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Competing in the Voyager’s Table Bartender ProAm

Smack! My hand hits the mint leaf positioned on the back of my opposing hand, and I feel a slight rush of exhilaration. As I have learned from the professional chefs at Voyager’s table, slapping a mint leaf on your hand allows the mint to take a more prominent role in any cocktail. It was during my experience of learning this theatrical technique that I noticed the mint leaf’s now distinctly more pungent aroma which jumpstarted a reawakening of my passion for cooking. A few weeks later, in my next class, while focused on perfecting my Paella I heard that there’d be a “Chopped style” ProAm cocktail competition between multiple cities where they’d pair amateur chefs such as myself with professionals. I knew that it would be a rewarding experience that I couldn’t pass up.

The Bartender ProAm

I expressed my interest in the contest and was met with excitement from Voyager’s Table. Within a few days of reaching out, it was unveiled that the contest was to be held in two weeks and that I’d be paired with Beverage Master Suli from the illustrious Restaurant Homer. The contest would be held as the finale of ‘A Very Voyager Night Market’, a virtual event comprising live-streamed lessons taught by industry experts on various expressive arts. The three competing teams, Myself and Suli, and two other Amature chefs paired with professionals from Atomix in New York and Acorn from Vancouver would each receive a mystery box with ingredients selected by Voyager’s Table. And when the contest commenced, we’d open the box and the professional would then have 25 minutes to design a cocktail using at least five of its contents. The amateurs would then recreate the cocktail to be judged by a panel of culinary connoisseurs.  A few weeks and cocktail creation videos on YouTube later, it was finally the day of the competition.

After a brief chat with Suli, when he dropped off the mystery box, I felt calm, cool, and collected. I put on my freshly bleached chef coat (that I had used in my high school Advanced International Cuisine class), prepared my cooking station, and joined the Zoom green room with the other contestant, chefs, and staff members to begin the festivities.

Prior to the competition, I was granted gratis access to Suli’s cocktail class for some last-minute training from my partner himself. I joined the zoom session to see my partner had prepared a dual camera set up that displayed views of prepping the cocktail more directly from the side and from the front as if you were there in person. While I didn’t have the full cocktail kit to make the two cocktails that he was teaching in this class, I was able to pick up some valuable tips. For example, did you know shaking a drink with ice in a Boston shaker creates a seal, so you don’t have to worry about the drink spilling? I didn’t. With my new techniques in mind, I made a fine cocktail of my own to get the night going. Suli’s class was delightful; I enjoyed his charismatic, effervescent, yet professional approach to the teaching process. After another cocktail walkthrough rich with participant interaction with questions and comments, it was about time for the competition.

We split up once again into the green room so that the hosts could introduce both us and the competition to the audience.

Before I knew it, I was on screen introducing myself and demonstrating that I was there to win it all! After a brief wait, while watching my competition show off themselves, it was time to jump in. The hosts started the timer, and Suli and I launched into a private Zoom call to start the cocktail creation process. 

We simultaneously opened the mystery box. Black tea, nectarines, cane sugar, a lime, a locally made Amaro, and Knob Creek Whisky (a personal favorite) stood out to Suli as the ingredients we’d use from the mystery box alongside a dried cayenne pepper and Centenario Lambrusco that he had generously provided. Suli was ready and his creative train departed the station, the destination, first prize, and a solid buzz. 

After some creation on Suli’s side to test his idea, he began his instruction to create our entry. First, I took a cup of boiling water I had prepared and placed it in a glass. I then added about half of the provided mini plastic container of sugar, stirring it in to dissolve the sugar. Once the sugar was dissolved, I then added two packets of the black tea and the cayenne pepper to infuse the concoction with a complex multi-tiered flavor. I then moved to the nectarine, carefully slicing off half to be muddled in my shaker. The time ticked down as I muddled the nectarine, and we were given a warning that we had less than 10 minutes left. The time seemed to be moving at twice its regular speed. Quickly yet carefully, I finished muddling the nectarine and added some of the infused black tea, half an ounce of fresh-squeezed lime juice, and an ounce of the Amaro as well as the Whiskey. With a few ice cubes to chill it down, I got to shaking. I shook my drink with great force, remembering the technique I had seen Suli use. Once it was sufficiently shaken, I strained it into a small red wine glass and added the final touch, an ounce of the Centenario Lambrusco. Within what seemed like an instant, the sparkling red wine sank below the peach pulp to create two layers that faded into each other like a sunset from the golden yellow of the nectarine into the deep purple of the wine. And with that, the creation period was over. 

I was thrust back into the spotlight and was once again in front of the audience, this time with my creation ready for presentation and judgment. I was up first to show off my creation and represent Seattle. Since the judges could not taste my drink through Zoom, my judgment was based primarily on the presentation on my drink and the explanation behind it. I explained the mixing and creation process in detail, showing off the ingredients and noting key factors in taste, smell, and presentation. As I gestured a ‘cheers’ to the audience, my entry in hand, I knew that I was done. The preparation, excitement, and wait that had led up to this moment was over, and it was in the judges’ hands now. After a few more minutes and watching the other contestants explain their drinks, it was time for the judges to deliberate. I waited tentatively for the results and reflected on my experience and took note of my mental state. While this was a fun and lighthearted competition, it had also been hyped up for a while now, and if I’m fully honest, I could feel the tension of being judged against such prominent chefs and other amateurs building. It was a bit intoxicating, though that could have had something to do with the cocktails from earlier in the evening.

It was finally time to unveil the results. The first judge’s screen was pinned, and she described the difficulty of choosing the order of the winners. My heart was beating more quickly now. She started to describe the third-place drink. I listened to her explanation, looking for context clues as to which drink she was describing. She mentioned a garnish, and I knew that this wasn’t my drink. Suli’s strategy was “complexity in simplicity,” and my drink, while beautiful, did not have a garnish. I felt a wave of joy, and I realized that I had defeated Atomix and New York. Their drink was presented wonderfully and sounded delicious. However, today the West Coast would triumph, and I could rest easy knowing that I was Voyager’s Table’s champion of the United States. 

The next judge pinned their screen and began to describe the silver medalist winner. Once again, I looked for context clues, but I didn’t notice descriptions that didn’t fit my drink. She mentioned ‘Amaro’ which provoked excitement from Suli. Then she said, “Second place goes to Suli and Isaac!” While we may not have won, I felt a great sense of satisfaction with the drink that we had created, our win over New York, and the experience as a whole. 

They announced the first-place winner, and the final event of the night, a live DJ’d Zoom dance party, began. Suli turned off his lights and illuminated the now dark room with a multicolored rotating disco ball. I allowed the cocktails to take the reins and danced with my date, who had supported me in the competition and engaged in the night as well.

The experience was filled to the brim with excitement, laughter, and I picked up a great deal of actionable knowledge along the way. The event made a spectacular quarantine date and provided an avenue to engage with new people who shared a common interest, something that many of us, including myself, have seen a lot less of recently. It was refreshing and exciting to partake in such a joyous occasion. I very much look forward to my future engagements with Voyager’s Table and am ecstatic to have found a new community to grow as a chef and a well-rounded individual. 

Until the next time, cheers,