WHO: Bar manager, Shelley Tai
JOINED: Nutmeg & Clove, 8 Purvis Street
FROM: Hong Kong
Hong Konger Shelley Tai, 31, studied fashion merchandising but never got a chance to parlay her studies into a career. Instead, it was her part-time job on the bar floor that got her hooked on hospitality. Her interest and determination led her from barback to apprentice bartender, and finally to bartender at Quinary, Hong Kong and now bar manager at Nutmeg & Clove, Singapore.
Along the way, she participated in the Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year Hong Kong in 2018 and 2019, eventually winning the title on her second try. “I was very shy and didn’t talk much at my first competition,” she recalls. Don’t mistake her reticence for lack of skill though; she became much more serious at her craft during her five-year stint at modernist bar Quinary (currently number 16 on World 50 Best Bars). Although she favours spirit-forward drinks, she won’t commit herself to a style, explaining that she enjoys finding culinary flavours and infusing those into her drinks.
SPREADING HER WINGS
Landing in Singapore happened, in a way, because of World Class. “It made me feel small,” she fumbles, finding the right word in English. “Meeting so many people and seeing what they do, made me want to learn more myself. At 30, I realise I wasn’t growing enough, so I decided to leave Hong Kong.” Tai accepted a job in New York in 2020, and was geared to move until Covid-19 scuttled that opportunity.
Colin Chia, co-founder of Nutmeg & Clove, was not having a great year either, as he had to close the bar’s physical operations for 257 days following Singapore’s Circuit Breaker. Ever enterprising, the former Diageo commercial manager, who also has bars in Bangkok, relocated Nutmeg & Clove to Seah Street in November and recruited Tai to be its high-profile bar manager.
MENU TO WATCH
Since moving herself and her cats over, Tai has been learning the ropes of being a bar manager, meaning she focuses more than on drinks – she’s responsible also for planning menus, events and bar operations. The bar’s new menu, launching in April, is based on the 12 Chinese zodiac animals, weaving in Nutmeg & Clove’s strong Asian leaning with a creative twist around colour, food and spirits. Tai and Chia ensured that the whole team pitched in, with forerunner Nabbit (or Rabbit) offering a sophisticated combination of pinenut washed vodka, purple carrot wine and fig leaf kombucha.
Foodwise, the bar couldn’t be luckier – Chia’s longtime friend and celebrity chef Willin Low consulted on the Asianfusion menu, serving up winners like the curry kueh pie tee ($12) with potato foam, tom yum bishop’s nose ($12) – heavenly for fans of crispy chicken butt, and a heritage recipe based on Chia’s father’s own Teochew lor bak ($18) – braised pork belly with chee cheong fun and braised egg in a perfectly balanced gravy.
THE LAST WORD
“A good bartender must have traits of discipline, creativity and friendliness,” says Tai. In particular, discipline is important to her because there are also negative influences in the industry, such as over-drinking and not taking care of one’s health. To that end, she prefers to keep a morning routine and to exercise regularly – weight training and boxing being her favoured sports. “Diet-wise, I eat everything,” she claims, except too much carbohydrates at night. Her favourite Singapore dish: kaya toast and eggs.