26. I may not be a classically trained chef, but I’d like to think I have a lot to offer the culinary world. I like to think outside the box and really push boundaries. I still have a lot to learn, and I do not want to stop learning.”
This is a continuation of my conversation with Francis Balbarin, stylish bartender extraordinaire and master of the bun (I mean burgers!).
What makes your cocktails yours?
I’m constantly evolving as a bartender. Everyone has different tastes and preferences so I tend to make it up as I go. I try to talk to people at first and ask what their preferences are, whether it’s vodka, gin, whiskey, etc., then
I go from there.
I’ve had so many signature drinks over the years that I’ve forgotten most of them. What I do hate are pretentious establishments. For example, a while ago there was a sudden boom in speakeasies. I’m all for it and the sudden interest in craft cocktails. But (I feel that) it’s more important to try reading guests first, seeing what kind of drinks they could be interested in, and it doesn’t mean the usual, “so what do you feel like having tonight/what are you in the mood for” opening line with a hand flourish and overly theatrical tone. I think this is better instead of pushing drinks down guest’s throats without consulting and asking what their preferences are.
That is part of being a bartender. It’s a skill that’s learned over time. Yes, we are salesmen, but we’re also friends, comedians, entertainers… Or if the situation calls for it, therapists.
Lately though, there’s one drink that I’ve been making where I work that people ask for. It’s fresh muddled ginger, muddled blueberries, vodka, a little bit of spiced rum, and topped off with cider beer. Or sometimes if I see an unusual ingredient that I think can work, I’ll play around with it. I have been playing around with infused spirits for a little bit though. From bacon bourbon, chili infused tequila, ginger vodka to cinnamon and chili whiskey and so on.
Francis behind the bar, and in front of some of his Infused Spirits (available in Burgers and Brewskies)
What prompted you to pursue becoming a restaurateur? What’s on the horizon for your culinary career?
I’ve always wanted to own a bar. There were a few times where it almost happened but just fell through at the last minute.
In 2000, I wanted to take a short business management course in Manila while I had a brief bartending stint in the now defunct Club Spoon in Alabang. Unfortunately, all the classes were full and I had to pick another course. There was an opening for a certificate course in culinary arts. I figured, I know how to handle the FOH (edit: FOH stands for Front of the House, or everything a guest can see in a restaurant/bar), I should learn the BOH (Back of the House, most commonly the kitchen, storeroom… Areas in a bar or restaurant a guest wouldn’t see) aspect of things.
I DID NOT know how to cook. AT ALL. Prior to that course I was even scared to hold a kitchen knife.
Some people know what they want to do early on in life. Some find it in high school or even in college. I found my calling pretty late at 26. I may not be a classically trained chef, but I’d like to think I have a lot to offer the culinary world. I like to think outside the box and really push boundaries. I still have a lot to learn, and I do not want to stop learning. Maybe in the future I can finally go to culinary school.
Francis’ Dirty Palmer
Based from your experiences, what do you think is the correlation between food and drinks?
They complement each other. The flavor of the drink can both enhance and bring out other flavors in food. It can cool down the spiciness of a dish, or cut down the richness of gooey cheese.
Given that, as a bartender/chef/business owner, it’s our duty to offer that to guests so they can fully enjoy the dining experience. One should not be complacent with the idea of just serving food and alcohol and hope for the best. It is our job to sort of educate them as well in a way, and guide them in what works best with what. We as restaurateurs and bartenders should continue to push the envelope to improve and enhance the guest experience.
“I’m definitely more motivated now than I’ve ever been. Having a supportive wife and 2 wonderful kids, any man would want to provide and give the best for his family.”
What have you learned from your experiences, both as a bartender and as a restaurateur?
I’m constantly learning in this industry. From new recipes and ingredients, to different types of people. Not all places are the same, not all people act the same. I’ve seen and served people from all walks of life. I’ve dealt with the 1% and the masses.
The bottom line is the guest experience. As a bartender, you’re pushing drinks based on their personality, sometimes even personalizing drinks for them. I’ve met some really awesome people while bartending and some of those people became really good friends of mine. I made pretty good money while I was at it too.
As a restaurateur, everything is still pretty new to me. Sort of surreal, still. Everything is still a learning experience. At this moment in my career, I’m very fortunate to have met some very talented chefs, restaurateurs, and craft brewers, whom I have been learning a lot from. They have given me precious and priceless advice and continue to do so.
What I can say though is that it’s very important as someone from the BOH to sometimes go out and talk to guests and get their feedback, whether it’s negative or positive. Get to know the guests. They are the reason we are in this business.
Francis, his beautiful wife (renowned makeup artist Mayone Bakunawa-Balbarin), and their lovely children (photo used with permission from Francis Balbarin, photo by ProudRad)
How does your becoming a dad translate to your work as a bartender/restaurateur?
I guess the obvious answer would be motivation. I’m definitely more motivated now than I’ve ever been. Having a supportive wife and 2 wonderful kids, any man would want to provide and give the best for his family. I became more responsible and more conscientious of what I say to people now, believe it or not. Being a father has given me some sort of “filter” when I talk to rude guests. Anything I say may have repercussions and cost me my job. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still give a little jab of snarkiness here and there, but nothing compared to what I would’ve said a few years prior.
As far as being a restaurateur, I don’t know. Everything happened after I had my kids. I can tell you that my wife and kids are and always will be my good luck charms.
What I do want to teach my kids, though, are the value of hard work and work ethic. We have, on occasion, had our eldest work at the restaurant as a server. We’ve gone as far as to instruct the staff and management to not give him any kind of special treatment. No phones, no dilly-dallying, he goes on break when they go on break, etc. I even told my supervisors that they’d get into more trouble if they treated him any differently. We would also do this to our youngest son when he’s of age. It’s about instilling and drilling hard work in them.
It doesn’t matter what line of work they get into in the future, I’ve made my peace with the fact that they might not continue what we’ve started. But learning how to deal with guests, coworkers, bosses, will translate into whatever job one might get into in the future. The sense of working hard for what little money that you’ll get at the end of the day and learning how to value that amount is priceless.
Sadly, nowadays, these qualities have been lost on the new generation. They feel like the world owes them something.
I admit that one of the reasons I decided to feature Francis’ story for Father’s Day because his story is what it is: The adventures of a talented mixologist, a promising and creative restaurateur… But above all else, a wonderful, doting (and unbelievably dapper!) father.
To Francis and all other amazing fathers out there, may you and your family be continually surrounded by an overflow of love on Father’s Day. Cheers!