Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a town called Saint-Étienne, near Lyon. When I was 18, I moved to Aix-en-Provence for five years. And then I moved to England.
What first took you there?
A football match.
Before you moved to England, what kind of work were you doing? Were you already a sommelier?
Not at all. I was delivering washing machines and TVs in the south of France, near Marseille.
What was your very first encounter with wine?
When I was young, wine was part of the surroundings. Later on, my first encounter with wine was probably Château Batailley, when I was in England in 1984 or '85. It was my first shock from drinking something special.
Was there a moment when you decided that you wanted to open a restaurant, or be a sommelier?
I happened to do a sommelier competition (the Best Sommelier in the U.K. for French Wines and Spirits, 1986 – I finished 5th). It was not that difficult back then, since things were just getting started, and it went really well. I told myself, "Well, there it is. I’ve found my path. This is what I am going to do." I didn’t have any intentions of becoming an entrepreneur.
But it has worked out quite well for you.
Yes, it has worked out well. And it’s very exciting. Even now, when things are difficult because of the recession, it’s still exciting.
Are there any specific obstacles you’ve faced because of the recession?
In 2008, all of a sudden we lost all our weekday business from people who would come to have meetings. It all disappeared. Right away we had to get innovative. We worked with supermarkets, I tasted wines for their magazines, and we did readers’ offers. Things like that. We had to fight hard.
How often do you change your wine list?
All the time. Every week the book is different, but not by much. But if you take the list from three months ago, or in three months from now, there you will see a big difference. We have about 500 products, with 150–200 wines that don’t change very often.
Are there any surprising wines on your list at the moment?
For sure! One is a Japanese Koshu. We don’t sell too much of it, but it’s good to have. And we have a wine from Santorini in Greece [Gaia Thalassitis 2010]. Those are the kinds of wines that need to be sold by the sommelier, because customers aren’t really going to ask for them.
Do you have a standard “go-to” wine you like to drink?
No, I have phases. Perhaps for 15 days I’ll have an albariño phase. Or I might have recently retasted a wine from Alsace that I loved, so I go through a pinot gris phase. I’ll have a Ribera del Duero phase because I visited the area recently. I think it’s important to change a lot.
And if you’re not drinking wine, what are you drinking?
Not counting Champagne, right?
Nope, not counting Champagne.
I like cocktails. I like making them and drinking them. If I’m out for dinner with my wife in London, we like to have a cocktail at the end.
Do you have a favorite cocktail or a place where you like to drink it?
I have many: Caipirinha, Negroni. Or a Bramble, I like that a lot. At the moment, we are making an “English garden” with gin, apple juice and cucumber. C’est delicieux! I like The Dorchester because I find that they make great cocktails.
How important is the glass you drink from?
I think what is important is to have different shapes because, psychologically, if you are in a restaurant and you always have the same glasses, it’s not good. We have about seven or eight kinds here. I think it’s part of the mise-en-scène [visual setting].
Is there any particular wine region that you are really interested in at the moment, or that you’d like to visit for the first time?
If you could pour a special wine for anyone in the world, who would it be and what would you pour?
It would be Romanée-Conti, for my wife. We called our son Romané, so...
Do you taste wine before you serve it?
Yes. All the time. But the rule is that you do it very openly, and you take a very small copita [a Spanish-style sherry glass].
Have you ever had anyone say, "Hey! You’re drinking my wine"?
No. Never, ever. But if someone did, I would have plenty to say. It’s because the sommelier tastes the wine regularly that he can advise. The people who complain about that are stupid. They are old fashioned. But if it’s done properly, no one complains. Anyway, the sommelier cannot take too much because he will be drunk at the end of the night.
Is there any piece of wine advice you’ve been given that stays with you?
When I first started, the person I was working for was telling me that it’s very important that the wine is always served before the food, because if there is a problem with the wine, that’s it. [If] the food has already been served, but you have to change the temperature of the wine or it’s corked, then it’s a disaster.
Also, on a financial side, if you serve the wine a little bit before, you might serve more. That’s something that makes sense, it has logic.
What I don’t believe is stupid things that I was told at the beginning which for me make no sense. For instance, if I've got a table of eight, a round table, so you have to turn clockwise. I say, "Well, why? It doesn’t make sense." I mean, you should serve in a way that doesn't disturb the customer. Serving on the right, of course, if he's got his glass on the right. But maybe he is left handed and he would put it on the left. Or maybe he is talking very closely to his person on the right. So you need to know how to adapt. You can’t be too rigid.
What gives you the greatest happiness?
Traveling with my family is something that makes me very happy. Preparing for exams or competitions is very exciting. When you have a target, or something you focus on, I think sometimes the most interesting [part] is not so much the exam or competition but the lead-up to it. That’s the exciting time.