Peter Pham talks Pho-garitas

Peter Pham behind the bar at Hey Chu

Peter Pham first dipped his toes into the world of hospitality as a Waiter at Hello Auntie, Marrickville in 2016 where he was optimistic about his future in Sydney’s nightlife scene. Transitioning to Bartender and later Bar Manager at the Inner West venue Peter found his passion, encapsulating the essence of his cherished memories in cocktail form.

Now showcasing his talent as Bar Manager at Hey Chu in Sydney’s CBD, Peter draws on his early years in Vietnam for inspiration, seamlessly blending nostalgic South East Asian flavours with current trends.

“When I started bartending, I didn’t know flavour combinations or more hearty techniques, but I was lucky that I was exposed to food and flavour quite early on in life.

“I grew up in Vietnam for 13 years before I moved over to Australia, so I still have a lot of memories of flavours from my childhood. When I moved over here things changed, comparing the flavour now in Vietnam to what I tried back in the day won’t be the same. I try my best to bring back some of my childhood memories, it doesn’t have to be 100 per cent correct, but just how I remember it.

“When I first moved here, I stayed with my aunties and they taught me everything about how to make food and appreciate food, and that was the foundation for me. As I grew up I loved eating out and discovering new places, which gave me unusual ideas and inspiration for flavours.”

Peter Pham

Starting with little knowledge, Peter honed his expertise under the guidance of the chefs at Hello Auntie, trialing new cocktails with their feedback, and Paul Lee, a former venue manager. With a passion for mixing unique cocktails and paying homage to his Vietnamese roots, Peter combines the vibrancy and soul of South East Asian cooking with Sydney’s nightlife.

In his experiments with unusual flavours, Peter is known for putting bold twists on classic cocktails. Speaking about his approach to crafting a new cocktail, Peter says his understanding of flavour profiles and combinations has expanded over the years, giving him the confidence to make his own concoctions from scratch.

“I try to bring the flavours from a bit of everything that we used to eat. Pho is everywhere, we always ate pho, and Vietnamese coffee. One of my cocktails here is called Caphe Muoi, which right now is a trending drink in Vietnam, a salted coffee. In Vietnam, they make an iced latte, or a sweet white coffee, with a layer of salt foam on top to make a contrast between the sweetness and bitterness, with a little bit of saltiness in there.

“For my cocktail, I changed it up a little bit to use salted coconut cream. That cream is used a lot in Vietnamese cooking, so I grew up eating it and wanted to use that instead of a salt foam to bring the taste closer to my memories of those days.

“Caphe Muoi is my version of an Espresso Martini, instead of using vodka I use Hennessy, and instead of coffee liqueur I am using a shot of Vietnamese black coffee.

“Another example is my Bo Gia cocktail. Bo Gia translates to Godfather, so it is my twist on a classic Old Fashioned. The way I changed it is that I fat-washed the whiskey with butter, and in that butter I used spices and orange which I clarified down before fat-washing. For the sweetness component I used toasted black sticky rice which adds a little bit of nuttiness in there and changes the colour as well.

“I will usually create a flavour profile first, and decide which flavour I want the guest to taste. For the Bo Gia, I really wanted the guest to taste the creaminess of the butter, with a little bit of orange and a slight nuttiness of the rice. The next step is to decide which liquor, so with a buttery, nutty flavour I would go for something a bit earthier, warmer and smoky, which is why I chose whiskey.”

Talking through the ten signature cocktails on Hey Chu’s menu, it becomes clear that a lot of the work takes place outside of service. Combining Pandan rum, Vok Strawberry, Liquor 43, Passionfruit syrup, lemon and whey, the No. 6 is a favourite of Peter’s. Taking several hours to batch prep the cocktail, it’s best to get in early for a taste of the fruity creation which has a limited number of serves available each night.

“Right now on the cocktail list at Hey Chu, No. 6 is our signature drink. It is a milk-punch, clarified cocktail because right now I’m into anything that’s super clear, nice and simple. With that cocktail I have to do it by batch, and it takes a few hours to filter through.”

If you’re wondering what place spiced fish sauce and pho syrup have in a cocktail, think Vietnamese Margarita. Balancing coriander-infused tequila, Crème de Gingembre, Cointreau, pho syrup, spiced fish sauce and lime, What The Pho is another cocktail that requires a lot of prep. Peter infuses his tequila with coriander in house, as well as making his own pho syrup full of flavour.

“Using pho in cocktails, I made one back in the day at Hello Auntie, but it was a warm version similar to a mulled wine. Back then I was using coriander-infused Tanqueray gin and Cointreau and people loved it. When you serve this cocktail warm, the spices and aromas are much stronger. When people drank it, they would ask ‘are you sure you didn’t serve us pho broth?’.

“More recently, I had the idea to use tequila and turn it into a Margarita, or a Pho-garita. Now, it’s got tequila, Cointreau and lime which is the base of any Margarita. This time, I didn’t want to make a cocktail that tasted like pho, but I wanted to use all of the elements from a pot of pho to enhance the flavour of the cocktail. Expect a Margarita, with the elements of pho hidden in it.”

Peter's What The Pho cocktail
Peter’s What The Pho cocktail

With so many elements of surprise in each serve, Peter’s skills go beyond the creation of each individual cocktail. Speaking about the composition of the full cocktail list, Peter explained how he pulls together a menu of unique drinks that seamlessly tie together.

“I was lucky enough to taste all of the foods from our venue, which gave me a basic idea of the flavour profiles and helped me prepare my drinks. My style is to create cocktails that mask the taste of alcohol. This makes it easier for the consumer to enjoy with their food, because the drink complements the flavours, which makes me pretty confident that my drinks go really well with the menu.”

Despite his years of experimenting, Peter believes he still has a lot to learn.

“I have never made a cocktail using sake or soju. I want to learn about spirits outside of my comfort zone, so I will visit different bars to be able to taste the spirits and learn from there. After getting a taste for those spirits, then I can start to think about what flavours and ingredients I would use with them.

“Right now, I am interested by modern cocktail techniques taken from cooking, like infusion and sous-vide. I’m doing my own research about that to gain more knowledge about different techniques. My goal one day is to have a full list of cocktails that are clear.”

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