Bartending has been good for David Wolowidnyk, and vice versa. He is currently bar manager at Vancouver’s award-winning West restaurant. His innovative cocktails win international competitions. Now he is eager to help young, aspiring bartenders fulfill their own ambitions.
Wolowidnyk admits that good luck has played a pivotal role throughout his career, although he worked hard to capitalize on each opportunity. If there’s a pattern, it’s that he was often hired to do one thing and then was promoted into a role he truly enjoyed.
As a teenager in Surrey, British Columbia, doing odd jobs in the kitchen at a small French restaurant, he was promoted to server. “I was 16, and I loved it — the cash in my pocket, tasting food, tasting wine.” In the ensuing years, other occupations he tried, like photographer, were unsatisfying in an instructive way. “My love for the artistry diminished when I had to make a living at it. But my love for food, drink and flavour didn’t diminish while working with them, so that told me something.”
Making the most of opportunities
Committed to a hospitality career, Wolowidnyk was working at a Spanish restaurant in Vancouver’s Gastown when a colleague quit for a job on Grand Cayman Island and suggested he apply too. A month-long tryout as a server at a restaurant there led to five years of employment. He ended up as assistant manager, all the while tending bar, learning how to buy wine and steeping himself in the culture and chemistry of cocktails. When he tried to change jobs, amending his work permit proved a bureaucratic hassle, and he figured it was time to head home.
It was 2003. Vancouver’s two hottest restaurants were West and the now-closed Lumière. “They both had great reputations, and I wanted to align myself with professionals, but neither was hiring at the time,” he says. His heart set on West, he bided his time with a management stint at a French restaurant in Yaletown, eventually wangling an interview with West’s restaurant director Brian Hopkins. Again, the old pattern held true: “Brian hired me as bartender, but I had serving experience, so I started on the floor. For six months I was serving at West, which was a great introduction to the place, to see the cogs really working. Then Brian said, ‘We have a bar manager position open for you’.” That was five years ago.
“The bar manager at West has always been a working bartender,” says Wolowidnyk. (Although “mixologist” is the trendy term for his role, he prefers bartender, because he believes that “bartending is a noble profession” and won’t be regarded as one unless bartenders use the word themselves.) He often works both lunch and dinner shifts, and his domain extends far beyond the bar. “Anything liquid at West is my responsibility. I love doing inventory. I have to make sure that what we buy is appropriately marked up to a price that is competitive and also makes business sense, that nothing goes missing, and that everything is ‘recipe-ed.’ It’s the important business part of bartending that is often forgotten by some of the young bartenders today.”
Putting prizes in perspective
Wolowidnyk’s distinctive contribution at West has earned him such plaudits as Vancouver magazine’s Bartender of the Year designation in 2008. Awards in turn get him invited to many cocktail-making competitions, which he enters if the prize is sufficiently enticing. His reasoning is that there needs to be fair compensation for disclosing a secret recipe. This year in Toronto, for instance, he placed first at The Ketel One National Bar Chef Competition and won a trip to Amsterdam, but his recipe for Sichuan Punch is now in the public domain. “The best I can do is work on my personal branding so that people associate that recipe with my name. At the end of the day, I don’t chase trophies and awards. My main directive is to get people into the bar at West and have them enjoy what we do.’ What continues to inspire him is the opportunity to surpass each guest’s expectations, to “create an experience, not just a drink.”
Still, competitions gain added meaning when he considers how they bring the bartending community together. “Bartenders aren’t like chefs. Chefs protect their ideas and recipes. Bartenders share ideas and make new friends and lift each other up.” This camaraderie has been instrumental in the recent formation of the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association (CPBA), with Wolowidnyk serving on its board of directors. “It’s a non-profit society, and we’re just starting our first membership drive. One of our goals is to create a network of bartenders across the country who can mentor youth. We’ve talked of starting an apprenticeship program where we would select applicants and guide them with things we’ve learned.”