This special edition of Delicious Creativity is part of ‘Please Stand By’ — a music concept by Edsa, inviting members of the cultural and creative industries to share stories, playlists, and recipes reflecting on slowing down in the public space.
The second of a two-part interview series, Kat Fernando piques the mind of David Ong — the co-owner of The Curator, OTO and EDSA Beverage Design Group. Being part of Asia’s 50 Best Bars for five consecutive years, The Curator previously invited the likes of Alex Kratena, Adam Bursik, and Hidetsugu Ueno for some of their highly demanded guest shifts.
Yesterday, we released the first part of this series featuring Angela Stephenson, a London-based filmmaker, photographer, and DJ.
Meet David Ong, the poster boy of Manila’s bartending scene. As a university student, David saw untapped potential in the nightlife industry — a treasure trove of unexplored creativity. After studying and working as a barista in Vancouver, David relocated to Shanghai for a year, where he had an eye-opening experience into the world of cocktails. All these fuelled his drive to help grow the local scene.
Moving back to one’s hometown presents its own challenges, picking up the pieces from where you left off and simultaneously catching up with where everyone is. Having moved back to Manila because of the pandemic, I find inspiration from David’s journey. In this interview, we discuss how music became a starting point for his different beverage concepts, his creative process in developing a new drink, and the difference between experimenting with coffee versus cocktails. David also contributed a playlist of 90s hip-hop selections, plus a gin-based cocktail with pecorino (!) — an inspiration from HNNY’s song, ‘By.’
We also designed a shirt for OTO in collaboration with Manila Takeout, a design initiative created to help the local restaurant industry amidst the pandemic. This is available for pre-order on their website. All proceeds go to the restaurant and their service teams. For our friends in Europe, Manila Takeout ships internationally, too.
As the weekend comes to an end, we hope this special issue makes for a good nightcap. David’s commitment to his craft is cemented by the value of connecting with people. His ethos reminds us to stay true to our roots, while always “looking out into the ocean.”
Stay curious. Stay safe.
Kat F: Music seems to play a vital role in all your concepts with cocktails named after songs at both The Curator and OTO. Does music inspire the way you approach your craft?
David O: I was in a video for Taste and the basic question was: what is tasty? For me, it’s about upholding the experience of all the five senses and that includes sound. In a café or a bar, you can tell if your drink is made or shaken properly through the sound — like, for example, the way the ice cracks when a bartender shakes it hard. It brings the whole experience together.
Among my three concepts, OTO is the one most focused on music as it literally means “sound” in Japanese. Our tagline is actually “Bites, Brews, Booze, Beats” which refers to food, coffee, cocktails, and music. Sound and music were really the starting points for OTO.
KF: Could you tell me a bit more about how you started OTO?
DO: After living in Vancouver for nearly seven years and Shanghai for a year, I came back to the Philippines knowing I wanted to open a specialty coffee shop or craft cocktail bar. I reconnected with my friends, Miguel and Martin Ledesma, in 2016 to see where their headspaces were at. We cooked together, hung out, drank, and listened to their dad’s huge vinyl collection. At their house, when the music plays, we don’t say anything. It was a way for us to bond and that became the vibe for OTO as it is known today. Have you seen our sound system?
KF: Yes, I’ve seen it. Sai and I met Martin at OTO once. He mentioned it was all customised.
DO: It was, even down to how the bass sounds, so we just bought the turntables and mixers. If you look at our record selection, it’s really diverse. We have a bit of everything because we listen to everything. I personally listen to all the music my dad listened to, so a lot of rock and roll, jazz, opera, disco — everything!
At OTO, our drinks are named after song titles. Our signature cocktail, “Escape,” is from that piña colada song by Rupert Holmes. “Smoke & Coffee” is another cocktail named after one of our new wave playlists. We enjoy different genres and different moods.
There was this one Saturday night in OTO when I walked into the staff, hiding in the kitchen and blasting Japanese dubstep reggae. They were playing it all night!
KF: I was pleasantly surprised to hear emo rock playing at The Curator once. We were there to drink, but we ended up singing along to the songs!
DO: Those moments are my guilty pleasure. Imagine a full house at 3 AM and nobody wants to go home, then you play “Mr. Brightside.” You can imagine how the energy snowballs from there. When you are out with friends, you want to be in an environment where you can go a little crazy and feel safe being yourself. That’s OTO and The Curator for me — they’re safe spaces.
KF: I really love those moments too. Now, I’d like to know more about your creative process. Being both a bartender and a barista, do you approach these roles differently? They seem similar but I imagine it’s easier to be experimental with cocktails.
DO: That’s a tricky question. I’m not sure if you’ve seen The Curator logo, but it’s [tattooed] on my wrist. It’s a coffee cup and a cocktail glass, but also an ampersand — these are two things I really love.
I treat coffee and cocktails differently. You’re right in saying coffee is more “fixed” with all its different calibrations. (Editor’s note: “Calibrations” refer to how coffee equipment, like grinders or espresso machines, are set up.) There’s the roasting of the beans, which have different densities requiring specific calibrations. There’s a science to it, but there’s also a lot of creativity. When you talk about coffee, not everything happens in the café. There’s an entire system: from the farms to the pressure and humidity of the weather, to the type of soil you are using. You have harvesting and roasting, and there’s the work of the baristas — from gauging the milk, to the minerality of the water, and tying everything together for consumers.
