How Humility and Dedication Led Kenta Goto to Bartending Greatness

A man behind a bar.
Bar owner Kenta Goto pays keen attention to every element of his drink service. Photo by Lizzie Munro.

When Kenta Goto arrived in New York in 1997 with dreams of pursuing a career in fashion design, he realized quickly that the game plan would need to change. “I needed to make some cash, so I started bartending,” he says. “At first I wasn’t super into it — it was just a way of surviving when life in the city wasn’t going exactly as I’d planned.”

It was fortunate that he had ample hospitality training back in his hometown of Tokyo, where he spent his teenage years helping out at his mother’s restaurant through a variety of tasks, from cutting vegetables and cleaning fish to greeting patrons and wiping down tables. “I liked what I was doing, but I never took it seriously because it was just what I knew growing up,” he says.

As he began meeting more full-time bar professionals, his perspective on the field started to shift. “I remember thinking, ‘if I’m going to continue in this profession, then I want to be really good at it.” Around that time, he learned of an opening at Pegu Club and submitted a resume. A few days later, Audrey Saunders — Pegu Club founder and a pioneer of the modern day cocktail revolution — called Goto in for an interview. “I remember she was very easy to talk to, but at the end of it she told me there would be a second interview,” he says. “I don’t know about other people, but I never thought there was a second interview for the hospitality world — so I was like, ‘what does she mean by a second interview?’”

Soon enough he’d find out. On a busy weekend shift at the venue he was bartending at then, Saunders arrived and saddled up to the bar, requesting a gin sour. “That place wasn’t exactly known for cocktails, so I said to her, ‘I can make it, but I just want to let you know that we don’t have any fresh lemon juice,’” he says. “She said to me, “Yes, I can see that — but just do your best.’”

Goto did just that, and he got the job — under a couple of conditions. Upon informing Saunders of his spirit choice for the drink — Bombay Sapphire — she revealed more of what the role would entail. “She said, ‘I’d like you to work for me once a week, and I will teach you the kinds of cocktails perfect for Bombay Sapphire, and I will also teach you what gin to use for a gin sour,’” recalls Goto.

She followed through on her word — Goto spent the next seven years working closely with Saunders, who showed him the ropes at the lauded cocktail bar — even if the training wasn’t exactly what Goto had pictured. “I was expecting her to teach me everything from A to Z, but she’s actually the type of boss who takes a totally opposite kind of approach by throwing you right in there,” he says. “She’s very good at making you think about the way cocktails are made, and why this one is shaken and not stirred and that one is served up and not on the rocks.”

The interior of a bar with beautiful wood paneling. Kenta Goto's bar, Bar Goto, speaks to his quiet integrity and unparalleled commitment to quality. Photo by Daniel Krieger.

It was that laissez-faire leadership that instilled in Goto the confidence he needed to run the show a few years in when Saunders moved to the West Coast, and to eventually open Bar Goto, his own venture on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that’s already received fierce acclaim (including a title as Time Out New York’s Best New Bar and a spot on Bon Appetit’s list of Best New Bars). The vibe is casual — rock music plays while patrons decide between an array of Japanese comfort bites — but the drinks are as serious as ever. “Every item we serve here is something we’re proud of — we don’t put something in front of the guest unless we’ve tasted it so many times and until we’re confident it’s the best it can be,” says Goto. “That aspect is very much in keeping with the Pegu Club philosophy.”

One difference you might notice between Goto’s former and present day places of work? His service time whereabouts. Rarely at Bar Goto will you spot him behind the bar — rather, look towards the door, where he is greeting patrons and distributing menus to tables. That’s where I find him on a Saturday evening last month, and when I ask him for his recommendation for a clean, spirit-forward cocktail, he loops our server Chris into the selection process, thereby exiting the conversation quietly, politely.

It’s an intentional move on Goto’s part. “I could be working behind the bar, but that means I’d be taking someone’s shift away from them, and I don’t think that’s the right way to build a team,” he says. “I’d rather set the example first and then give my team the chance to make the drinks and take care of guests — I had someone that I trusted, and I want to be able to offer that for them.”

It’s a seldom sight in the industry, especially in a city like New York, where bravado and showmanship reign behind the bar. But Saunders saw something different in Goto from the start. “I always try very hard to instill in everyone that I work with that if you are dedicated and work hard to learn, that your talent and the high quality of your work will speak for itself — the word will get out no matter how quiet an individual you might be,” she says. “I often said that to Kenta, and he came to trust in it — he kept his head down, did the work, and stayed on his own path. Folks in turn are absolutely wowed by what he humbly has to offer.”

In addition to an unparalleled commitment to excellence in product, it’s that quiet integrity that Goto calls upon time and time again to maintain his loyal base of patrons. “I’m not super shy, but at the same time but I’m not great at socializing with everybody,” he says. “I make sure the quality is good and that the hospitality is honest. At the end of the day, I just try to be sincere.”

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