It's not every day you meet someone like Luke Whearty. I first met him during a filming gig for an interactive video and one of the featured places was his bar, Operation Dagger. Tucked away in a basement along Ann Siang Hill, we were floored when we first saw the interior; a mass of light bulbs unabashedly inspired by photographer Jeff Wall and hobo signs inspired by Basquiat. Together these created a magnetizing environment - one that inspires creativity and craft, a place to be after a long day's work. Operation Dagger lived up to it's name even at first glance. It made you sit up and take notice.
Operation Dagger is co-owned by Luke and Aki Nishikura. During our first meet up with Luke for a pre-interview, I expressed an interest in documenting his story in a short visual narrative, and he was game for it. In fact, he went on to share what inspired him during his journey; different artists, chefs, surfers, filmmakers. I was intrigued by his passion. His mind was constantly on the move, one helluva guy who doesn't stop thinking, processing, and conceptualizing. Constantly plagued by sleepless nights, he often gets up to write his ideas down. Aki gives him a different perspective, and together with their crew, they experiment and try out new menus. That's the kind of intensity and passion that transpires within Operation Dagger.
Many of Luke's creations are often inspired by things as abstract as songs, films, a visit to an art gallery or even happy accidents while experimenting. He explained the concept of urban foraging, and how some of the ingredients in his drinks come from a tree just behind the alleys of Ann Siang Hill (who would have thought!). What resonated was how he re-defines what a bar or a drink ought to be. Some of the drinks were developed within a few weeks, while others take up to 2-3 years. That's commitment. It's the process that Luke is after - the fine-tuning of a recipe, the constantly changing menus. When you know the bartender doesn't put drinks on the menu when the flavour profiles aren't perfect, you know you are in good hands.
Luke's immaculate attention to detail is what separates him from others. He comes alive when he talks about his creations or about something that he is experimenting. "Why is a wine, a wine? What if I reconstructed the concept of a wine?" Being influenced by El Bulli's Ferran Adrià and a close friend, Chef Ryan Clift of Tippling Club, he takes on each new foray by deconstructing flavour profiles into different elements and ingredients and later finding out how to gel all of it together to create something totally new.
With so many accolades and global recognition, he still remains humble about his endeavours, telling me that he still feels he is just scratching the surface. Personally, what spoke to me after hearing his story, is this reckless abandon nature to go out there and try new things and letting it grow organically without conforming to any preconceived ideas or practices. And he brings it home, by recognizing that you don't always get to where you are, without a mountain of people encouraging and supporting you in this journey.
From a little town called Coffs Harbour, washing dishes, to becoming owner of Operation Dagger, one of the World's 50 Best Bars 2016.
Thanks for sharing your story Luke, it's kept us going.
Written by Bang Lin
Canvas is a collaborative project initiated by Grain as part of their collective personal work. Our passion for storytelling has led us to produce a library of short films and still photography that documents the human condition. A commitment to have a deeper understanding of how different people express themselves, we believe that every person’s story is novel and worth being documented. Every one has a canvas in which they express themselves, to keep their passions alive.
This is our canvas, what’s yours?
Director: Bang Lin
Producer: Marine Lin
Filmed by: Grain
Editor: Cheryl Koh, Bang Lin
Photography: Nevin Lim