Meet the 2022 Rookie of the Year!
Martin McConnell, Frogs Hollow Saloon, Wins Rookie of the Year at the Bartender Magazine, Australian Bar Awards.
This is the award that recognises the up and coming bartenders in the industry. To be eligible for this honourable recognition, they must have worked as a bartender for either less than two years come June 1 2022, OR be aged 23 and under by June 1 2022.
The Blend sits down with Martin McConnell to find out more of what Rookie of the Year means to him!
Congratulations on your epic win at the recent Australian Bartender Magazine, Bar Awards! What does ‘Rookie of the Year’ mean to you?
Thank you! It’s been an absolute whirlwind and I’m definitely still pinching myself! I’ve had my eyes set on the award for some time having looked up to the past winners, so to be amongst people like Ed Quatermass, Sarah Mycock and Grace Rawlins is pretty special.
Beyond that, it’s truly humbling to have received such amazing support from people from all across Australia who I’m lucky enough to now call friends. There’s something really beautiful that throughout the few years I’ve been working in bars, I’ve met and achieved enough to be supported and backed by peers on a national scale; that’s wild.
How has your first years in the trade unfolded, share with us how you started and where you are now?
My background was originally in kitchens, ever since I was a kid. My Dad is a chef, he competed globally in competitions like the Culinary Olympics, and until about seven, I grew up above the local pub/restaurant that both my parents ran. So I’ve grown up around food and kitchens all my life.
When I finished high school my initial goal was actually to work in the music business, but while studying and interning towards this goal, I was supporting myself by working as a prep cook, kitchen hand or short order cook on the side.
Eventually I did actually land what I thought was my dream job at the time, a PAID music publicist role. I was there for almost two years, but even then, on weekends I’d still be in the kitchen scrubbing plates. The camaraderie of the kitchen always had its pull, and eventually, I decided that the PR role wasn’t from me.
A twist of luck, I saw that Death and Taxes, a bar I really admired and loved going to, was hiring for a prep position. I applied and within ten minutes I got a call back. Then and there I decided to quit the music job that I’d worked for years to attain, and start working at Death and Taxes.
As fate would have it, COVID struck about a month into me starting this new job, and I was unemployed for about three months thanks to the lockdown and restrictions. Once I got the call to come back to work, my managers (Anthony Burke and Matt Baker) must have seen something in me, because I was now a full-time floor staff, something which I would have never willingly accepted, but ended up loving.
It’s just been a steady progression from there. I was on the floor for about a year at Death and Taxes before I even touched a bottle; I gradually worked my way up to being a bartender there, and now I’m lucky enough to be part of the opening team at Frog’s Hollow Saloon under the watchful eyes of Pete Hollands and Nick Winter.
What advice do you have for other ‘Rookies’ starting their journey?
I didn’t know it going into it, but the tight knit bar community is the best asset you’ll ever have. Beyond just shaking hands for the sake of it, if you can make friends across your town or city’s bars and restaurants, you’ll have an endless network of mates who can help you achieve your goals, or just any general life things that crop up along the way. In my experience, no one wants to see you fail or be unhappy in this industry, so it’s always worth reaching out to your peers.
How would you describe what hospitality and working behind a bar means to you!?
I really believe that working in hospitality, and bars specifically, have made me a better person. I was originally quite timid and quiet coming into the industry, and whilst I’m still not the most boisterous person you’ll meet, I like to think that being thrown into a super social environment, like the bar, has really built my confidence and my ability to chat to others.
That social aspect of hospitality is something I love; there’s a real camaraderie across the board which I’m yet to find in any other occupation. There are bartenders or even just punters who I’ve met in passing for ten minutes, but the next time we meet I’m made to feel like I’m seeing an old friend. Working in hospitality to me means genuine connections and friendship, and I love that.
What’s your favourite hospitality trend at the moment?
I don’t really feel like I’m a good person to be noticing trends seeing as I’ve only been in bars for a short time, however I do really admire venues that are starting to have a more open dialogue about where they source their produce and their ability to channel this through seasonality on a menu.
Aside from that, I’m beginning to enjoy places that strip back the bar experience, making it less about the craziest techniques you can use, and more about the customer interaction throughout.
Where do you see yourself in five (5) years’ time?
This is a tricky one, I honestly have no idea. Seeing as I’ve been working in bars for less than three years, it’s hard for me to predict where I’ll be almost two times longer than the time I’ve been in it! Whatever it is, as long as I have some sort of creative output around bars, drinks and people, I think I’ll be a happy lad!
Where do you acquire most of your learnings from to date? Mentor, in venue, online, books, podcasts etc?
It’s really changed over the years! When I started at Death & Taxes with little to no knowledge or experience, I buried myself in YouTube videos to learn, namely ‘How To Drink’, ‘Educated Barfly’ and ‘Behind The Bar’ by Cara Devine. These three, alongside a range of books I was borrowing from the bar, really formed the basis of my drink knowledge.
From there, obviously mentors and workmates have always been a key learning tool, and I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with, and now work alongside, some incredible staff in my short time.
Currently I also subscribe to a bunch of random websites, follow an array of bartenders and venues on their socials, and have signed up to training programs just like The Blend. I’m yet to find any podcasts so if you have any recommendations let me know!
What’s your biggest achievement to date?
I’ve been very lucky to have had a massive year where each milestone has been just as incredibly special as the next. From being in the Frog’s Hollow Saloon opening team, to heading to Adelaide with Never Never or Perth with Giffard, to making it into the Global Top 50 for The Blend/50 Best Bar Scholarship, and now winning ‘Rookie of The Year’.
Each stepping stone along the way has been incredible, and ultimately I’m proudest of the friends I’ve met and made along the way.
What’s your biggest takeaway from what you’ve learnt or achieved so far that you would share with others in the trade?
I think being yourself above everything else is really key. When I started I really thought I had to be this water pouring, order taking, drink making robot, but once I figured out how to actually incorporate my own personality into the job, it’s much more enjoyable for myself and others.
I really love this quote that I saw Brissie legend Millie Tang post a while back, although I have no idea if it’s her own words or not (sorry). Anyway it went something like, “Serve as you would like to be served, but remember not everyone wants to be served the way you want to be”.
I think it’s a really perfect little reminder to stay true to yourself, but also to know when you need to put a different hat on to make somebody else’s experience what they wanted too.
We have to ask these two final questions. What’s your favourite drink! & where is your favourite place for a drink?
In terms of a drink, I’m really a time-and-place kinda guy. My default response when someone asks me while I’m working though is just a negroni (and its other forms), as that’s generally where I lean if I want a cocktail without thinking. In terms of place, it really is just anywhere my friends are. If they’re there, I’m having a good time.