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How Heena Kewalramani, the Head of the Cocktail Programme at Inddee, is shaking up the industry

by Aiden

She’s taking the shot and loving it!

By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales

Like any modern Bangkokian worth their salt, you can often find me in a cocktail bar taking refuge – from the traffic, the rain, and the strain of a long week. There’s something about the ambience, whether it’s the sumptuous furnishings of a hotel haunt or the grungier vibe of old-town watering holes; and the blend of new flavours in unique cocktails; that always feels like an adventure. When I enter recently-opened fine-dining Indian restaurant Inddee, with its 100-year-old structure, vaulted ceilings, and seductive arches and curves, it underscored the way that establishments like this whisk you away to another time and place, where stories are told through every sip and bite you take.

Heena Kewalramani, a fellow international school alum who has the worldliness expected of a third-culture Thai-Indian and the charisma expected of someone behind the bar, waxed eloquent about how she incorporates her experiences into her cocktails, to share her story.

“Culture plays a big part in my cocktails,” she tells me, as she makes me an eminently-refreshing Guava and bubbles highball that I dubbed ‘dangerously delicious’ after a sip. “As a young child, when we’d visit Mumbai, my dad used to stop the car and we’d buy guava from a guywho’d cut it in front of you and rub some masala salt on the top. I loved that snack, and there’s even a Thai version of it.” As she handles their in-house carbonator with ease, she tells me, “I decided to make a highball out of that concept, but with a twist.”

As we sip on an array of cocktails, each with unique but impeccably-matched flavour combinations, she tells me that these combinations are forefront in her mind when creating a new tipple. “For example, I had an oyster in one of my favourite tapas bars in Barcelona which had apple, caramelised lemon, and mezcal. That sparked an idea for a highball with mezcal as the main spirit, apples, and a fresh herb that goes well with apples, such as shiso. BOOM! New cocktail, now I just have to make it,” she says with an infectious laugh.

Born and raised in Thailand, and having gone to NIST International School, Heena tells me of the importance her upbringing had on who she is now – a core bar member of the Barcelona branch of the famed Floreria Atlántico, the Head of the Cocktail Programme at Inddee, and perhaps the only female Thai-Indian bartender in town. “Food has been always a very important part of my life, as I grew up in a family of foodies,” she recalls. “My family was in the hospitality business because of their passion for food, and at a young age, I was always exposed to a high level of food and hospitality. I remember the first tasting session we did at Gaggan so clearly, back when I was only 15. Moreover, when we went for vacation abroad, we focused more on the restaurants than the famous monuments. Before the age of 22, I had already eaten at a range of world-class restaurants, from Asador Etxebarri, listed Number 4 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants this year; to Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan, Europe, you name it. Because of this, I knew exactly what went into great food and hospitality, especially because Thai food and hospitality is some of the best in the world; and Indian cuisine is so diverse and immense.”

However, she makes sure to emphasise that it’s not just the most prestigious restaurants in the world that teach you about good food. “My best food memories would be noodles on the street, a super zingy somtum, and a paella at the beach in Barcelona,” she says. “I’m fortunate because I’ve been able to live and travel to so many places and try food from everywhere, allowing me to develop my flavour dictionary and palate.”

When asked if she always wanted to enter the hospitality industry, she admits that it’d been her dream since Grade 7. “I’ve always been a very social and hospitable person, and I loved being around people and making them feel happy and at home. Teenage me used to always host dinner parties at home, during which my mum would cook and I would serve my friends wine!” After finishing her undergraduate in the US, she came back to Bangkok and finally had her chance to pursue this dream, at EHL Hospitality Business & Management School (EHL), widely considered the most prestigious hospitality management school in the world. “Before this, I did an internship at the HQ corporate office of Six Senses, in their marketing department,” she recalls. “And while Six Senses was an amazing place to work, it made me realise something very important which shaped who I am today – I NEVER wanted to work in a corporate environment. I’m more of a hands-on person, and with my high energy levels, just sitting in an office was not my cup of tea.”

During her course at EHL, she did an internship in Barcelona, at Tickets, run by Albert Adrià. “Tickets was my dad’s favourite restaurant, and Albert Adrià basically started modern gastronomy,” she enthuses. “I always wanted to go there as it was the mecca of the industry, but they were also doing it in a really fun way, which completely fit my vibe. I knew nothing about being in the kitchen, but I threw myself into that boat and it was the best decision of my life.” Now having settled in Barcelona, which she says feels like ‘her’ city, the rest, as they say, is history. She spoke to Masala further about her journey here.

