Erwan Heussaff has been stuck in Melbourne, Australia, together with his wife Anne Curtis and their newborn baby since earlier this year. After the birth of their daughter in March, Heussaff was supposed to fly back to Manila at the end of March, before the COVID-19 lockdown prevented the family from leaving. Looking on the bright side, he chimes in, “But there are worse places to get stuck, that’s for sure.”
While Heussaff is most visible via his YouTube food channel (with over 2.3 million subscribers) and much-followed social media accounts, he is perhaps less well known for his love of the cocktail craft and his respect for the bartending profession. While he wears many hats in his multi-hyphenated career, he put on his “drinks” hat for ANCX as we conversed with him via online call about his longstanding love for bar culture.
Q. What have you been busy with in Australia and how has life been as a new father?
A. It’s much harder to run companies from a distance so it takes me twice as long to do anything. I’m still running my production company in the Philippines, and then we still have our meat distribution company that’s ongoing, which, thank God, Nico [Bolzico, his partner] is there so he’s able to handle most of that… I’m basically sitting at home on emails and trying to help as much as I can. I still shoot from time to time here some products that we need to get out. Being a new dad, that’s more of my full-time role. I never once in my life thought I’d have the opportunity to be a stay-at-home dad, and that’s basically what I am. Ever since she’s been born, I’ve been with her literally 24/7. She has not left my sight. That’s been amazing.
Q. How did you first get into drinks?
A. I’ve been working in the food and beverage industry since 2008 when I graduated college. Sounds like years ago now (laughs). While I was in college, I took a lot of odd jobs. Instead of taking vacations, I would do lots of internships. It was kind of my way of traveling yet working and living in a different country. So I went to China and Vietnam, Greece, and obviously in Paris where I went to college. Each of those jobs, I would always work, I did maintenance of aircons at one point, service, banquet supervisor. But then every time, I’d always naturally gravitate towards the bar area, and then started working just with the bartenders, just like how I do in the kitchen.
Q. What’s the story behind your first bar, Niner Ichi Nana?
A. [Club owner] Erik Cua came up to me and asked me. He’d been wanting to do a bar for the longest time, like a proper bar, and he had a space in the Globe building and so I said, yeah. When I travel, I always make sure to go to cocktail bars. I was kinda sad that in the Philippines, we didn’t have that culture yet. Back then, cocktails were something you had at TGIFriday’s in the Philippines, right?
I think the whole cocktail experience is really driven by your conversation with the bartender. And I thought the only way to start that cocktail culture in the Philippines is for that conversation to happen, or else people will never be truly educated in terms of the possibilities of drinks.
I’d met a bunch of bartenders in Singapore before and that’s when the scene there was picking up. It wasn’t as huge as it is today, but it was really picking up. So I brought [Din Hassan] over to the Philippines to meet the team. And then we just all decided, hey, let’s do this.
It was basically Blind Pig, and then Niner, and The Curator almost simultaneously came up at the same time. I remember that’s how I met David [Ong of The Curator]. I went to The Curator, it was literally a closet and he freaked out that I was there (laughs). Then he eventually called his bartender and I ended up talking to David over the phone. That’s how David and I became friends, because we started off right at the same time. We had no idea who each other was then. We just enjoyed that we both really liked cocktails and we really wanted to get into it.
Q. The local bar community here seems to be quite close, compared to the restaurant scene.
A. Yes definitely. We all knew from the get go that the only way to build the industry and build the culture is if we saw each other as collaborators versus competitors. I think very different from the restaurant business. But restaurants nowadays they reverted back to that way of thinking, you see a lot more four hands dinners. I guess in the old-school way of doing things, everyone wanted to keep their secrets.
Q. What was it like when the bar scene wasn’t as developed?
A. In the beginning, David and myself, we were bringing in booze through our luggage when we traveled… We had only the big popular brands [here]. I remember each time I’d go to France or the US or Singapore, I’d come back with all the tools, all the bitters that we needed. Those things were impossible to find in the Philippines. Even angostura, we had to fight for where to find it. Each time David would find something in the supermarket, like Unimart in Greenhills, I’d drive to Unimart to just buy some stuff. Same thing with shakers, glasses, all that stuff. Everything is so easy to find now (laughs). Back then we really built our bars through our Rimowa suitcases.
Q. Do you remember how you started to become more serious about the cocktails craft?
A. I used to be the food and beverage editor for Esquire Philippines and that was happening pretty much the same time [as Niner]. I remember my counterpart for drinks in the US was David Wondrich and so I had to read a lot of his articles to check if anything could be published on the Filipino side of things. David Wondrich is probably not considered the best bartender on whatever scale you want to use, but he’s considered the foremost cocktail historian. He had a bunch of books about the history of cocktails. And that’s really what kinda made me get into it, the story behind every drink. Like a Piña Colada, it sounded so trivial. And then when he started explaining it, you start understanding the roots of it, how it’s changed over the years, and how people have interpreted it. I was like, OK this is actually really interesting. That’s when I started seeing cocktails to be closer to food. And that, for me, really peaked my interest.
You know, in food, if I tell you you’re going to fry tomatoes and onions, you could probably picture that taste in your mouth, like you know what it’s going to taste like. But if I were to tell you to get a Glenfiddich 12 and mix it with, I don’t know, a Cinzano Rosso, for a lot of people who haven’t tried those liquors or alcohols, it would probably sound like gibberish. I thought, it’s all about building that inventory of taste when it comes to liquor and alcohol, and I thought it was really interesting so I delved into it. All the first basic cocktails I learned were from David Wondrich which were like really old-school recipes, [using] teaspoons and grams.
