How Kate McGraw manages the creative process for five venues

Kate McGraw at Madame Shanghai. Photo: Alana Dimou

She’s in charge of all things liquid for Sydney’s Lotus Dining Group, writing the lists and conducting the training and everything else that falls within that purview, for five Asian restaurants.

Here, Kate McGraw discusses her creative process, and how she got to be where she is today.

As told to Sam Bygrave

I started bartending when I was in university to pay some bills. Then I got itchy feet, and popped over to London, where the bills are a lot harder to pay — so I started working a lot more. I decided that London wasn’t where I wanted to be, so I nipped over to New York instead, with dreams of being in film and theatre — and that worked out not so well. 

I was bartending and had a great mentor over there. I started taking it a lot more seriously, and seeking out new things and tasting things, and that was when my palate kicked in as well. When I was like, oh, I can taste this. 

I came back to Sydney, and popped around different restaurants for a few years bartending and managing, and then I met the guys who now run Lotus. They brought me on board to run the bars across the program.

We have five venues at the moment. Lotus started three and a half years ago and it’s taken a massive upturn in the last year. We’ve rapidly expanded. Basically my job is to open venues for them, and to set up the bars and the beverage programs, and to see the ongoing maintenance of that. On top of that I lead the creative teams — the head bartenders and I work together to keep on developing drinks, making the lists seasonally. Everything that is liquid and everyone who works with liquid — they have to ask for my permission!

The thing across the whole group is that the drinks have to work with the food and they have to be food-friendly drinks. We can’t serve someone a massive, amaro-driven gutsy drink if they’re having these delicate vegetarian dumplings.

The exciting thing about Lotus is that each of our venues have a completely different identity — even the three Lotus branded restaurants have different demographics and a different ethos in terms of food. It really means we get to do five different styles within the subset of Asian cocktails.

I very rarely start with actually mixing alcohol and stuff together — usually for me, purely because of the volume of drinks we make and create constantly, it starts with an idea for a flavour combination, or a fruit or vegetable I want to work with, or some kind of memory or inspiration from elsewhere. For me I’ll construct the cocktail before I start to pour anything, I’ll develop it in my mind before it goes into a glass. If I’m writing the list, I’ll write the list, then I’ll taste the list, and then I’ll give it to the head bartenders and beverage directors in the group to taste and then I’ll re-write the list based on that feedback.