You called interning at Tickets the best decision of your life. How did that experience influence your professional choices today?

My internship was super hard, but that experience is a very important part of who I am today. It wasn’t all fun and creative cooking techniques – I started at the bottom of the pyramid, sometimes cleaning baby squids in ice cold water and sometimes cleaning bathrooms, but I realised that this was where I wanted to be. Deep down, I always knew I wanted to open a restaurant, and I knew I’d be good at it as it’s in my blood. However, I knew it was important to take that extra step and get a 360-degree view of restaurant work and learn everything from the food, and drinks, to the service and operations.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit right as I finished my internship, which meant almost everything was shut in Barcelona. I was unemployed for almost a year, during which I took that time to study and improve my Spanish. One day, the owner of my neighbourhood bar called Two Schmucks, who I’d been following on Instagram for a while, posted that he was hiring. He said, “post a one-line joke and maybe I’ll hire you,” and I replied with, “Roses are red, violets are blue, F*ck COVID, I need a job too!” [Laughs] He responded in a second to ask me to meet for an interview.

After the interview, I was told that they had an opening for a bar position, and while I didn’t have any bar experience, they were willing to teach me as I’m Thai-Indian, and they were looking for those flavours in their cocktails. I was told, “You can learn the bar techniques in less than six months, but what’s important are the flavours, and you have it.”

You worked at Two Schmucks for a while, and during your tenure there, the bar went from number 24 on the world’s 50 Best Bars list, to number 7 just before it closed. Tell us about your experiences and contributions there, and how it helped you perfect your ability to use both Thai and Indian flavours in your concoctions.

We came up with the new menu in August, right before the World’s 50 Best Bars list came out in October/November. The menu, which we called the Flavour of Schmucks, used more culinary-based flavours, ones that were important to us. Our team sat down and discussed what food flavour combinations we liked. In the end, half of the flavours were my combinations, including mango sticky rice, a tom kha cocktail, one with garam masala, and a pani puri cocktail you could enjoy in the heat. With that menu, we came Number 11, and eventually Number 7 in the World’s 50 Best Bars list. The fact that most of the menu featured Indian and Thai flavours still makes me very proud to this day.

The first cocktail I ever created, The tomkha, used a clarified milk punch with rum, coconut milk, ginger, kaffir lime, lemongrass, fish sauce, Laphroaig, gin, and birds eye chilli tincture. People were initially scared when they saw the fish sauce, but after they tried one, they’d order two, three, or four more of the same, and that’s when I realised I was good at this.

Many consider bartending a male-dominated world even though these days, there are just as many female bartenders who are lauded in their field. What challenges have you faced with your unique identity as a female Thai-Indian bartender, and how have you overcome them?

People used to always think that the bar industry is just for men. This is not true at all and this view has changed over the years. There are many female bar figures and bar owners killing it out there like Taln Rojanavanich from Bar Us (Bangkok); Pom Modeste and Juliette Larrouy, both of whom were from Two Schmucks (Barcelona); Holly Graham (Tokyo); Christine Wiseman (Miami); and many more. However, this was particularly difficult for me because I was female and Indian but I fought my way through this male-dominated industry, and some days, I still feel like I’m fighting against those outdated views.

There are many woman bartenders in Europe, and while I didn’t expect many women bartenders in Bangkok, that wasn’t the case. Visiting many amazing bars in Bangkok this trip and seeing lots of women behind the bars, and even running them, changed my opinion about the Asian bar scene. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or woman, as long as the hospitality, service, and drinks are on point.

You’re now working at the Barcelona branch of Floreria Atlántico, whose original Argentinian branch is currently Number 18 in the World’s 50 Best Bars list. What does your role there entail, and what do you find most inspiring about it?

The owner, Renato ‘Tato’ Giovannoni, and I met once at a pop-up at Two Schmucks, and then we met again at the pop up I did in Miami. As soon as he told me he’s opening a bar in Barcelona and he wanted me to work for him, I said yes. The guy is a legend! Not only that, but the hospitality that he brings to the table is beautiful; he makes you feel right at home.

Back then, I didn’t know that he wanted to do two concepts in one place – a restaurant on top, and a speakeasy bar on the bottom. The bar is such a vibe and completely different from most bars in Barcelona – instead of purely a sitdown space, you’ve got vinyl discs, a DJ, and it’s all about meeting people and having fun in a relaxed space, with serious cocktails and incredible service. In essence, this is what I’m all about too.

You’ve also come back to your hometown for a while, to curate Inddee’s cocktail menu. Tell us how that collaboration came about, and what drew you to the restaurant.