Are there any bars abroad that you love and that inspire you?
In the beginning, it was all the New York bars. PDT was a big one I think for everyone. It just opens your mind into what you can do. But then something like PDT, it’s really a labor of love. You can’t open a bar in the Philippines, unfortunately, with 15 odd seats unless you own the building, unless you don’t pay rent, because the money doesn’t make sense. You end up losing money, so what I really understood very quickly is that there is that delicate balance.
For a while, I was chasing those World’s 50 Best Bars around the world. Every time I’d go to a different country, I’d try one of the bars. Funnily enough, I had some really good experiences in some of those bars and I had some really shitty experiences too. Like one particular bar in New York, it was absolutely empty. I told [the bartenders that] I was a bartender in the Philippines and I was doing a tour of all the bars… So they made me stand next to the service water station, where literally every 5 seconds, someone was bumping into me. Yeah, and I tried to talk to people and everything… I don’t know, it burst my balloon into thinking what a bar should be. That was actually before we did Yes Please. So that was one of the things that made me realize that I don’t want to be a cocktail shrine where people come with so many expectations. I want to be a place where people come because it’s a bar and you want to have a good time with your friends, because that’s the essence of a drinking hall.
I started hopping around bars when I go to Paris and the culture there was so different. I was in Le Syndicat which is part of the [World’s 50 Best Bars] list. And I remember the last page of their menu was all the other bars in Paris. So basically, they were saying, hey go visit these bars after you’re done with us… Then you go to Singapore and you get that exact same vibe as well. After that, it really became chasing those kinds of bars, that kind of culture where people are collaborative and just want to have a good time, rather than showcasing something.
Q. Do you still remember what was one of the first “serious” drinks you made?
A. I don’t remember the year, I think 2011, 2012, maybe 2013, speakeasies were all the rage. That kind of speakeasy culture with very straightforward drinks were my go-to, so I think the Manhattan is probably one of the first drinks I made. Very classic, very boozy, very like “oh we have to hide this drink.” It’s not something you’d see often. When you see sweet vermouth… you’d picture that Martini Rosso bottle. My dad drinks it straight and with ice. In France, we have very similar bitter liquors and you have that either as an aperitif or digestif. I didn’t think you mix with that, then when I saw [the Manhattan], oh this reminds me of my father, and when I made it, this is actually pretty good.
Q. How did the bar scene change between the time you opened Niner Ichi Nana in 2013 and Yes Please in 2017?
A. [At Niner], we tried to explain to people what craft cocktails were, which is why bespoke was the direction I wanted to get because I wanted to play around with drinks like you’d play around with food. So we’d have a lot of shrubs and syrups and make our own bitters. We really got geeky with it to the point where we had, I think 15 seats at the bar top. Every night we’d have regulars come in and no one would ever look at the menu and just say, make me something spicy. That’s the excitement people had.
Yes Please was more the culmination of that saying: we don’t need to teach people about cocktails anymore. People don’t need to be introduced to it, they just expect to have good cocktails in a bar. That was the idea behind Yes Please. We wanted to make what they call a high-volume cocktail bar where we would make close to 300 to 400 cocktails a night. But at the same time, if you wanted a beer, a bottle of wine, no problem. So kinda like just your regular bar with a highlight of cocktails.
Now that we still can’t go to bars yet, what do you miss most about the culture, the scene?
It’s just the conversation. When Niner opened and when Yes Please opened, I was always at the bar. I was always making drinks. I would stay there till late and then as I got older (laughs), my days started getting earlier. So I stopped really bartending late at night, but I would still pass by till like 7 or 8 or 9 pm until stuff really started getting crazy.
For me personally, we have a lot of staff at The Palace and I’ve also trained personally and worked with a lot of great bartenders in the Philippines. It makes me so sad to see their situation nowadays. Everyone’s struggling because it’s going to be one of the lowest priorities to open back up.
Back then, being a bartender, it’s how people still view being a waiter in the Philippines. You don’t see it as a career, you see it as something to get you through. And then David and I started seeing a transition where bartenders started becoming proud of being bartenders and that’s when we were like OK, we’re good. For me, I was happy because I don’t have to chase anything anymore. Because that’s what I wanted to happen, for people to be like, oh my God, I watch this guy and I want to make drinks like him, and get excited about it. I kinda miss that. When you hop from bar to bar now, the bartenders have a personality and they really let that shine.
Yes Please is currently offering drinks for delivery. How has that been going?
We did it because we wanted to keep the bartenders active. It’s definitely not fast at all. It’s very slow but at least it gives people something to do. We started delivering some of our food also. But you know, it’s really just keeping that activity up because if we had issues before selling cocktails in a bar, how much harder does it become selling cocktails at home. In the Philippines, drinking is seen as such a social thing. I’m sure people drink at home but I’m not going to make a Gimlet at home. I’m going to have a Scotch on ice. It’s really not part of our culture but we have regulars that are supporting it which is great.
What do you think your first drink will be once you come home and reopen Yes Please?
I’m a huge fan of Piña Coladas. I feel like it’s one of those drinks that really exemplify the industry as a whole. People saw it as such a girlie tropical drink because it’s blended and it’s sweet and all that. But if you make it how we make it, it’s a shaken drink with fresh pineapple juice, fresh coconut water, and all that. It’s just really refreshing and delicious.
Photos courtesy of Erwan Heussaff and Yes Please