Yao Lu is a leading personality in Asia’s cocktail scene. He is co-founder and head bartender in Union Trading Company, Asia’s 28th finest bar in 2018 according to the World’s 50 Best Bars. UTC has won several Drink Magazine Awards, including Best Bar Team, Bar of the Year, and Bartender of the Year.
Yao’s path to success wasn’t easy. He started out serving drinks while studying Hotel Management at the University of Houston. During the next eleven years, Yao would experience the cocktail revolution both in the US and in China. The people he met, his mentors and peers, they all helped shape his career. And it all started at Anvil.
Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston is one of the most influential cocktail bars in America, the young Yao knew if he would pursue his bartending career, he had to be part of Anvil. They rejected him several times but finally got his dream job under the guidance of Bobby Heugel. “Everything that I know right now, is from Anvil,” states Yao proudly.
Mr. Heugel didn’t just train bartenders, he trained bar operators, successful managers with strong work ethics and keen hospitality skills. Anvil’s philosophy would mark Yao forever.
“Bartending is never just about making drinks”
“Bartending is never just about making drinks,” declares Yao. “Making drinks is the easy part, it’s the will to make someone else’s day better, it’s the mentality that ‘we are here for you.’”
Yao’s family is from Shanghai. He lived there as a kid before moving to Houston. The Chinese city would linger in his mind during his years at Anvil. In one of his visits, touring the city with Theo Watt, from Drink Magazine, Yao was blown away. “People started to care about what they drank,” he remembers. The time had come for him to make a move.
He quit his job, sold his stuff and moved to Shanghai. Not as easy as he expected it to be, he almost gave up, but the world hadn’t seen the best of him.
Yao ended by chance taking the place of Aussie bartender Ryan Noreiks in Alchemist. The first serious cocktail bar in Shanghai, it was the place to be. Alchemist’s owner and industry legend Kelly Lee took Yao and taught him the ropes; Shanghai style. “If Bobby was my mentor in terms of me being a bartender, a hospitality professional, Kelly was the one who taught me about how to do things in Shanghai,” says the barkeeper.
Alchemist closed, but Yao was ready to do his own thing. He partnered with Chef and restaurateur Austin Hu and The Union Trading Company was born. The rest is history. Now Yao is the mentor, and he gets to pass on his knowledge to the new generation. “It’s always about team… You have to rely on your team”, says Yao, “It’s a family.” Yao empowers his staff, and the results are clear.
Awards and recognition soon followed, but even on a busy night, Yao comes out to greet his guests; just to say hi. He connects with people, he makes an effort. He makes sure he takes care of every single person. That’s Yao’s legacy. “I’m doing pretty well for someone who pours things in a cup,” says Yao with a smile.
Listen to Yao’s key lessons for successful bartending on this week’s Podcast.
Author: Franco Salzillo, Certified Somm & Wine Writer