Flash-grilled: Abigail Connolly

By Joe Lutrario contact

- Last updated on GMT

Abigail Connolly sommelier Birmingham

Related tags: Sommelier, Fine dining, Birmingham

The only female, fully-certified sommelier in Birmingham, Abigail Connolly runs Arch 13, a wine bar and wine shop in the city's Jewellery Quarter.

What was your first job?
I worked for three weeks in Toys 'R' Us at the impressionable age of 16 before deciding retail wasn’t for me. I started in a hotel brasserie a few months later. It wasn’t exactly a young and trendy place, in fact I think the average customers age was well into the 90s, but I took to hospitality pretty quickly and haven’t looked back.

What is your guiltiest food pleasure?
Hungover KFC. I don’t feel any guilt about it though. Especially now it can be delivered and all I have to do is make it from my bed to the front door.

What’s the best restaurant meal you’ve ever had?
Tricky. Eleven Madison Park for all its glory and glamour, just perfection from start to finish. Lake Road Kitchen and Ynyshir for quality and locality of ingredients. And in and around Birmingham, Folium and Harborne Kitchen always leave me with a happy little grin (and a wobble in my step from too much wine…).

What industry figure do you most admire, and why?
I have huge respect for Fred Sirieix, who’s really taking strides in making the front of house a career choice rather than just something you do when you’re at uni. Two of the people that keep me competing to be at the top of my game are Charlotte Davies of The Three Chimneys and Pernille Malec, soon to be of Sat Bains. Two somms that are really close to me who are really pushing forward for women in wine and keep me on my toes. 

If you weren’t in restaurants, what would you do?
I have absolutely no idea. I’ve never been much good at anything else, I trained as a chef before I became a somm. Maybe I would go into wine writing, I quite like picturing myself as the next Jancis Robinson.

What is your biggest regret?
Not keeping up with the piano lessons my parents sent me to as a kid. They always said I would regret quitting and I always have. I quite fancy the idea of sitting in some smokey jazz bar in Paris, sipping cognac, smoking cigarettes and playing some soft jazz.

Pet hate in the dining room?
How many pages can I fill? I think one of my biggest things is excessive PDA (Public Displays of Affection). I don’t mind the odd smooch if you’re having a nice romantic date night, I’m not that bitter. But there’s a point where it needs to move from the dining room into the bedroom, and every grown adult needs to know where that line is. I’m here to serve you, not to watch live action soft-core porn.

What’s the oddest thing a customer has said to you?
I’ve been invited into more couples bedroom activities than I care to think about. I don’t care what your quirks are, let me just serve you drinks and stay out of it. Please.

What’s the restaurant concept you wish you’d thought of?
McDonalds. I’d be on a yacht in St Tropez right now if I had.

Describe your service style in three words
Friendly, approachable, fun.

Most overrated food?
BBQ sauce. Sorry, I just don’t get what the hype is.

Restaurant dictator for a day – what would you ban?
Pretentious wine lists and sommeliers. I think wine should be accessible and fun. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a Michelin-starred place or PizzaExpress. Don’t make it more pretentious than it already has the reputation of being, and certainly don’t start it at £70 a bottle, no matter how many stars you have.

What’s the worst review you’ve ever had?
I once kicked a guy out of the bar I used to run because every time that he came in he’d hit on every woman in the room including my bar staff. He made everyone feel ridiculously uncomfortable and I’d had enough of it.
He posted a review about the “unwelcoming manager” and “cold vibe”. Safe to say he took it down after my retort.

If you could serve anyone in the world who would you pick, and why?
I suppose it would be the same as my ultimate dinner party guests, which I’ve thought long and hard about; Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks and Bob Dylan.

What advice would you give someone starting out in the industry?
It doesn’t matter how much natural talent you have for the business, you have to climb the ladder. Polish the cutlery and the glasses, clean the toilets, wipe the tables. Learn everything inside and out, back to front, from the bottom to the top. And never let anybody take advantage of you. The industry is no longer run on 16 hour days, 6 days a week. Make sure you get the balance right or you wipe yourself out too early on.

What do you cook at home on your days off?
Honestly, I don’t cook that much anymore. There are too many great places to eat in Birmingham. But when I do, I make a mean lasagne.

What’s your earliest food memory?
I remember one of my first ever tasting menus on a family holiday in Reims. I don’t remember much of it, I must have been about 10 years old or so. But very much remember devouring most of it. I never was that picky as a child.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
My placement tutor at university told me that, at 19 years old, boys won’t necessarily stick around, and your own future and career are much more important than the boyfriend of a matter of months. I guess it resonated with me because I broke up with him and took a placement in the South of France, and I’ve never regretted that.

What’s the closest you’ve ever come to death?
When I was about three years old or so I’d seen the presenters of Blue Peter bungie jumping and decided I wanted to try. Lucky for me, my older brother seemed to have a lot of knowledge in the field and decided to teach me. He was about six at the time and therefore I trusted him. Cut scene to me dangling from the climbing frame in our garden with a skipping rope tied one end around the top bar, and the other end around my waist. Growing ever tighter. Luckily my mum caught us at just the right time and I lived to tell the tale. Also he got a right telling off.

Where do you go when you want to let your hair down?
Sunday night trade night at The Anchor in Digbeth is a regular haunt for me. It has written off more than a few Mondays.

Tipple of choice?
That fully depends on my mood. Right now I’m recovering from one too many glasses of Beaujolais Nouveau last night which I must say is drinking really well right now. I’m also getting into peated whisky, my best friend has put me on a whisky ban though after a few weeks ago. That’s a story for another time.

What would you choose to eat for your last meal?
Can it be a tasting menu? The eggs benedict dish, and the lobster dish from Eleven Madison Park. The sea urchin dish from Lake Road Kitchen. The Scallop and Dashi dish that Brad used to do at Carters of Moseley. The Sourdough from Folium and the Olive Tapenade bread from Simpsons. The Lamb rib from Ynyshir. And the Baked Alaska that Joe used to do at The Bluebell in Henley in Arden. Washed down with a bottle of Romanee-Conti. I’d die so happy after that.

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