Kayla Saito: From Nashville to koji fermentation classes, this is one bar professional making a stamp on the industry

Story by Cara Devine. Cara is our Melbourne-based drinks writer. She is the manager of Bomba in Melbourne and the face and talent behind the cocktailing YouTube channel Behind the Bar. You can email her at behindthebarchannel@gmail.com

There is no better way to learn than at the feet of someone who is truly passionate about their subject, and that’s how I felt listening to Kayla Saito talk about koji fermentation at a recent masterclass hosted by Angel’s Envy here in Melbourne. After “going down a rabbit hole” during lockdowns, Saito is a koji convert, and her enthusiasm is backed up with a level of research that speaks to the attention to detail which has seen her carve out an impressive reputation in Australia since moving over from the US.

“I remember really wanting to learn about bartending when I was in high school and I actually went to a bartending course in a bowling alley in Nashville, Tennessee when I was 17. I still have a card they gave me that says ‘Mixology Certified’. It was all downhill from there,” she jokes. Her Australian resume is impressive – from being part of the team at Black Pearl to managing the bars at first Leonardo’s and then Capitano, to group beverage manager of the Aru, Sunda, PARCS and Hotel Windsor group. She is currently a bar manager within the Mulberry group where you will find her most commonly at Dessous before she moves to open a new venue under the same umbrella in 2024.

Saito has also done very well within an impressive roster of competitions, placing top 3 in World Class Australia in 2021 and top 5 in 2022, and top 10 in Patron Perfectionists. She finds the competition process very valuable and would encourage other bartenders to push past any reservations they may have to reap the rewards.

“I’ve realised we can be our biggest critic and on the flip side, your biggest proponent. The most intense competition is with ourselves and that can push you to derive encouragement from success and learning from failure. In my experience entering bartending competitions, the ‘competitors’ can be your best takeaway,” Kayla says. “You win friendships and alliances with incredibly talented people in the industry as well as the sharing of information and momentum of creativity. Priceless.”

“Koji has so many uses, it’s incredibly flexible… it makes a banging Gibson Martini. See for yourself how it changes the game with flavour and texture.”

But, back to koji. “It’s a magical ingredient,” says Saito. “Anyone that touches it falls in love and for ample reason. The mould itself, aspergillus oryzae, has been used for centuries to preserve and break down complex flavour molecules into simplified sugars and accessible amino acids – umami baby! It’s got so many uses, it’s incredibly flexible.”

For those looking to level up their cocktails with a splash of umami, she recommends starting with shio koji (salt, water and rice koji) and using it as an umami saline solution. “It makes a banging Gibson Martini. See for yourself how it changes the game with flavour and texture.” At the masterclass, Saito served up a highball with, in her own words, a deep nod to Yakult. She made a Sake Kasu Amazake, a rice porridge cooked with koji and sake lees and flavoured with pandan, spiked with bourbon and lightly carbonated. I can safely say it is high on, if not top of, my list of favourite drinks this year – textural and refreshing with so much depth of flavour. For anyone looking to expand their knowledge on this subject, she recommends utilising online resources such as Kojicon or books like Koji For Life, Koji Alchemy, or any of Sandor Katz’s “incredibly weird reads”.

Saito’s career is also notable for her focus on conscious bar practices. PARCS, which she oversaw as beverage manager, is literally ‘scrap’ backwards, and sought to minimise food waste. The Mulberry is notable for their dedication to sustainability, far past lip service.

“At the Mulberry group, we all share a strong belief in mindfulness, in sustainable practices and minimising waste in our day-to-day. It’s everything, everyday that makes a difference and it’s really about taking action with consideration of those values. Everything from turning off your faucet, burning the ice from your well without water, buying as close to home as possible, feeding your food waste to hungry wormies, to taking care of your garnishes so they live longer, to planning ahead in large scale with menu planning. We work together across venues to make sure things are intelligently utilised, sometimes processed one, two, occasionally more times from a single product instead of chucking it. There’s so much life in one thing.”

It’s a thoughtfulness and consideration that permeates every conversation you have with Saito, and reflects in the standard of her drinks-making and hosting. When I ask her about her hopes for the future she replies, “I hope to continue to build skills in leadership and development. It’s the part of my role that encourages me – to be a part of someone’s path to discovering something they’re passionate about and building skills and knowledge. It’s something I’d like to be incredibly skilled at one day.” We, the Australian bartending community, should be very grateful for that indeed.