Cocktails are definitely more experimental. You have spirits, like various whiskies using different types and ratios of grain, each having their own distinct distillation processes. Then you have liqueurs, bitters and all the other things you can create from fermentation to clarification. Too many possibilities!
My creative process has evolved over time. It used to focus on classics, which eventually became sub-classics. The foundation is still there but now, I’m more curious about fermentation, distillation and clarification. With coffee, I’m very simple. I only want to highlight the beans. But for cocktails, it depends on the direction I’m going for. Do I go for the expression of spirit? Or do I go for flavour?
KF: Since you approach coffee and cocktails differently, would you say your creative process is more systematic rather than spontaneous?
DO: I treat both like writing a paper, where you have an introduction or a thesis statement. You have your first and second body with key points and a conclusion. It’s like a science experiment.
With coffee, you have parameters you can base certain calibrations from. (Editor’s note: “Parameters” refer to the desired flavour profile of coffee.) With cocktails, it’s similar. What kind of drink am I making? Is it going to be a twist on a classic, or do I want to be more adventurous? Do I want to surprise people with texture using clarification, or do I want something more smooth and subtle by using distillation? From there, I start building flavours. It’s systematic in that sense. When someone wants a specific kind of drink, I ask for other cues. It’s not difficult to gauge because, in my head, I have all these recipes I’ve tried before.
The ampersand from The Curator logo is actually really significant. To add an ampersand means to add value to something. For us, it’s adding that value to the experience: from the atmosphere and visuals to the products. The most important factor is what you feel in a place, and the staff is responsible for that. It’s about making people feel welcome to come back and become our friends and family. That’s the culture we’ve developed for all our concepts. It’s hospitality.
KF: A huge part of your creative process involves focusing on people. How do you manage to engage with your team and customers while we’re living in lockdown and forced to socially distance?
DO: OTO recently developed a collaboration with Maker’s Mark, where we created a line of cocktails using their whiskey. A huge percentage of the sales went towards a relief effort for our community’s bartenders and baristas in the form of food and groceries. I realised it’s very difficult to be a business owner. There will always be future opportunities, but we worry about the staff and the safety of our customers. Moving forward, we need to be realistic with how we engage with our community, which means banking on our brand, the culture we’ve built, and how people identify with it.
We also started a series called The Curator & Friends where we reconnect with previous collaborators. After becoming a part of Asia’s 50 Best Bars, we met so many legends [in the bartending industry] that helped us make the work we do here better. We invited those people for a chat to make the world a smaller place, especially here in the Philippines, by creating a platform for learning from each other.
KF: So, what are your thoughts on Manila’s cocktail scene?
DO: It’s fun now that there are so many bars, a lot is happening. As much as we want to make the pie bigger for everyone, it’s also bloodbath because of the pandemic. Everybody’s trying to take a bigger slice from the same table because of survival. We have to stay creative.
We’re slowly catching up. All the recognition helped put Manila on the map. It meant years of hard work — like, putting ourselves out there and organising all these guest shifts we were fortunate to have.
KF: What keeps you on top of the game?
DO: The willingness to do the dirty work and, of course, the people. This is what makes our concepts different from others. The other one is being original and authentic. This is how we try to direct ourselves. We look at the ocean, and not just our own fishbowl. It’s about questioning the intention of what we’re setting to do. The bartenders [in the Philippines] are always hungry. Many come to us and ask for advice or mentorship. We’re always open to that.
I don’t think I’m better than my staff, whether it’s for coffee or cocktails. If you ask them, they’ll say they’re better. It’s great to have a little internal competition because if one rises, everybody rises. It’s not a “competition” per se, especially now that we’re all trying to survive. For us, the intention is always to make the tide go higher. But really, I’m better than all of them! [Laughs]
KF: Is there something you feel is overlooked in the Philippines in terms of bartending?
DO: Personally, I think it’s the local distillers that are doing it right. In a way, everyone is overlooked because people are more selective of where they put their money right now.
Oh, actually, I have a good story. I used to make mango drinks, but the best mango cocktail I ever had was from this bar in Singapore called Gibson. They had this drink called Mango PX using fermented Filipino mangoes, which they fly in fresh from the Philippines and turn into mango wine with sherry. Amazing stuff. Why didn’t I think of that?
It’s not that I didn’t use mangoes, it’s that I didn’t think outside of the box. It’s about using ingredients in a way that it’s not the obvious choice.
KF: What did that taste like? That's so interesting.
DO: Fermented, like a bit yeasty. It has all the tart sweetness of the mangoes, and the booze kicks in through the sherry. Imagine mango rum, which is basically like Zesto, but elevated into an artisanal mango liqueur. Let me leave it at that. [Laughs]
Beats & Booze: Tasting the Sounds of HNNY’s ‘By’
Photo courtesy of David Ong
45ml ARC Botanical Gin
30ml lemon juice
30ml maple syrup
25g red bell pepper
Muddle red bell pepper with the maple syrup.
Pour the rest of the ingredients into the shaker.
Give the mixture a dry shake, without ice.
Give the mixture a hard shake, with ice.
Garnish with grated pecorino romano.
OTO X EDSA, in collaboration with Manila Takeout. Pre-order your t-shirt here.
Corrections: The Curator has been on Asia’s 50 Best Bars for five consecutive years, not four. David did not work as bartender in Shanghai; he only helped out at a bar after his actual work. OTO’s tagline is “Bites, Brews, Booze, Beats”, and not “Beats, Booze, Brews & Bites.”
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