10 things about: Shawn Chong and Karl Too, owners of Asia’s top 10 bars

Too (left) and Chong’s bar specialises in cocktails. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Too (left) and Chong’s bar specialises in cocktails. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

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KUALA LUMPUR, April 17 — With just eight years in the business, Shawn Chong and Karl Too never dreamed their speakeasy bar — Omakase + Appreciate — would be ranked No. 10 in the inaugural Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2016 list.

This ranking makes their bar No. 1 in the country and puts them ahead of other more established bars in the world’s largest continent.

The founders of Omakase + Appreciate, located in the lower ground floor of the Ming Annexe building along Jalan Ampang, are grateful for the ranking but said it was not going to bring about any immediate changes.

Chong, 29, and Too, 32, said the listing would mean nothing without continued hard work and perseverance.

Here, they talk about their passion and drive to become one of the best bars in Asia.

In their own words:

Too: As a teenager, I wanted to study computer related subjects and become a white hat hacker. But I eventually dropped out from college and started freelancing in computer programming for several firms. I was young and wanted some sort of challenge in life, a challenge that would make me want to keep going further. So I joined the bartending community and I started to enjoy the work. My passion and talent for the craft grew and here I am today, sitting beside Shawn running our own bar.

"Omakase" means "leave it to you" in Japanese. So, when you order omakase, the chef will use the freshest and the best ingredients of the day to prepare a dish for you. At O+A, we ask for your preference on flavours and type of spirit so that we able to customise a cocktail that you will really enjoy. Omakase also represents Shawn as he’s into the Japanese way of bartending and making cocktails. "Appreciate" means after you done with your omakase experience, we hope you appreciate your cocktail journey.

Winning the listing or being named among the top 10 in Asia, ahead of bars in Japan and Hong Kong, is a validation for us. We are happy about this but it does not mean our work ends here. We need to ensure our listing remains by doing what we do best — making good quality cocktails.

If you asked whether we are successful already, I would not say so. We are still young and growing. There are more to come. There will be new challenges and obstacles ahead of us. For instance, if our second bar, Sparrow, takes more time than expected to take off, we might have a little trouble. So, success is a difficult word for me to explain in our line of work but our key to perseverance is hard work, consistency and humility.

There are not many bartenders trained in the cocktail craft. Therefore, we train our staff from "seeds to trees". We want to offer people, especially fresh graduates in the hospitality industry, a chance to learn this cocktail skill from us because we believe in nurturing young talents.

Chong: When I was young, I wanted to be a manager in the hospitality industry. I studied a course on hospitality and later worked in fine dining restaurants with the aim of climbing up the corporate ladder. But today, I am a bartender and I would not change this for anything. This career has given me much more than I think I would have received in a corporate world.

I am lucky to have supportive parents. They are liberal and do not have this typical mindset of wanting their Chinese son to be a doctor, lawyer or an accountant. In fact, they have been proud of my achievements as I have bagged three international awards in cocktail competitions.

In 2008, I met Karl at a cocktail competition in Star Hill and that was how we became friends. It was in 2011, when I landed a freelance job here in the building, that I was informed of a small space on the lower ground floor of the building. I just knew what I wanted to do with the space. I talked to Karl and we started the bar.

If you ask me why I run this place here and not in Changkat Bukit Bintang or Bangsar, that's because this place chose us. Besides, we are different from other bars. As you can see, we specialise in cocktails. People are willing to come here despite the somewhat unusual location — a place that doesn’t have a signage. The Dilarang Masuk sign outside our door is our welcome sign. We don’t do any publicity or marketing as we rely on word of mouth and mainstream media coverage.

There are many challenges in this business. In fact, it was a serious challenge for us when we started in 2013. For a 300sq ft space, we purchased a lot of liquor bottles and the overhead costs were high but we managed to pull through about six months later. We opened our second cocktail bar in Kota Damansara, which has been operating since Chinese New Year.

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