Following our F+R event last Saturday we caught up with Head Sommelier at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay – James Lloyd. We talk to him about the challenges and rewards associated with working as Head Sommelier in one of the world’s most acclaimed dining venues.
What is the preferred part of your role as Head Sommelier at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay?
James Lloyd: There are many facets to my role that are amazing and very rewarding. At the restaurant we pride ourselves on being very guest-focused and making sure that they have an experience, not just a lunch or dinner. To be part of someone’s special memory, an anniversary, birthday or just a once in a lifetime chance to dine with us is truly humbling - especially when they take their time to tell us. But perhaps the most rewarding is being able to nurture a young team and give them the chance to experience what I have been lucky enough to go through over a number of years. The final result is a wonderful thing to see.
You have worked with Gordon Ramsay all around the world. What are the differences between being Head Sommelier in New York and in London.
JL: Wine wise it was very much learning different palate profiles and the language used to describe the wines. However, the biggest learning curve was actually managing the staff -firstly the sheer volume of staff but also how to communicate with them to achieve the same level of results as we have at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.
What is special about the Restaurant Gordon Ramsay wine list?
JL: In a word - personality. I am afforded a freedom that many restaurants do not have, as Head Sommelier of the restaurant I decide what goes on the list which allows me to interject my taste, not simply as a wine buyer or an accountant, but more importantly with the freedom
to tailor the wine list to what our guests want and need by listening to the guest and learning and reacting accordingly.
How did you come up with the idea of the wine event programme at Gordon Ramsay?
JL: It came from a desire to create a new experience for our guests. We are very much a Chef-led business and understandably so, but as a Sommelier I wanted to raise the visibility of wine which also allowed us to showcase the unique talents of what our team does and of course the skills of our Chef, Matt Abé. We are great believers in the total experience and wine is very much part of that equation.
Why did you chose to collaborate with F+R on this initial event?
JL: We are very fortunate to have a broad spectrum of suppliers but as this was our first event we wanted the best. By partnering with FINE+RARE we could achieve getting the best wineries via direct relationships that they have and with the added bonus of having the relationship to introduce Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos of Chateau Margaux to be host of this event was a key factor.
What are the challenges pairing wine and food?
JL: For this particular event we had to work in reverse to our usual way. Normally it is a process of 4-6 weeks of Matt creating a dish and together we taste each item and discuss and eventually create a final dish. This process allows me to learn the nuances of the dish and all the intricate details. Through the process I build up a good idea on what style / type of wine is required, organise them, taste 3 / 4 with a complete dish and decide. At all-times we are open and honest about critiquing to achieve the best results. However, this time Matt had to rely on my descriptions of the wines and create from there. Very difficult but because of the relationship and trust of each other’s palate we think we achieved the desired results. We are of course not the ones to ask on that though! The guests must take the lead in this scenario.
Is there a specific process to develop pairing between food and wine?
JL: As in the previous question it is purely about trial and error and taste, taste and taste to achieve what we believe to be the best along with a dose of honesty between us. A long process but ultimately should benefit the guests.
Please tell us about the specific event food / wine pairing? Any specific challenge?
JL: The absolute biggest challenge is to find a dish that works with two wines simultaneously that have quite a vast difference in profiles whether that is because of age difference or vintage difference. The Pavillon Blanc du Chateau Margaux 2016 / 1996 pairing proving the most difficult.
What has been one of your most memorable experiences workings as Head Sommelier at the restaurant?
JL: A great experience that happened fairly recently was a couple celebrating 60 years of marriage. Firstly, that they even thought about us to celebrate this event is humbling beyond belief, considering all the great restaurants there are in London. But what made it incredible from my side is the fact that purely from the food, the service and finally the wine we recommended and more importantly how we did that this couple left with such a positive
emotion leaving in tears of happiness and in conjunction trying a producer from Burgundy they have never tried, and they had tried so many, as we discussed on the day and the positive comments from that was spine tingling. That is what hospitality is all about, creating that unique memory that will last for a lifetime.
What would be your desert island bottle of wine?
JL: There are many which we are fortunate to have tried here over the years so it keeps on changing. Currently I would say - considering the event and the wines we currently have on the list - it would be the Chateau Margaux 1900. Would be good to re-visit as I have only tried this once and it was mind blowing.
Photography courtesy of James Winspear ©