Learning from the best: Jono Carr on why he went to work with MC at PS40

Michael Chiem. Image: Christopher Pearce

Story by Jono Carr, who is now our regular drinks writer. You can reach him at drinks@spantonmedia.com

The amazing thing about working at PS40 is that you get to learn from one of the best in this industry. M.C. has taken two 30-plus seasoned bartenders and we both felt like it was our first week behind the stick. Tynan Sidhu (ex Bar manager of Baxter inn) and myself an ex group bar manager. We’ve both led teams in great and award-winning venues, however it’s a whole new world under him. Some of that is because he does things the way he likes it and that suits his venue but also because it always makes sense in general.

Michael Chiem/M.C./Somme chef/The smiling assassin has a particular way of doing things. His ethos of ‘fresh is best’ goes further than just produce. One of his menu cocktails, the kaffir Gimlet, is as simple as it is genius. He will only ever freshly zests Kaffir lime to serve only to be Thermomix blended with the rest of the beverage (Gin, lime juice, sugar and the zest of a lime) then to be shaken to order served in a perfectly frozen glass, only pulled out when the drink is 90% ready. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be the best version of that cocktail served to each guest.

As Charlie Ainsbury recently said to him after having one, “This is one of the best drinks I’ve had in a long time”. That speaks volumes to me personally, having always looked up to Mr Ainsbury. That’s just it about M.C. He will only personally put the best version of a cocktail up to his guests, to a fault.

His ethos on drinks is somewhat removed from my last role where I was creating cocktails for four venues across Sydney where I would have to think about how well any young bartender would be able to replicate them if I weren’t there, available consistently for at least 3 months before a list refresh. Often planned, costed and tested months in advance. There’s an art to that as well, though it’s not going to be the perfect drink each time by nature.

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“This resistance to the normality of a cocktail bar and the ultimate strive for perfection is the reason I had to work with him. Another reason, for me at least, is that he has owned and operated an award-winning bar for five years now.”

Instead on my first shift he had some plums that were perfectly ripe for that day. We cold pressed them, tasted it and came up with a cocktail that we only had enough for 22 serves. If you were there that night you got to enjoy it, if not, sorry. Come back tomorrow for a different delicious drink. Bulletin Place does something similar daily though somehow this is different. It’s done out of a post covid necessity and reactive creativity.
That’s not to say that he hasn’t made some of the best mainstays of a cocktail list that I’ve experienced. The infamous Breakfast Negroni and now Africola. Drinks that are so damn good that people come back for them religiously, so much so that they are now even printed on T-shirts.

This resistance to the normality of a cocktail bar and the ultimate strive for perfection is the reason I had to work with him. Another reason, for me at least, is that he has owned and operated an award-winning bar for five years now.

PS40. Image: Alana Dimou

When I got the chance to take a look at my strengths and weaknesses as a hospitality professional I realised that all my time in service hasn’t readied me enough to open my own venue. If you gave me the keys to a joint right now I could probably write a decent list, train the staff and make the guests happy. However, I had no idea of how to then pay the staff and then the BAS tax at the end of each quarter. So it would ultimately fail.

So I asked MC if he would take me on for a few months and not only teach me his fantastic ethos on cocktails but also how to do all the things I’ve not had the opportunity (read want) to do in my years of front of house service. Thankfully he agreed to teach me more than just the how and why of his drinks but also how he keeps the lights on every day. Money can’t buy that and yet he still pays me. I am lucky and happy to go to work knowing I’m under the wing of a master while preparing for the next step in my career. I call it an apprenticeship.

Scaling back and diversifying the offering is one of the ways PS40 has bounced back from last year’s shutdown. With a weekly sold-out ‘Take Over Tuesdays’, where some of the best chefs in Sydney (and soon interstate) get to come up with snack-sized dishes paired with cocktails and have the freedom to put whatever they like on the plates. That has led to PS40 doing a 5-week pop up of a hotel with Chef Big Sam Young (ex Lotus Group head chef) taking over currently unused space in a hotel restaurant on the water in Rushcutters Bay to create a dining experience second to none.

On top of that, PS40 now has a list of 100 wines under $100 for people to be able to either enjoy in the venue or take home with them, curated by an amazing sommelier friend of M.C.’s, Louella Mathews of Bibo Wine Bar in Nuetral Bay. An investment turning the old soda production space into a working kitchen means the food options are growing too.

He had some awesome help during and continuing on after that horrible lockdown from Meg Litherland, the amazing designer/ bartender boss lady and the recently departed Pete Seabrook which allowed a successful pivot and relaunch. The venue is going strong with a great core team, new food offering and baller wine list, this is the beginning of a new era for PS40. I know that it has always been a great bar with an amazing pedigree of past staff, but I can’t wait to see what he can achieve with a now newly bolstered team. It’ll be a wild ride for anyone who happens to walk up Skittle lane and join us.

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