How Pop Direkrittikul, one of Bangkok’s best bartender successfully made a restaurant bar stand out

Pop Direkrittikul, Head Bartender of Eat Me Restaurant
We should follow our dreams. Buntanes “Pop” Direkrittikul, head bartender of Eat Me Restaurant, Bartender of the Year 2018

Very often, a bar within a restaurant is just a supporting act. Helmed by New York-born Chef Tim Butler, Eat Me is an established Silom eatery known for its innovative bold flavours in a modernist part art gallery, part outdoor terrace setting. Eat Me has received numerous regional awards and consistently regarded as top of the list as Bangkok’s best restaurants 20 years on.

Buntanes “Pop” Direkrittikul started as a service staff 14 years ago. Without any experience in bartending, he joined Eat Me bar team in 2011 when the previous bartender left. Working his way up, he is now the Head Bartender of Eat Me Restaurant. One evening, a tipsy regular jokingly asked for a Laab Moo, a North Eastern Thai-style Spicy Pork Salad. His cocktail became a signature and that is how the concept of Sip Some Thai developed – interpretations of favourite Thai savoury dishes into cocktails. He knew he hit the right notes when customers start to come just for the cocktails. Last year, he won Bartender of the Year at The Bar Awards Bangkok, an honour  recognized by the bar communities in several Asian cities

14 years (7 years service crew + 7 years in bartending)
Restaurant: 200
Bar area: 8
1 6 Convent Rd, Khwaeng Silom, Khet Bang Rak, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10500, Thailand

Key takeaways to consider

  1. One drink should not take more than 30 seconds to make. Prioritize setting up your stations before service. You must have everything within reach.
  2. Your team is your family. Supporting one another is the most important aspect.
  3. To be a bartender, do not expect to make cocktails immediately. You have to learn from the ground up. You start by being a barback  – understand how to set up a bar and the ingredients.

What is bartending to you?

Bartending is my life basically. I take my job very seriously, and my goal is to make my customers happy. It is a fascinating job as you can never predict what will happen next. Be focused and be prepared for anything.

You discover and learn something new every day. Seven years on, it is still exhilarating!

What makes me happy are the small things. If customers become your regulars, it means that you did a great job. It keeps me going no matter how busy and stressful my work is.

Pop Direkrittikul, Eat Me 

What are the rules you go by on operating your bar?

In every shift, there are 5 of us: myself, two bartenders, and two bar backs. My team must be alert and on top of things. I teach them always to be ready to serve our guests. My staffs must always be at their stations.

I create most of the cocktails on the menu. My staff must follow the recipes, and I do not accept any shortcuts no matter how busy we are. However, there is always room for creativity. I am constantly pushing my guys to create new drinks. Even our bar backs are creating their cocktails sometimes and garnering a fan base.

One drink should be ready in 20-30 seconds. Therefore I trained the team to prioritize setting up their station before service. You must have everything within reach. No matter how each night will turn out to be, the bar must be fully setup at all times. This is the most essential part of the job.

Most of my team have been working with me for at least five years. We treat each other like brothers.

Tell us more about how do you manage your team

I can say I am a tough leader to work with as I do have high expectations for my team. I want things to be perfect all the time! Of course, we are not robots, and everyone has their shortcomings. However, your work performance should never be compromised by tiredness or mood swings. This is not acceptable.

I treat my team members as my brothers. I spend at least 10 hours per day with them, and we know each other inside out. We have meals together and joke around before the service. However, when the service starts, my team must deliver their best.

Most of my team have been working with me for at least five years. Staff turnover in our industry is relatively high, and I am glad to have a team that is with me for this long. I must admit that I am very happy with my current team. Supporting one another is an essential aspect.

What are the work values in your bar?
We are a family. We take care, support and help each other at all times
We are in the service industry; people are our business. Therefore, we must have a strong core team
We train our staff to be more open-minded. It is not within our culture, but we are working towards it.
As a family, we resolve problems together; whether this is work related or personal matters.

Being a bar within a highly acclaimed restaurant, how did Eat Me Bar stand out? 
It is a challenge as we are a bar within an incredibly established restaurant for over 20 years. People perceived Eat me as a place to eat first, and cocktails are secondary.

A few years ago, things began to change. I started introducing Thai savoury flavors in our cocktails. This is how Sip Some Thai was born. The concept has attracted a lot of attention. Gradually, more and more people started talking about us (our bar), and it seemed like people are rediscovering Eat Me bar.

I think what makes our bar unique is the concept of using all fresh ingredients and showcasing savoury flavors in a drink.

To be an award-winning bar, you need to create drinks that push boundaries but also easy for customers to relate. Cocktails are very similar to food. As a customer, you might feel adventurous and visit restaurants that are doing something crazy. It is an experience but will you go back? Many bartenders are going after fashion and trends which is suitable for a short period. However, as that trend dies down, you need to evolve again. I think everyone needs to find their passion and own personal style.

If you want to do something – go for it, no matter how crazy the idea of a drink may be. You must try it out.

Pop Direkrittikul, Eat Me 

What are the challenges of becoming a bartender and how do you personally overcome them?

Many people say, “Oh, your job is so cool! You hang out at the bar and shake some drinks. What a fun job.”

They do not realize the complexity of our profession. To be a bartender, you have to learn from the ground up. You start by being a barback – understand how to set up a bar, the ingredients and spirit profiles.

It might seem very easy to create a drink, but it is not. We have a lot of creative ideas, but when we get down on the R&D sessions, more often than not, the drinks are not as we imagined it.

I had an excellent mentor who shared this with me,” After you mastered the basics, you are on your own. You need to keep on discovering. You need to learn and try new things constantly. Don’t think that you know everything; there is always something new and exciting out there.

Personally, I love it when my customers challenge me with a drink that sounds impossible to make. It is always great fun to create something new and uniquely customized.

We should follow our dreams. If you know whom you want to be, you will get there.

Pop Direkrittikul, Eat Me 

 What is a work-life balance for you?

There is not much work-life balance. I love my job! My biggest passion in life is drinking, eating and traveling. I work hard and play hard. I love to travel whenever I can and explore different places around the world.

I also like to bring something back with me; it can be herbs, spirits or even a nice glass or cup which inspired me. I have followers on social media who eagerly anticipate my new cocktail creations after my travels.

Bartenders in Asia are spoilt for choice. We have access to beautiful fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs 365 days a year. I cannot imagine working with frozen fruits or vegetables; it must be hard. However, not having everything available also means that you have to be push boundaries and be more creative.

Pop Direkrittikul, Eat Me

What are the cocktails that people should not order?

Just a personal opinion, people should try not to order any frozen drinks. A cocktail should be shaken, stirred, thrown or built. A frozen drink is more like a smoothie with alcohol.

There are a lot of aspiring young bartenders out there. What would be the best steps to take to be an established bartender like yourself?

Working hard is an essential part of becoming successful. Never give up and keep on going even when you feel tired. We should follow our dreams. If you know whom you want to be you will get there. Also, I think it is crucial to be open-minded and never stop learning and discovering. It should be your life, not just a job.

– By Theresa Burhan. As told to STT. All photo courtesy of Eat Me Restaurant 

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