ON MAY 2 industry-renowned bartender Steve Schneider moved from New York to Singapore. On the same day, 14 years before, he joined the Marines to go to war. “I signed up after 9/11,” says Schneider. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life but I had a cousin in the Marines and my grandfather was in the army, so the military it was. I graduated top of my class in all my training and volunteered to go to Afghanistan.”
Everyone has life-changing events – but Schneider’s blew his world apart. “On leave from the Marines I got into a fight in a crappy bar and had my head kicked in. It was a stupid mistake you make when you’re 18 or 19 years old. I had a blood clot, a cracked skull and was in a coma – my parents were told I had 10 minutes to live. But they patched me together, put three plates in my skull and I woke up a few days later.” It’s the stuff that documentaries are made of – and actually, one was: Hey Bartender was released in 2013.
Schneider required three years of brain rehab. “I thought I was the best young Marine they had, but there I was handing out towels and signing people into the base gym. It was me, the guy who got run over by a tank, the guy who got shot in the leg by a rocket and the guy with cancer – the injured guys just trying to do something.”
Schneider had spare time. He took a job at a dive bar in Washington DC. “It used to cost me more money to get to work than I’d make working some days, but I didn’t want to be at the hospital. I felt miserable that I wasn’t able to do what I was trained to do. My coordination was off, my memory was fucked but this shitty bar made me happy. Memorising prices and recipes was so much better than strapping me to probes or doing thinking exercises.”
Schneider entered speed bartending competitions and won – three times in a row. The thrill of competition returned, he was making money and getting noticed. Local bartender John Hogan saw something in the raw but driven Schneider. “He taught me bartending could be a career – that it’s not just about picking up chicks and making a few extra bucks. That’s still a goal, don’t get me wrong, but bartending has become a platform for so much more.”
Before long, Schneider was back in his home town of New Jersey. Dive bars had taught him “to move his ass and how to tell people to fuck off”, but his latest fine-dining bar job was about attention to detail – just like his military training. Great experience as it was, Schneider had always yearned for New York – the high-rise horizon to his New Jersey upbringing. Soon an opportunity to bartend at a party, unknowingly along with New York’s finest, threw up an opportunity.
It was at Employees Only and as a 23-year-old apprentice, starting at the bottom. Ethic and buy-in took him up the ranks fast. By 2009 he was principal bartender and by 2013 bar manager. By now EO was a New York institution and Schneider had one of the most coveted jobs in bartending. “I grew up with all these guys. It was crazy times. Now we’re older so there’s no sex in the liquor room. We’re responsible adults, most of the time.”
Last month, Schneider and EO New York co-founder Igor Hadzismajlovic opened a Singapore branch. Schneider has shares in the bar and his own future. But will Singapore take to this embassy of New York hospitality? “Adapt and overcome,” Schneider quotes his Marine mantra, before slipping into bartender: “Man, we’ve been so fucking busy.”