30 Nov Discovering my calling
I became a sommelier at a Sydney restaurant called Wildfire. A glamorous dining institution born at the peak of a bull market. The day of my interview the scope of the place and the confidence amongst the team rattled me to the core. The staff members seemed an entirely different breed to me. They were all so ‘big city’ and beautiful and the tables seemed their natural habitat. They were sincere, friendly faced and calm. In fact I couldn’t sense a whisper of nervousness amongst them, and I was looking hard.
My inner tension was ferocious, it took everything I had just to remain seated… waiting there, all sweaty, for the boss. I recited over and over…
“Confidence and competence, confidence and competence…”
That mantra, borrowed from a mentor of long past, must have worked. The interview lasted all of two minutes and I started the next day. Over four years at Wildfire I learned the layers of the craft. My biggest lesson was the impotence need people. You can’t do it yourself – the more people tried to go solo in that place the harder life became for everyone, and out they’d go. As waiters, we had ten tables and three sittings per table with maybe 30 pax per sitting, so 90 customers. There were 17 service points. The welcome, the water, the bread, the aperitif, the order, some wine, their entrée, a conversation about the entree, more wine, the main, a brief word about the main, more wine, a dessert order, a chat about the dessert, the wine and the election, the bill, the farewell – that’s potentially 1530 things that need to happen on time (with charm) to nail the section. Try that solo!
Ben Moechtar was Head Sommelier, and he ran the most highly regarded wine team in the country at the time. He and his wine list was a turning point for restaurants in Australia. I wanted to do what those guys did. After three years of reading, eavesdropping, late night tastings and honing my restaurant skills, I was finally in. One of my proudest moments, still, is the day I was named as one of the sommeliers at the briefing before evening service at Wildfire. The adrenalin kicked in, the crowds rolled through the door and the wine flowed. When my first ‘somm’ shift was over I realised I was still alive, still employed and that I’d be a sommelier until the end.
Next – Europe. I managed to get my first Head Sommelier role in the local kro (inn) of a small town by the name of Norsminde in rural Denmark. Working amongst that team of Danish/English speaking waiters curating a 1000-label wine list in a slow food restaurant on the other side of the world nearly turned me inside out to begin with. Looking back now, it seems like such a daring move. At the time though it was just my direction, but it took everything I had in the tank and I’m so glad I was there, I loved it.. The Danes taught me that cuisine and service was a noble career. I learned that it could bring holistic happiness and drive people to greatness through simple but precise daily routines surrounding the local community and its produce.
In those months, I developed a level of commitment and unique skills as a wine professional that I couldn’t have anywhere else. One rainy day before service, chef broke down an entire deer on the kitchen pass with the whole team glued to his every movement. It was an incredible display of mastery and skill. I’d never witnessed anything as pure and conscientious in cookery. He narrated in Danish the entire time but it didn’t matter. He had every one of us glued to him. It was wild venison and red burgundy for staff meal every night that week (a nostalgic trip down memory lane to my New Zealand days).
The London restaurant scene was a game changer for me. Claridges by Gordon Ramsay was my first gig. I’ll never forget being sent to buy new shoes by the Maître De after five minutes of setting foot on the property, copping a nose to nose dressing down in front of the kitchen brigade by fearless Chef de Cuisine Mark Sargeant or stumbling upon Naomie Campbell mid lingerie shoot on the way down to the cellar. There was a narrow opening in that place for larrikin Aussie sommelier at the time so I grabbed it and ran, literally. Pre GFC London had us running all over Mayfair borrowing thousand pound bottles of wine from nearby Ramsay restaurants for demanding clients that just had to have ‘the finest’ of everything, right now. The pressure was unbelievable. I recall waking in a panic at 3am because I’d forgotten to lock a wine fridge and jumping on a bus to the restaurant to rectify it even though I was first on deck that morning and the chances of anyone finding my mistake were practically nil. Everyone’s ethics and integrity were challenged daily in that place and I’ll never forget our Head Chef Steve’s constant mantra – “why should I drop my standard for you!?” it rings in my ear every time I pick up a plate and has always driven me to push harder towards excellence.
London also offered up the eye opening opportunity to write a wine list in an institutional local restaurant in Gloucester Road, Chelsea called L’Etranger. It was a corner eatery with a reputation for its wine list and immaculate Japanese fusion menu by Marco Pierre White protégé Gerome Tavreau. This place was like a fantasy land for sommeliers. 19 year old lads would be dropped at the door in their chauffeured Bentleys and leave their black AmEx’s over the bar so their friends could order Cristal Champagne and pick at sushi plates between endless trips to the lavatory. Dolf Lundgren was a regular and made his dates drink expensive tequila until they passed out before he’d carry them to his car, and Macelaylee’s manager would book every second Saturday night and sip Champagne with high class London escorts until the Chelsea hero himself arrived after his game… If he’d scored the Champagne would flow and the ladies were lavished as VIPs … if not, he ate his dinner in silence with his headphones in ignoring those same girls until they left.
Late at night sometimes the owner would walk in, print the day’s take from the till and open Champagne for us to drink. depending on what the sommeliers had managed to sell that night was the quality .. Some nights, when my assistant Matt and I were on point we’d drink bottles of the likes that are rarely opened unless there is serious money in the room as a staff drink, amazing. They seemed a different set of rules in London during those days. I’ll always miss them.
After almost three years away Katie and I closed the book on London and headed home to Sydney. The catalyst had been a wedding we wanted to attend, and in the car on the way to the ceremony my mother in law handed me job advertisement she found in the Sydney Morning Herald with a bold typeface – Head Sommelier, Quay. During my four year tenure in that role the 3 Hatter we achieved a status rarely reached amongst the Australian restaurant scene. Chef Peter Gilmore lead us to glory with what I will likely always consider to be the greatest cuisine I will encounter. From 2008 through 2011 and beyond Quay was almost unchallenged as Australia’s Best Restaurant amongst the food media and was inducted into the San Pellegrino TOP 50 as the Country’s highest ranked eatery… yet, it was the responses were receiving from diners at the table that kept us operating on cloud 9. They were loving it! Peter’s Snow Egg was Master Chef sensation. The four course a ‘la carte menu was revolutionary and luxurious. The view and uniquely ‘Sydney’ surroundings bringing it home. As Head Sommelier I was privileged to attract and work with a team of talented wine-passionate professionals. All of which have gone onto achieve great things in their own right. It was the support and mutual respect I found in my then assistant and now Quay Head Sommelier – Amanda Yallop, and my harmonious working relationship with Chef Gilmore himself though that remain as the warmest memories of some very golden days.