“An outlaw bartender, that’s a good one!” Raka exclaims as he chuckles and pours another glass of the house made arrack. The “outlaw” as he describes himself and his style of bartending is unorthodox and out-of-the-box. Raka Ambarawan, the head bartender of the Night Rooster bar in Ubud, doesn’t concern himself with the conventions of modern bartending. Many of his cocktails may surprise people with his choice of ingredients or even the number of different ingredients included. However, this has set him apart from many of his counterparts in the local industry in which he has made a name for himself.
A native of Gianyar, not more than 10 kilometers away from his bar, I Dewa Gede Raka Ambarawan, like many Balinese continued his post-education in hospitality and tourism school. Attending the Bali Tourism International School till 2008, he began his career on a Disney Cruise Line as a galley steward. Given menial tasks such as cleaning the kitchen and washing dishes, he eventually was able to move up the ladder to waiter and then bar back.
It was during his time as a bar back that he learned the basics of bartending as well as backroom essentials such as ordering supplies and organising the bar inventory. He found this experience was valuable to his development and his holistic understanding of the bar.
“During that time I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be here, as a bar back. But in the end I feel so lucky. From being a bar back I learned about inventory, I learned about the spirits, about the store, and making syrups."
Over time he was promoted to an assistant bartender position where he was able to really get his hands on experience behind the bar. However after 5 years of working on a Disney cruise, he grew bored of the routine and returned to Bali seeking new opportunities.
Upon his return to the Ubud area, Raka was looking for a fresh start. His friend had told him of a new restaurant that was opening and looking for a bartender. Quickly contacting the restaurant manager, he sent in his resume hoping to land the position.
It wasn’t till several weeks later, during Galungan, a Balinese ceremonial day, that he heard back from the restaurant. He immediately drove over to Ubud, still fully dressed in his ceremonial uniform and sat for his interview. Although he wasn’t hired on the spot, he was asked to help with the preparations and continued to come into the restaurant everyday. Over the course of that period, he sealed his position as bartender and on November 1, 2013 Locavore officially opened its doors.
“I never thought yet if they hired me or not, I just started working."
It was during his time in Locavore that he really flourished as a bartender. A moment that really stood out to him early on was a conversation he had with one of the co-owners and head chefs Eelke Plasmeijer.
“I still remember when I asked Eelke (Plasmeijer), ‘Hey Eelke, can I buy this syrup?’ he said, are you crazy? You can make this syrup! You get strawberry and sugar in a pan with boiled water. You get strawberry syrup.”
From that moment on, Raka became dedicated to explore the local ingredients around him and to create homemade syrups and spirits instead of relying on imported products. He modelled his bartending to follow the restaurant motto: “go local or go home."
“It was like a kick in my face! From then on I began to explore, making syrups and cocktails.”
During the year Locavore placed on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for the first time. Raka’s dream of heading his own bar came true. Locavore opened the Night Rooster on the 24th of June 2016. A complimentary cocktail bar to Locavore, the Night Rooster was created with the same idea in mind, to highlight local produce.
Given the freedom to create the cocktail menu at the Night Rooster, Raka has shown his creativity and his deep knowledge of the ingredients that grow around him. His understanding and interest in the produce that he has grown up with, fuels his brand of mixology. Many of the drinks that he comes up with aren’t inspired by a spirit, but instead by a fruit or a leaf. He draws his ideas from his own experiences from living in Bali, from traditional drinks and local flavours.
“Slowly I left the international cocktails… I don’t even know how to make a side car, I don’t even know how to make a good daiquiri. But I know how to make a tamarillo into a cocktail, I know how to make kemanggi (lemon basil) into a cocktail."
Since they first opened, the Night Rooster has stayed true to its roots. Notable cocktails like the “Ashes" that features the use of the ashes of dehydrated fruit, vodka, and whiskey. And “The Northern Bramble” that highlights local buleleng grape and mace jam mixed with pickled grape brine and a homemade distilled spirit infused with wood and spices. All the cocktails on the menu tell a story of the land around the bar, highlighting the produce from Bali.
“When I go to a village, I see someone drinking jamu (herbal drink). Then I want to try that, and I think ‘how do I make this into a cocktail?’"
In 2017, the self proclaimed “Outlaw Bartender” and his bar were listed for the very first time on the Asia’s 50 Best Bar Awards. One of only two Indonesian bars listed in 2017, the Night Rooster had gained such recognition after only a year since their opening. Although this year the Night Rooster didn’t place on the prestigious list. Raka insists that he is still motivated to continue his movement for a fully local bar.
“I’m more happy when people know the Night Rooster because of what we are doing, not because we are on the 50 list (Asia’s 50 Best Bars). But if we are on the list, we will still be happy."
When asked about the future for the Night Rooster, Raka wishes to move away from the use and reliance of imported spirits. He hopes to turn towards locally made spirits and elevate them in his drinks. By creating infusions and house-made spirits, it would move them even closer to the Locavore motto. Although he knows that in Indonesia the local distillation industry is still developing, he hopes for more support from the government and the policies put in place to allow the local industry to thrive.
As for his own growth and evolution as a bartender, Raka believes that he like many bartenders in Indonesia needs more exposure to the alcohol and bartending scene in other countries. Currently, he like many are limited to the internet and the use of social media for such exposure.
However, he wishes that he could travel to other countries to learn how they distill their own spirits, and integrate those flavours into the drinks. This exposure he can take back to Indonesia and refine his own skills and knowledge as a bartender. This first hand knowledge and experience he believes will help him and many other Indonesian bartenders grow.
“In the future, I want to travel around Asia, to learn how they make their spirits… countries that make their spirit out of rice... I really want to go to Korea, because their makgeolli is well known… I think the makgeolli is like brem (Balinese red rice wine). But I don’t know, because i’ve never been there and tried it… I want to learn how they make it, how they get there.”
At the end of our interview I asked Raka for advice he would give to other Indonesian bartenders just starting out. He leaves me with the thought that it is important to be authentic with yourself and your bartending. Although bartenders should draw inspiration from others, they should also do their own thing and develop their authentic style of bartending.
“I like it when bartenders make their own things, making their own infusions, their own bitters, their own syrups. It’s nice. It also can inspire other bartenders to make their own things.”
Find the original article in Foodies Magazine Issue 02 August/September 2018