Interview With Pablo Navarro Olucha: Senior Bartender at Swift Bar and DOJO 2022 Winner

Pablo Navarro Olucha describes the House of Suntory DOJO experience, and winning a trip to Japan at the competition final

Running throughout 2022, House of Suntory’s DOJO Programme immersed a group of bartenders in the fascinating world of Japanese spirits and bartending culture. The education sessions were led by a series of subject Masters, who taught the lucky bartenders both practical skills and the philosophy behind some of the most iconic subjects in Japanese hospitality. It was a fascinating programme to cover (you can read our interviews with the subject masters here – Zoe Burgess: KaisekiKevin O’Duffy: Chadō; Keiko Smith: Ikebana; Izumi Nakamura: Balance and Seasoning.) and the good news is, the DOJO Programme will be coming back this year, as Raff di Monaco, UK Brand Ambassador for the House of Suntory tells us:

Pablo Navarro Olucha in action

The 2022 DOJO was a great success. We engaged more bartenders than we have ever before, offering bartenders an authentic immersion into The House of Suntory products and Japanese culture. Feedback from this year’s participants has been outstanding and keeping this in mind, we are already building a refreshed program for 2023. The aim of this year’s programme is built towards growing an even stronger community around The House of Suntory, aiming to reach more bartenders around the country. Stay tuned!”

Given the amount of skills the DOJO students were taught last year, it made sense that the programme would challenge the bartenders to put their learning into practice, and this challenge took the form of a cocktail competition. At the end of the DOJO process, each bartender presented a House of Suntory cocktail which had been crafted using insights gained from the training sessions, to be assessed by a panel of expert judges, with an amazing trip to Japan being awarded to the winner. Pablo Navarro Olucha, whose career began at Be At One in 2018, and who now works at Swift Shoreditch as senior bartender, prevailed, and who also graciously agreed to speak to use about the DOJO Programme experience, and winning the competition final:

BLUK: Before joining the DOJO Programme, what did you know about it and why did the prospect of becoming a student excite you?

PNO: A few of my colleagues at Swift knew about DOJO and told me it was a great programme to get involved in. When I was offered a spot to be a part of this year’s DOJO cohort, I was very excited as I have always been intrigued by the bartending culture in Japan, and I was eager to learn more about it.

BLUK: Before joining the programme, what was your view or impression of Japanese bartending culture, and how has that impression evolved having completed the masterclasses?

PNO: Japanese bartending always seemed like the pinnacle to me, and their bartenders truly are masters of the craft. Reflecting on this year’s masterclasses, I have learnt that their approach is based purely on practising refining, rather than changing things, and I find that fascinating.

BLUK: The finale was co-judged by Hidetsugu Ueno–San of bar High Five in Tokyo, one of the most well-known and respected bartenders in the world. What insights did you learn from him, and what impressed you most about the things he taught you?

PNO: Honestly, I can say Hidetsugu Ueno–San was so approachable and friendly. He showed us what an incredibly knowledgeable bartender he is, whilst also being a fun and engaging man to be around. And his passion towards bartending shone through at every moment – truly inspiring!

BLUK: What are some skills or ideas you learned during the programme that you are now using in your bar?

PNO: Omotenashi 100% – the practice of wholeheartedly looking after guests. Through DOJO, I have learnt that this principle is deeply rooted in Japan’s culture and through the Master’s I have been able to appreciate how significant this is as a practice for bartenders. I have always focused on creating a great atmosphere for guests at the bar, but the concept of Omotenashi, will now help me up my game to the next level. For that, I thank the House of Suntory for giving me an opportunity to elevate my skills as a bartender.

BLUK: You were crowned winner at the DOJO final at Price of Akatoki. What was it like competing in front of Anna Sebastian, Hidetsugu Ueno and Agostino Perrone – a hugely experienced panel?

PNO: Definitely a bit intimidating at first but having the opportunity to not only meet them in person, but also make a drink for them to enjoy and to learn from them was a great pleasure for me. They’re people I look up to professionally, so I feel very lucky to have been in the same room as them, let alone serve them.

BLUK: Please describe your winning drink and how you presented it during the final?

PNO: At the very start of this year’s DOJO programme, we were all asked to pick an envelope where we found a Kaizen classic cocktail. Kaizen is a philosophy originating from Japan and refers to continuous improvement, meaning “change for the better”. I picked out the Haku Bloody Mary. In the final, all finalists were asked to create and present our elevated Kaizen cocktail, using the skills and insights we’ve learned throughout the DOJO programme over the past few months. For mine, I used a mix of hoisin, soy sauce, rice vinegar and wasabi – my twist on the traditional use of Worcestershire sauce and horseradish – to help boost the umami flavour of the drink. I then added passata, fresh cherry tomato, celery, carrot, and lemon juice, before seasoning with Tabasco, salt and pepper.

BLUK: Your prize for winning the DOJO final includes a trip to Japan. What are you most excited to do, see, or taste during that trip?

PNO: I am leaving myself in the capable hands of the House of Suntory team to show me everything they do. I have never been to a whisky distillery before, so I am really looking forward to visit Yamazaki in particular. I hear it’s incredible! I have always been a big fan of anime too, so you will definitely catch me at manga shops and eating all the ramen I can physically eat.

BLUK: What was your favourite part of the DOJO programme, and what would you say to anyone who has the opportunity to join future House of Suntory programmes?

PNO: I must say, the feeling of community that developed over the months was incredible to be a part of. I have met so many wonderful, likeminded bartenders from all around the UK and I am very grateful for that. I have left with not only a deeper understanding of the House of Suntory’s portfolio and their core values, but also a more confident bartender. If anyone has the chance to join the DOJO programme in future, I would tell them to say yes instantly!