Bartenders spend too much time making one cocktail, says Ethan Leslie Leong

Before sombre, elegant craft bartending, there was crazy, circus-y flair bartending, and Ethan Leslie Leong was its king. The confident head honcho of Maison Ikkoku has come a long way since juggling shakers and consulting at Singapore’s high-end clubs, but he’s still got plenty of edge. Head honcho of Maison Ikkoku tells us about the glory days of bartending in Singapore in the ’90s, his brand new bar Fort and his tumultuous beginnings in Malaysia.

Back in the ’90s I was training as a chef, but I got tired of cooking and moved into the bar industry. Within a year, I represented Singapore in the 1997 world finals of a flair bartending competition in Birmingham. I was nervous because the night before I had just won the competition in Singapore and the next day, I was in Birmingham doing the world finals.

The people were exactly like soccer fans. It looked like a stadium with two big screens and a thousand people watching. They even brought air horns while you were doing your shift. I never expected it to be so grand.

Back then there weren’t many cocktail bars. It was all about showmanship and how you treated your guests. We were like rock stars. When we walked in a bar, everyone shouted and the girls would clap and try to get our attention.

We could get a stranger to lie down on the bar top, put cream on their bodies and get another person to take shots. It was like we were magicians who hypnotized strangers to do crazy things.

Bartenders now spend too much time making one cocktail. Let’s be sensible, if one drink takes 20 minutes, you have to also be sensitive towards your customers’ time.

I cooked in a Chinese restaurant first and then moved to a Western steakhouse. I could turn over 500 people in one lunchtime service. I could handle sirloins, tenderloins, lamb, pork chops in all sorts of doneness from rare to medium-well and well done.

If I had to cook a meal for a first date I would cook steak, paired with a cocktail like a Negroni.

I tell my staff that they have to balance everything. If you’ve eaten too many carbs, you better go to the gym. If you’re not spending with your family, you better take a full day off, or if you haven’t spent time with your girlfriend, give her a call. It’s called balancing skills and it translates to balancing cocktails, too.

I decided to design Fort myself without ever studying interior design or graduating from an arts school. You just have to go through many sleepless nights and keep on thinking and rethinking the structure, layout and design. The tough part is that once it’s built, you can’t ever change it.

Some bar owners open a bar just so they have a place to drink their own cocktails. You should just buy the bottle and drink it at home. It’s less investment. But they just want a place to treat their friends at a bar because it’s a cool thing to do.

I was born in Malaysia but on March 15, 1993, my mom bought me a one-way train ticket to Singapore with $300. I just packed three sets of clothes and a pair of slippers and she sent me off. I was only 17 years old. I’ve been through all the hardship and all the traditional Chinese family drama. I got beaten when I didn’t go to school, so I started working in a Chinese restaurant in Mountbatten Road.

Working in a Chinese restaurant, I had to kill 120 pomfrets, chickens and ducks every morning. In those days, the restaurant business was good, and they asked me to kill a lot of things that the supplier delivered each morning.

The world’s most expensive cocktail wasn’t my idea. A club director wanted me to create a drink because the big spenders were buying too much Champagne, and they couldn’t keep up with demand. When he asked me to create an expensive cocktail, I thought it would be just another expensive cocktail. Then he told me, “$35,000 per glass.”

I was in the Maldives to consult for a cocktail bar recently. I thought to myself, “What the hell is this island?” Because everything was white: the sharks were white, the stingrays were white, even the unagi was white.