Jen Queen began a career in the food and beverage industry after a move from her hometown in Ohio to San Francisco when her eyes were opened to the exciting career opportunities in the world of bartending.
“In San Francisco you can travel the world on a plate of food ……and I met people there who were figuring out how to make a career of bartending.”
Jen looked towards bartending ‘as something that could be a career and also really fun.’ She learned everything she could during her time there and later in San Diego becoming an expert in mezcal.
Going forward a number of years, Jen found herself travelling to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to become a ‘portfolio ambassador’ with La Familia – a bar and distribution company.
During her time with La Familia she travelled Cambodia holding mentoring programmes for clients’ businesses and on one such trip to Siem Reap, she met Nikki Barltrop – the current F&B Director for 57 Below- who was to become her connection to Myanmar.
She first came to Yangon for four days last year on invitation to show her skills in a ‘guest shift’ at Union Bar & Grill and another at Gekko and she also taught a master class about agave spirits at Tin Tin.
“I had such a wonderful response from that. People were so happy to participate and some even came to all three events.”
Following the popularity of her initial visit, Jen came back for good in February of this year after 57 Below, the company behind Union Bar & Grill, Gekko, Parami Pizza among others, invited her to work with them on a full-time basis.
On the move from a stable career and settled life in Phnom Penh to Yangon, Jen said, “If something is scary, I kind of have to do it. There’s something really cool on the other side of all that fear.”
Jen’s dream as Bar Manager for 57 Below is to make drinks into experiences that are comparable with food. She wants to re-imagine cocktails using culinary techniques and Burmese ingredients to come up with truly unique and satisfying beverages.
“I never remember hearing much about Burmese cuisine but now we have some restaurants getting huge acclaimed abroad- such as Burma Superstar in San Francisco which has lines out the door all the time.”
A large part of what Jen does is holding training and mentoring sessions with the bartenders:
“The first thing that I teach my team is to have a conversation with the customer. I don’t know what you like to drink just from looking at you.”
Now, in Yangon, Jen is aiming to take flavours that are familiar to the local palette and changing them to be part of a delicious drink and helping people experience the familiar in a different way. An example of this is the jasmine-infused vodka in The 19th Hole cocktail on the newly launched menu.
Another testament to her experimental style is the cocktail named The Shrew Tamed. With a gin base mixed with a celery shrub and topped with cucumber, salt and pepper and betel leaf as the soft herb element. Jasmine and betel leaf are truly Myanmar produce that can be seen for sale on streets across the country but many would never have thought to use them in the way Jen does.
What she finds most exciting about doing this work in Myanmar is the plethora of new flavours here.
“There are so many odd, fermented things and new soft herbs that I’ve never tasted before and lots of gorgeous tropical fruit. There are endless amounts of inspiration.”