Meet Nicholas Tran, first-ever winner of our annual global leaderboard
Our community
By Dan Bignold
Jan 30th, 2021
Small Batch Learning caught up over email with our 2020 global leaderboard champ Nicholas Tran (pictured right), to hear all about his journey into hospitality, how the industry is developing in Vietnam, and how Small Batch Learning has helped his progress.

SBL: Tell us where are you working now? What’s your role?

I’m the newest member of a bar called Ministry of Men, launched by the House of Barbaard, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I’m a trainee bartender and also in charge of the kitchen. Founded by Tom Goedhart and Guido de Leeuw not long ago, our place is home to a gentleman’s barbershop, a lounge bar and a bartending academy, supervised by Kata Simon – one of the best bartenders in Southeast Asia, and my mentor.

Together they have built up a team of passionate young people who dare to go beyond boundaries and try out new roles. Thanks to them, I have the chance to work in the kitchen, the bar and on the floor at the same time, and to see how these jobs are linked together. There’s a wider trend in hospitality where the bar is meeting the kitchen. That’s what I’m aiming for too.

“Please meet the Ministry of Men team!”

SBL: Where was your first job in hospitality?

When I was 19, I opened a small hostel in my hometown, Dalat. That first project changed my life! I started with zero experience, so at first I had to play the role of manager, receptionist, guide, housekeeper... you name it! I learned new things every day and grew together with the business. In 2018, we were named guests’ favourite on several websites. Best reward ever!

This small hostel in the Vietnam highlands created a strong foundation for my journey in hospitality. The joy of welcoming guests from different countries fulfilled the dream of a small-town boy to “meet the world”, and I gained many good friendships.

In the summer of 2019, I was then offered a management position at a sports bar and restaurant in Dalat. I got to work with spirits and alcoholic beverages, but the beers and simple mixed drinks were still miles away from the cocktail world. I started wandering around town to check out other places and came across a cool tiny bar called Fox’s Den.

“Where my journey with cocktails started" (credit: Fox’s Den, Dalat)

This special place was the brainchild of the 2015 Diageo World Class champion for Vietnam. I guess I found my new home. They guided me through the interesting world of flavours, and the stories behind every piece of barware, every glass, every bottle. Each bartender gave me such a warm feeling that it turned me into a regular patron. One day they advised me to go to HCMC, where they had begun their own craft. So that’s where I am now, taking my very first steps in the bar world.

SBL: What is different about how you view hospitality now compared to when you started?

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. There are challenges but there are also great opportunities. The pandemic has shown what we're capable of. We are more flexible and more creative. We are professional in the way we deal with a worldwide disease. We care more and focus more on our customers – who themselves now know more about the service and the products they're getting. That requires each of us to push ourselves outside of the box to keep up with the developments of the industry (such as sustainability and social responsibility). When I stepped into the industry, all of that was just in its beginning phase in Vietnam.

SBL: How else is the hospitality industry developing in Vietnam?

Our industry is quite young, compared to others. This beautiful country with many hidden charms is transforming to meet international standards of customer service and, at the same time, keeping the uniqueness of our culture and hospitality. But international travellers play a crucial part in defining “hospitality” in Vietnam. The expat community has the opportunity to bring their knowledge, skills and combine them with the available local resources, to educate newbies and help shape our industry. The internet also helps us stay up to date with what is happening in the rest of the world... It’s quite fascinating to watch the development of the industry in Vietnam and to be a part of it.

“Me (left), my mentor Kata (in the middle), and my colleague, Brita Hoang Quyen, who was also finalist of Ophir gin’s Global Cocktail Competition in 2019, and Vietnam champion of Beefeater’s 200th Anniversary contest.”

SBL: What challenges are facing the industry there?

The most challenging thing here to me is people’s mindset. A lot of us are still mechanically following what has been passed down from previous generations, without understanding what we’re doing, why we’re doing one thing this way, not the other way. We need to acknowledge the changes in the industry and make an effort to change ourselves for the better too. To be able to do this, improving our foreign language skills is a priority. We also need to learn how to communicate, how to work together and grow a stronger community. This is what's lacking and makes a big gap between the hospitality in Vietnam and the industry in other parts of the world.

The joy of welcoming guests from different countries fulfilled the dream of a small-town boy to “meet the world”, and I gained many good friendships.

SBL: How do young bartenders learn skills and knowledge in Vietnam?

Most bartenders in Vietnam are self-taught or are trained where they work. Some attend bartending schools. With the explosion of the internet, now many things are available – but choosing credible, trustworthy sources is challenging, especially when you are new. In recent years, many bartenders enrolled in masterclasses or started to compete in competitions organized by big brands. There are also groups for bartenders to discuss and exchange knowledge. We have also seen more bartending books, blogs and journals written in Vietnamese lately.

“The first class of new bartenders at the academy (I’m on the far right).”

SBL: What is the most important thing to learn as a young bartender – knowledge or attitude?

Both are very important and should go together. But for me, good attitude comes first and can push us on further. You need to put your heart and soul into the thing you do, be passionate about it. And when you actually do that, you will change the way you think and find the ways to improve your work. That’s how you actively learn something and broaden your knowledge. Another important thing is to be humble, stay curious about everything and always asking questions because “curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”.

Small Batch Learning has made me think about customer service, and the role of bar workers in the hospitality industry

SBL: Has Small Batch Learning been helpful?

Small Batch Learning has simplified the basics every bartender should know. Each topic contains clear, well-written information, and then there’s the addition of more up-to-date content (such as wellness, and what you should know to protect yourself during Covid-19). It’s also made me think about customer service, and the role of bar workers in the hospitality industry.

Small Batch Learning also helped me through the first wave of Covid-19 – kept me in a positive state. I remember how excited I was to discover a well-designed, brand new platform, aiming to improve the bar community. I’m now seeing many changes, and more effort from the SBL team to connect with learners by creating polls and posting questions on social networks. I’d absolutely recommend it to friends in the industry.

SBL: Finally, your English is brilliant. Did you ever study abroad?

I’ve never had the chance to travel outside Vietnam, but I had a great teacher (he would not be happy with the grammar and spelling mistakes I’ve made in this interview!). I also used to worked with an Aussie for three years. In fact now I’ve got an Australian accent. You’ll laugh so hard when you talk to me in person!