Priscilla Queen of the Cocktail
Australia’s reigning competition bartender shares her unlikely journey. By Fred Siggins
Priscilla Leong is arguably Australia’s best bartender right now. And she doesn’t drink. Highly educated, highly motivated and with incredible attention to detail, Leong has worked in some of the most respected bars in Australia and Singapore and built her own bar and beverage consultancy, The Flowing Bowl, with her partner, Paul Hammond, all without indulging in the intoxicating liquids that have defined her career.
“I’m allergic,” Leong says matter-of-factly from her home in Melbourne, the city where she got her start in hospitality at the tender age of 16 after leaving her native Singapore to attend university. “I found out on my 18th birthday,” she says. “My friends bought us a round of tequila shots and all of a sudden I was throwing up, asphyxiating. My friends had to take me to hospital to get my stomach pumped.”
Despite the traumatic episode, Leong was pulled back to bartending time and again. “The great thing about hospitality is that there’s a family culture, so you feel looked after even far away from home,” she says. “Growing up in a strict Chinese household in Singapore, bars and nightclubs are places you’re told to stay away from, but being able to travel anywhere and still work and make friends and earn money was really freeing.”
After working at some of Melbourne’s best bars and earning a master’s degree in international relations, Leong moved to Sydney to make a real attempt at bartending as a full-blown career. “It’s hard to make your parents proud when you tell them that your degrees are going to be traded in for a bartending career,” she says. “I struggle most with gaining acceptance from my dad. Whenever I cooked for my parents, he would thank Paul instead of me. Quietly, it hurt.”
On top of the stigma attached to a life in hospitality, Leong also had to contend with being a non-drinker in a work culture fuelled by booze. “People get through a hard shift in our industry by having a shot or two, and sometimes it can take over,” she says. “Perhaps I’m a bit of an outsider. People find it difficult to trust you if you don’t participate in the drinking, but you just deal with it.”
As a non-drinking bartender (she does tastings for work, but with care), Leong welcomes the trend towards more high-quality no- and low-alcohol options. “Can I get an ‘amen’?” she says, laughing. “We’re not the alcohol industry, we’re the hospitality industry. We’re selling flavour, we’re selling an experience, so we’re obligated to create inclusive environments that welcome people who aren’t drinking.”
While there’s no single competition that decides the title of Australia’s best booze-slinger, Australian Bartender magazine’s Bartender of the Year competition is as close as it gets, putting competitors through a gruelling two-day, multi-part contest that culminates in a live presentation at the annual Australian Bar Awards in Sydney. Leong is reigning champion, having beaten bartenders from across Australia. “The first time I entered I wanted to win it because I knew it could give me a platform,” she says. “I did the competition four times in the past and not winning was hard. As someone who is determined to win, I learned to question my ‘why’. I realised it was never about winning. The most important prize I walked away with was the journey of personal development.”
Leong still struggles to see herself through the eyes of the many bartenders who hold her in high esteem. But she has noticed an important shift closer to home. “My dad speaks to me differently now,” she says. “When I make the food, he says ‘thank you’ to me.”
This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 112 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Queen of the Cocktail”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.