by Carl Stanton
The Skills for Chefs conference aims to bring some of the countries best chefs into one place to demonstrate, instruct and help develop the next generation of aspiring culinary masters. David McKown has been running the highly successful conference in Sheffield for the last 15 years. This year saw the introduction of Skills for Service run in conjunction with the Chefs conference, but aimed at developing front of house staff to partner the great work done behind the kitchen doors. Bibendum got involved this year to drive home the importance to both chefs and service staff alike, of how wine service and pairing can make a fundamental difference to the customer experience.
Over the two days the chefs were treated to sessions from the likes of Kenny Atkinson (Rockliffe Hall) Alan Murchison (10 in 8 group) and Galton Blackiston (Morston Hall.) On Tuesday, Alan created a stunning soy mackerel dish, with beetroot meringue, horseradish ice cream and beetroot and apple caviar. Bibendum paired the Fondo Antico Grillo 2011 from Sicily for the chefs to try which went brilliantly well, off-setting the richness of the fish without masking the earthy flavours of the beets and apple. Alan however likes to work with his sommeliers to match food to wine, as in his words ‘you can change the balance of a dish but not that of a wine’ thus achieving a perfect match. This has to be easily the best way of expanding consumer’s choices and really brings the entire culinary experience to a peak. More of this please chefs!
Whilst the chefs were sampling stunning culinary creations the service sessions were in full swing. A series of classes over the two days included the art of tea brewing from Jane Pettigrew, service standards from Esher Williams, consultant who has worked at The Fat Duck amongst others, and the main event, Gerard Basset MW MS OBE on his career in wine and service. We couldn’t miss an opportunity like this, and spent a rapt 2 hours listening to Gerard discuss everything from his arrival in the UK some 30 years ago to his latest secret project.
What was evident was the huge amount of work and dedication that Gerard has put in over the years. Not content with a chain of Hotels (Hotel du Vin which he sold in 2004), Hotel Terravina in the new forest, and becoming a Master Sommelier and Master of Wine, Gerard embarked on an MBA Wine Honours whilst competing in the Worlds best Sommelier competition that he finally won in 2010 after 6 attempts!
Fortunately for the delegates, Gerard was not guarded over his secrets of success in business. At Hotel du Vin and now Terravina, the success was down to a number of simple things; Staff training, which feeds knowledge and passion; a great selection of food and wines at affordable prices; service that matches customer expectation; a comfy bed and a damn good shower. Of all these points Gerard emphasised how powerful staff training can be in not only aiding a business but helping to develop industry professionals for the future in a country where hospitality is still greatly undervalued.
He also delved into the study of his MBA in Wine Honours that focussed in part on the wine purchasing behaviour in the on-trade. Interestingly he concluded that laying wine lists out by style came out as the most popular organisation from a customer perspective, as they could determine their preferred style then how much they wanted to spend. This provided Gerard with proof of the way he had sold wine for years; find the tone, level of involvement and expenditure desired by the customer when purchasing wine and they will respect and return again to your business.
To end on a high, Gerard had selected three wines from the Bibendum portfolio to show how styles had changed and developed over the years he had been working in the hospitality industry. First up was the stunning Prophets Rock Pinot Gris, Central Otago, New Zealand, 2010, showcasing how the new world is now producing wines as elegant and refined as the Old; then Morgon, Domaine Marcel Lapierre Beaujolais, France, 2011 for a wine that has constantly been at the forefront of ‘natural’ wine making before it was ever fashionable enough to have two trade shows in London alone; finally Catena Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina 2009, which 20 years ago was non-existent on the international market, but now is a must list on every restaurant in the country. All three showed exceedingly well, however the Morgon really stole the show, especially as a French man, Gerard was really on home turf!
So to the end of two informative and entertaining days. The conference aimed to highlight the importance of looking at the restaurant experience as a whole; the kitchen is intertwined with the front of house and vice versa. