Behind the Bar: Kenta Goto on His Plans to Open His Own Bar, Dealing with Drunk D-Bags & Quashing Saketinis & Other Asian Cocktail Stereotypes

Pegu Club is more than a swank cocktail bar, more than a gin palace. It's also a training ground for the types of serious craft bartenders who go on to open their own establishments. Kenta Goto can be found behind the bar at Pegu on a given night, but don't be surprised if you see him opening his own cocktail bar someday soon.

How did you get into bartending?

I'm originally from Tokyo, and my mother had a restaurant. So, I grew up in the industry. Because of that, I was not taking it as seriously as I do now. Five years ago, I started meeting bartenders who are real professionals and saw that it can [be a real career]. It opened my eyes.

Was scoring a job at Pegu difficult?

When I started, all my colleagues knew Audrey (Saunders, owner of Pegu Club), but not me. I had no connection to Pegu and didn't know how to approach them about a job. But I happened to see an opening on Craigslist, so I sent it my resume and a couple of days later, I got an email from Audrey. That was three years ago.

Audrey has been a mentor to so many bartenders. What's the most important thing you've learned from her?

Everybody who works there needs to be passionate about making great cocktails. And increasing your knowledge can't be helped by other people. It's all up to you. But at the end of the day, making drinks is not the only job. It's only about 25 percent of it.

Does working in a place like Pegu make you want to open your own bar?

Yes, I can say that I'd love to. Especially this year, I've been thinking what will be the next step in my career. Some bartenders become consultants. But I think I want to open my own place in New York. I hope to make it happen when the time is right.

Do you have a favorite spirit or ingredient to work with?

I'm Japanese -- born and raised in Tokyo. One of the reasons I started doing this was that I wanted to squash all the stereotypes of Asian cocktails. Like the saketini. I want to improve Asian-themed cocktails. If I don't do it, no one else is going to do it. I've done cocktails with sake, shochu, shiso, and yuzu. But I also love Japanese pickles with martinis.

A lot of people seem to be talking about Japanese-style bartending these days. What's that all about?

The main difference between the bar scene in New York and Japan is that here, bartenders are driven by creativity and personality. There, they're driven by perfect technique and [service]. I can't say which is better. There, there are no tips. They get a salary. Here, we live on tips. At Pegu, I'm trying to be in somewhere in the middle. But, basically, if a cocktail doesn't sell, I can't call it a good cocktail.

What's the perfect bar snack?


Serrano ham and Prosciutto. And -- I have to go to a Japanese place for this -- pickled vegetables. Also, Spanish cheeses.

What's the most annoying thing about the bartending scene these days?

Some people call themselves mixologists. The title makes me a little itchy.

Do you have a least favorite drink to make?

Some people go to a place like Pegu, but say they don't want to drink anything in a martini glass. I mean, come on! You come to a cocktail bar and don't want to drink from a cocktail glass?! I don't say anything, but that also gives me an itchy feeling. Also, some customers have the mindset that Grey Goose is the best vodka or Patron is the best tequila. I'm used to it, but it makes me disappointed.

Is it better to drink behind the bar or stay stone-cold sober all night?

I try not to drink. Most of the time I don't, but sometimes I get shots with customers. In general, we're not allowed to drink behind the bar. But, when I open my place, I won't be so strict. As long as you can count money and look professional, it's OK.

Where do you like to go when you're not working?

I like to go to Spanish wine bars, like Bar Carrera. I also like Macao Trading Co. because they serve food till 3:30 a.m., which is good for people like us. And if you feel like a good cocktail, they can make that happen.

What's in your home bar?

I don't use it. I'm just [collecting] all this booze for no reason. Sometimes I make a Manhattan or a gin martini. Sometimes, I just sip on Campari and soda.

Worst customer ever?

It's a risky business, and you meet a lot of crazy people. One time, I got grabbed. I refused to serve [the guy] because he looked totally drunk, and he grabbed me. Also, I never really see myself when I'm working, but I guess I move really fast. Once, someone called me Jackie Chan. I didn't think it was funny, so I kicked them out. So far, I've had a lot of positive support from many people. So, I can laugh off any negative encounters with douchebags.

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