By Catherine Caldwell & Margie Jacinto
We all know mixologist Justin Park (Manifest) and chef Jon Matsubara (Japengo) have been making waves here in Hawai‘i. But next week, they’ll be doing some major representing on opposite ends of the world. We catch up with them before they take off:
Per selection by the U.S. Bartenders Guild, Park will represent the states, stirring liquored masterpieces alongside the world’s best mixologists at the International Bartenders’ Association World Championship, held in South Africa from September 29 to October 4.
Born and raised in the islands, Park shakes up the cocktail scene at home and abroad, drawing inspiration from the world around him using fresh, island-harvested ingredients. With Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Cocktail Hawaii, World’s Best Mai Tai, a stellar Shake It Up! Vegas run, a Campari and USBG Apertivo Contest championship, and naturally, an assemblage of other titles under wraps, Park’s libations are sans doubt worth a taste.
We consulted the cocktail king for a little insight into his life after 5, on- and off-the-clock.
Q. What is your favorite drink to make and why?
My favorite drink to make is the one that my guest is going to enjoy. That’s part of the whole experience of making drinks—getting to know your customer and engaging them, then the satisfaction of creating something that they genuinely appreciate.
Q. How did you delve into the drinks business??
Like a lot of people, I got into the service industry when I was in college to help support myself, and when you’re climbing the ladder in service, bartending is the highest, not including management. From there, I really got into the history of it. I realized, behind every good cocktail, there’s a story.
Q. Where is your favorite place to have a drink in Hawai‘i??
If I’m by myself, I enjoy going to Lucky Belly. I enjoy the ambiance and the level of service there. Their staff is very knowledgeable, and I love talking about drinks, so it’s the perfect combination. And if I’m with friends, my favorite place is pretty much anywhere.? I enjoy a drink wherever I can have a good conversation.
Q. If you could have a drink with one person, living or dead, who would it be??
My grandfather, because I was never able to have one with him, and he was a great storyteller.
Q. Favorite drink/food combo??
Q. How has Hawai‘i inspired your drinks career??
We’re fortunate to have year-round fresh produce, so when creating signature cocktails, there’s so many possibilities in flavor profiles. It’s helped me grow my drink-making abilities with so many ingredients readily available. I get to experiment with combinations like guava and gin or bourbon and lilikoi. Plus, the cocktail culture here in Hawai‘i is young, so sharing things I’ve learned in my travels with others who are so excited to learn encourages me to continue to experience and see as much as I can.
Q. Anything you’d like to share with our readers??
With all that’s happened this year, I’m starting to see the larger picture and how important it is to share my experiences with other people, because it’s what keeps the industry growing: sharing knowledge with my fellow bartenders and colleagues, so we can continue to showcase what Hawai‘i’s cocktail culture has to offer on a world stage.
Q. How did you get tapped for the Luckyrice Festival?
I was invited to this amazing annual Asian food festival by the founder, Danielle Chang, and I’m looking forward to working with so many talented chefs in the industry. Representing Hawai‘i and Japengo at this signature event will be exciting.
Q. Tell us about the smoked salmon dish you’re preparing for the Vegas Celebration. Is it infused with Bombay Sapphire East?
Yes, the salmon is brined and smoked with Bombay Sapphire East Gin, which is a take on a gin-smoked salmon. I love the aromatic notes infused within the spirit, including the two newly added botanicals, Thai Lemongrass and Vietnamese Black Peppercorn. The possibilities to work with such a unique and versatile flavor profile are endless.
Q. Why did you choose to create this particular dish?
I was creating craft cocktails with Bombay Sapphire East for Japengo and immediately thought of the classic “gin smoked salmon” when I tasted the new botanicals in Bombay Sapphire East. It pairs perfectly with our cuisine at Japengo.
Q. Do you have any favorite restaurants/haunts in Vegas?
Q. What do you think people who live outside of Hawai‘i say about our cuisine? Any preconceived notions that are no longer the case?
I just came back from doing some events in New York. People still associate Hawaiian Cuisine as pineapples topped on our pizza. Honolulu is up and coming. There is a lot of young talent that have trained in major cities and are bringing it back home. Social media and television shows such as “Unique Eats,” Travel Channel, and The Food Channel have really helped get the word out. There are serious destination restaurants in the islands now.
Whether sushi and a cooked dish from Japengo, or a mixed cocktail at Manifest, Hawai‘i’s chefs and tapsters are on the go.
Image courtesy Luckyrice Festival