The Queen Chow bartender on how she’s gone from picking up glasses in her dad’s bar, to Ireland and further afield
YOU know the feeling well: you’re five deep at the bar, punters are crammed in every which way, dispense is drowning in dockets and that group of ‘woo’ girls are hassling you for Espresso Martini’s. Chaos is brewing in the bar, but what do you do? If you’re Queen Chow’s Ashling Barrett, that’s where you thrive.
Here, she talks to us about how she’s grown up in bars (literally — her Dad owned a bar in New York), how she learned to be fast and how she craves a busy environment.
As told to Sam Bygrave
I’ve been bartending since I was 16; I grew up in bars, my dad was a bar owner in New York, and my mum has been a bartender her whole life, so I kind of started off picking up glasses in Dad’s bar.
My first bartending job was in a hotel in Ireland, and I stayed there five years. That was the first real one, it was a lot of fun — it was more about learning how to deal with crazy amounts of people; the bar held about a thousand people. It was speed. In Ireland at that time we weren’t really learning about cocktails, just basics — it was where I learned how to be fast, we used to compete against each other behind the bar to see who would top sales and stuff like that. We were really young and it mattered a lot!
Hotels are funny. It was a 500 bedroom hotel, and I started out bartending but ended up doing everything: room service, restaurant — it taught me how to deal with people.Learning how to deal with the most difficult people, and the nicest people.
Then I went to this small cocktail bar, Peruke & Periwig. I was part of the opening team there and it was crazy. When we opened we had so many staff and thought we’d have this enormous boom from the staff. But none of us knew what we were doing at all. I had none of this craft cocktail experience or making ingredients or batching. But luckily my boss was really trusting and took a lot of time training me in. It was amazing. That’s the place where I learnt everything. Our list was 40 drinks of our own twists and 40 drinks of classics — your had to know so much.
It was in this old Victorian townhouse which was four storeys — the glass washer was in the basement, the kitchen was on the top floor, and there were two cocktails bars on the second and third floors, and a pub called the zoom which was the ground floor. That was my space — it felt like a pub, but you were getting really chaotic and people were yelling, like nobody in Ireland is listening to what the capacity of the room is. Everyone is cramming themselves in there, we’re serving until whatever time we wanted to, it was fun.
I like it when I’m under the pump. I get bored really easily otherwise. I don’t think I’m suited to fine dining or anything like that, I like being real busy, if I’m behind the bar or on the floor — it’s just more fun that way. I love it when you’re really super busy and the customer sees it but sees that you’re still managing — they look at you and are like, ‘How are you doing that?’ It’s kinda cool.
I’ve been in Sydney for nearly two years now. My boss, who trained me in at Peruke & Periwig, sent a text on a group chat that he was opening a place in Sydney and was there any chance any of us would want to come from Ireland and live in Australia? I was dating one of the guys I worked with, and he asked me if I wanted to do it — and why not?
Two weeks later we were here. We were ready to change. So many things fell into place, which was amazing. If I’d over-thought it I probably wouldn’t have come.
Right now I’m working in the Smelly Goat bar at Queen Chow, alongside Steph Haile. I’m one of the bar supervisors, training in staff and working on new drinks lists, trying to get the staff to a really good level. The restaurant [here] is such a beautiful restaurant — great food, awesome service — and we’re just trying to make sure it carries through to the rest of the venue.
When you work in a restaurant, the influence from the food comes in a lot. Working somewhere like here, where it’s Cantonese food, I’m readjusting the way I’m doing things to incorporate ingredients I’ve never used before — that’s the main thing, learning a little bit about an ingredient and then trying to incorporate it into a twist on a classic.
People can be a little afraid of spice. We’re trying to incorporate spice, like we have the Szechuan pepper dish and it’s literally called ‘Hot & Numbing’ on the menu; it’s crazy, your mouth goes completely numb. It’s the best. Food like this is quite rich, and you want the food to shine, so you’re trying to create drinks that will work around the food rather than something is going to overpower it.
I’ve been very welcomed into the Sydney hospo scene, because of the places I worked. I’ve been very lucky. Like when I first arrived here Shady Pines was the first bar I went to, so I started on the right foot. I love the Sydney hospo scene, it’s smaller than you would think. It can be a little cliquey. It’s just important to keep checking out new venues, see what’s going on, you know?