Filipinos love coffee, but it took awhile before we gained a deeper appreciation for it. When the third wave coffee movement came to our shores, it was people like entrepreneur David Ong who helped elevate coffee from a mere commodity. Through haunts such as the Curator Coffee & Cocktails, the newer Oto, and pioneering EDSA Beverage Design Studio, David and his colleagues have managed to create different avenues for people to enjoy a good brew and decent tipple.
In an attempt to gain our own appreciation of coffee and cocktails, we chatted with David to talk more about the art of the drink. Over #ReligionBlacks (named after David’s sister Tina) at Oto, we discovered the secret to keeping passion alive, keeping it fresh for Filipino drinkers, and just what makes a good bartender.
How do you feed your passion for coffee and cocktails? Do you still study and try to improve upon it?
It’s a lot of reading, watching videos, and going to different bars and meeting bartenders. Up to now it’s still the same thing—[you put] a lot of time [into it], you practice and master it.
When you’re conceptualizing a new place, what factors do you consider important?
It depends on the place. Like EDSA BDG, for example, it’s really business to business, so we really didn’t think that location would be a problem because our intent is production and we needed the cheap rent. Whereas [with] the Curator and Oto, they’re both different and [deal with] service, so of course location is one thing, and then next is the people that you surround yourself with, like partners or founders, because it all starts with them. And then you have the team, and you have people, the regulars. And the entire thing affects the overall feel.
And then, as far as concepts go, I just focus on what I know, so that’s coffee and cocktails. I mean, I love food, I can cook, but like, I can’t do that. And then, of course, the place has to be warm, for the customers, so they feel like it’s an extension of their homes. So it really boils down to people and service. And I feel like we have a very good team naman.
Do you ever seek to fill a gap that you think exists when it comes to what we have in Manila?
That’s what we always aim to do. The Curator and EDSA BDG have been around for three, almost four years. There was nothing [like them], honestly. And for us, we wanted a place for ourselves—a place where we can have good coffee and good cocktails, and where we can entertain. That’s why in the Curator, we have communal tables that kind of force you to talk to people. We wanted that talaga, eh, and I guess it just became greater than us as time passed by. Obviously, times have changed. There have been more bars and cafes ever since we opened. It seems like there may only be a handful, but… I still feel like we have a long way to go. For us, we’re still learning a lot and we’re still trying to keep up with them, and also, more importantly, we’re trying to [bring] attention to the Philippines in general. And it has a lot of potential talaga, I feel.
How do you apply fresh and new takes on coffee and cocktails while appealing to local sensibilities?
I’d be lying if I said that we don’t really think about the consumers, but that’s where it starts. Just doing something that we like, and doing it really, really well. I think after that everything just falls into place but then of course there are different sensibilities. Service pa lang, eh, you have to be welcoming, and that sets the tone. And then the product… The Filipino now, I don’t know, I feel like our palates are more discerned and I think we’re a lot more curious than we were maybe five, ten years ago, so we want to try new things. And then when that happens, questions come in. And for us, that’s where we step in.
For example, creating the coffee menu, we don’t really encourage milk and sugar, but if customers ask for it, we’ll give it. Also at the Curator, we have multiples coffees. Like we have two [types] of espresso: one that is more catered to what is generally acceptable in the sense of, you know, it’s earthy and chocolaty, and bold, and nutty, and the milk is creamy and it’s naturally sweet, so this is what Filipinos like, as opposed to the other blend, which is like, sour, citrusy, floral. It’s not what the palate is used to. So we just try to have options for everyone.
If it’s cocktails naman, if they see anything on the menu that they like, or they feel like having, they can just go to the bartender. So it’s like, “How are you feeling today?” It can be boozy or refreshing or fruity, or do you want it on the bitter side? Basically, it’s a conversation. So again it all goes back to the person and your relationship with your customers.
In everything you’ve done so far, what have you learned and how have you changed?
The years have passed really quickly, I’ve been home since 2012. I’ve learned more, that’s for sure. I’m better equipped in terms of the technicalities of making coffee and making drinks. I think I’m a lot more social.
What makes for a good bartender?
It’s really just paying attention to what people like or need, and also just creating a space where people are comfortable to speak to you. You’re willing to exchange ideas and learn from each other, and also you just become a better person. With coffee and cocktails, you do everything you can in terms of knowledge and technique. But what makes us different is we truly care [and want to make] the best experience. You have to do everything you can for the customers—that’s number one. Everything else can be learned—knowledge, technique, also palate—the only way to train [these] is if you keep on trying different things. In everything naman, eh, if you feel like you’re already good at something, then that’s receding na. So for us it’s just continuous learning.
Interview by Fiel Estrella
Photos by JL Javier
Shot at Oto in Poblacion, Makati