When Agnar [Sverrisson] and I opened Texture in 2006 the London scene was quite different. No table cloths and relaxed service wasn’t nearly as fashionable as it is now, in fact we thought we were very bold not making the front-of-house staff wear ties. Now nearly everywhere plays down formality.
Some people have better palates than others, but anyone willing to learn can gain a very good understanding of wine. I was taught – you’re not born with it. You need to read books, travel and talk to wine makers, but, most of all, you need to taste.
I am a traditionalist when it comes to wine service. I don’t like it when restaurants serve wine in what I consider to be a water glass. That might work in rural areas of France, Spain and Italy, but not in a city.
My biggest bugbear with the industry is that we’re increasingly getting people that start on Monday as a commis and by Saturday they think they’re ready to be a head waiter or GM – that’s not how it works.
I became a master sommelier at 23 when I was working for Hotel du Vin. The older generation always say the same about the younger generation, but I believe many of the people coming up through the ranks lack dedication these days. I studied very hard at that time of my life – I was totally dedicated to my profession.
Preserving the reputation of a restaurant that’s well-established is without doubt the toughest aspect of my job – I don’t think there’s a single restaurateur that would disagree with that. It all hinges on having the right staff.
At our restaurants we’re very aware that we can’t do everything. For example, we don’t do cocktails at 28°-50° because that’s not our strength – if we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it well.
All staff need to like what we do and be passionate about our restaurants. It’s difficult to detect that in the recruitment process before they start working for you – some people are very good actors. It’s not hard to pretend for half a day, but after a month you can’t really pretend anymore.
We opened our most recent 28°-50° Wine Workshop & Kitchen on Maddox Street in Mayfair last month, which takes us up to three restaurants – four if you include Texture. It’s a good site with more space than we’re used to, so we’ve added a seafood bar. It used to be an office block; it was great to work with a blank canvas, but quite expensive!
I met Agnar at Le Manoir [aux Quat’Saisons, near Oxford] but it was hard to get to know people there as the teams were so large. We decided to do the project that would become Texture over a meal at The Ledbury [Notting Hill, London]. We realised that we both wanted to open an independent venture sooner rather than later and that we wanted to create a restaurant that brought the front and back-of-house closer together.
The French restaurant scene hasn’t changed a great deal since I left. There are some young chefs doing exciting things in Paris, but it’s a very conservative place – the French like eating traditional French food.
I’m very interested in the new wave of specialist wine bars and restaurants. I really like Vinoteca, 10 Cases [Covent Garden] and 10 Greek Street. They care about the details that I think are important.
I enjoy being a restaurateur, but I do miss having total ownership of a wine list – that’s one of the great joys of being a sommelier. I have a wine buyer at 28°-50° and a head sommelier at Texture who both have a lot of freedom, but I do look at the lists regularly and work with them on the selections. To be the boss you have to relinquish a bit of control.
When we launch in a new area we always make sure we eat in the places nearby first – it gives you a good understanding of what works and why. With a new restaurant in Mayfair, we’ve been going to Goodman and we also like Brasserie Chavot.
When I go out with my sommelier friends we will always drink wine unless we think the wine list is crap, in which case we drink lager. So if you ever see me drinking lager in a restaurant then it’s not a good sign.