Three months into his new role at Potato Head Hong Kong’s brightly-hued, breezy, tropical-feel bar, Tom Egerton pauses to share thoughts on his zeal for hosting, his most bizarre bartending experiences and how the humble-yet-versatile coconut was what inspired Potato Head Hong Kong’s new menu of socially conscious tropical cocktails.
Tom’s industry experience spans high-end venues in Dubai, North America and most recently Sydney, where he managed Eau De Vie, an award-winning drinking den for whisky worshippers. A decade of serving in tie-and-waistcoat style speakeasies left the New Zealander yearning for something less formal and more folksy.
Thanks! Hong Kong is such a fast-paced city, which is great because I was looking for a challenge and I wasn’t quite feeling that in Sydney. There’s a very small and close-knit community of bartenders here so I’ve been enjoying getting out and about and meeting my some of my peers.
Hospitality is a family thing for us. My grandparents were hoteliers. My elder sister and brother were bar and restaurant managers when I was younger, and they still work in hospitality. Growing up in New Zealand, I was pruning vines as a kid in the Central Otago wine region. Then, when I turned 13, I started working as a pot washer at a club that my sister was managing.
I try to look at it beyond the creation of a drink. It’s no longer unique for a bar to simply make good drinks. No matter where you go in the world — be it Vietnam, the Middle East or the Caribbean — people will be able to make you a well-crafted drink. Fifteen years ago, when I started in the industry, that wasn’t the case. Now, for me, it’s the steps beyond that — the hospitality, the hosting, the experience from when a customer walks in the door until when they leave that really sets you apart. We’re very lucky to be in the business of making people happy.
I’ve had some pretty unique experiences. Drinking rum in a 1950s red convertible Firebird while driving down the waterfront in Havana at sunset was pretty special. That was part of the Havana Club Grand prix, a cocktail competition that happens every three years.
A few years ago, I mixed drinks in the mouth of an open and active volcano in Vanuatu for a Hendrick’s Gin cocktail competition. We had to hump the gear up to the peak, so it was a pretty challenging and unusual experience.
Someone who’s more interested in the drink that they are making than the person who’s drinking it.
Our space is very light and open; we try and deliver that sense of escapism that comes with a cocktail. We’re very much drawing inspiration from Potato Head Bali, where you’re facing the ocean and the atmosphere is tropical, refreshing and relaxing.
We are one of the few bars in the city that is focusing especially on Indonesian flavours, textures and temperatures and matching that with the Hong Kong palate, which is a very sophisticated drinking taste.
Many of our ingredients are native to Bali – think ripe pineapples, green and yellow mangos, fresh young coconuts and sambal [chilli relish]. I’ll start tying in tamarind and torch ginger very soon.
Every time someone comes over from Bali, I ask them to bring over a couple of bottles of arak. Essentially what I have on the shelf is arak that’s been hand-carried, so if people ask, I pour them a little to try and chat to them about it. It’s about giving people that extra bit of service and treating them to a true taste of Bali.
First off, we’re switching to suppliers that are locally based and which operate ethically and sustainably. We’re also recycling some of the leftovers from our suppliers. For example, we’re using a local coffee company that roasts in Hong Kong; reducing our carbon footprint but also making use of the cascara [coffee husk] which is usually discarded.
We also use as much as possible of our fresh ingredients. With pineapples, we save the skin to make a fermented pineapple soda called tepache. We juice the flesh and save the pulp, dehydrating that and powdering it to use as an ingredient again. Pineapple crowns and stems are used as garnishes. Anything that we can’t use is composted and given to a local farm to grow herbs for our kitchen.
Yes, Kalpavriksha — also known as the Kalpa tree — is a wish-fulfilling tree which in Hindu mythology is one that provides everything. In India it’s the banyan or fig tree, and in Indonesia, it’s the coconut palm which is the tree that you can get many things from — water, flesh, oil, husk, leaves and wood. So it’s about not only using an ingredient for one thing.
Yes! Just imagine, if I’ve got six bartenders, making on average 35 drinks each a night, that’s 210 straws a night plus around 40 for tasting. That works out at 23,000 straws — half a tonne of plastic waste — in just one year for just one bar. Suddenly you can see how much plastic waste is being produced just by people having a drink.
Pontiac is a great American dive bar. Lily & Bloom is another great cocktail bar headed up by a friend of mine, John Nugent. 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana restaurant, has a very nice bar, Otto & Mezzo, run by a very nice man named Devender. He is the classic, consummate host; he knows the names of all of his customers and his place is very crisp and clean.
I’ve spent seven years working in speakeasies, stirring brown spirits in a dark room late at night. They make drinking very serious and sometimes you just want to have a bit of fun. I think things are moving towards a more comforting, welcoming style of bar. We are bringing a bit of levity back to bars; atmospheres are a bit more rowdy, a bit more ‘anything goes,’ and there is a focus on speed of service rather than taking five to ten minutes to craft a drink.
You’ll find me behind the bar most nights. I’d definitely recommend coming in for Mid Week Sundowners on Wednesdays – we do a Potato Head Mai Tai for HK$50 or a rum and fresh juice for HK$30.