Honestly, since the project was part of the family, it was a given that I would lead the cocktail menu there. I wanted to do something different at Inddee. Normally when you go to fine dining restaurants in Thailand, the emphasis is mainly on their wine list, and I wanted to change that with a strong cocktail programme.

Moreover, guests often like to have a cocktail to start or end their experience in a restaurant, depending on their mood. Thus, it’s very important to make sure the cocktails are on point – other than entering the restaurant, this would technically be the first or last impression they have of the place. A simple classic cocktail list would not help to create a holistic restaurant experience. With our cocktail programme, we can incorporate the ethos of Inddee into our drinks, thus already bringing in Indian flavours at the point of their first sip – and their last.

Are there any signature cocktails on your menu that you’d like to highlight, and what inspired their creation?

I’ve divided Inddee’s cocktail menu into two sections. First, we have the classics, but done in the Inddee way, which are eight cocktails based on classic recipes but with our own twist, using ingredients we use in our kitchen, but keeping the core of the drink. For example, our house old fashioned is done with preserved roses infused over two weeks – the same ones used in paan. We pair this sweet syrup of preserved roses with rye, since it has spicy notes, and the sweet and spicy pairing makes for a beautiful contrast.

The second section is our Inddee signature cocktails which include three cocktails that are completely ours: the Mango lassi 2.0, which has all the same flavours and the silky texture of a classic lassi, but without the heaviness; the Inddee sour, essentially a chai ginger whisky sour; and the Guava and bubbles.

Overall, we make sure to bring all the rules of bartending together and we do it correctly. For example, a martini needs to always be served extremely cold so we make sure it is served that way, in an extra-cold glass. If the glass gets warm at any point because the guest is taking time to finish their drink, it gets changed to a new one so the drink never gets warm.

What’s Heena’s pick?

It depends on what you want – if you want something fresh, I’d go for the Clover club, which is also a classic made with raspberries, but we use Indian barberries which are used in biryanis. If you want a drink that defines Inddee, I’d opt for the Mango lassi 2.0. And if you want something with a bit of a kick, I’d go for the Gulkand old fashioned, or if you want a nice aperitivo pre-meal, opt for the Gondhoraj negroni blanc, which is a white negroni with Gondhoraj lemon inside, often known as the ‘king of aromas.’

Here at Inddee, we showcase the regions and dishes in India that are lesser known, as people are usually only exposed to certain flavours or regions of India. For example, we’re bringing Malabar vanilla from Idukki. We want to make people understand that there is so much more to India.

In a rapidly evolving cocktail scene, what trends or innovations do you foresee for the future of mixology, especially when it comes to incorporating cultural elements?

In my opinion reduce, reuse, and recycle is a big one, especially in this day and age. If you’re thinking about running any business in the longterm, you have to take this into account. My personal definition of sustainability is not growing something of your own, but rather what baby steps you can take – the ugly truth is that it’s almost impossible to be 100 percent sustainable in this industry.

An example of the ‘baby steps’ we’re taking at Inddee is our Guava and bubbles highball, which I’ve mentioned before. The spice element initially would have been a masala spice mix infusion, but when I was doing trials in the Inddee kitchen, one of the chefs made me try this rhubarb kosho water that was strained from the rhubarb kosho that we make as a side to our lamb chops. The water has amazing umami flavours, but there’s no use for it in the kitchen. It was exactly what I needed – it’s true that one person’s trash can be another one’s treasure! So instead of adding the masala salt, I changed the spice element to the rhubarb kosho water, which works even better as it adds another fruity aspect to the drink.

Kitchens are ahead of bars right now in terms of techniques and innovation – most bar innovations come from kitchens, and I believe that we have so much to learn from kitchens in that sense.

Can you share a memorable experience or story related to your bartending career that has had a significant impact on you personally or professionally?

A significant experience was the Miami pop-up I did with Two Schmucks for 10 weeks in the beginning of this year. We basically had three weeks to do a full bar at a new space – including the menu, set-up, decoration, equipment, and everything else. You won’t believe it, but I was driving a pick-up truck and going to home depot to buy a bar freezer, and doing menu trials in our small AirBnb kitchen, all DIY! We didn’t have a rotary evaporator, a centrifuge, or even a sous vide! We did all our infusions at room temperature, but in the end, we killed it. This experience taught me that you can create anything you want if you dive into it 100 percent. And that’s my advice to all those who want to buck tradition and follow their own dreams – as Nike says, “just do it!”

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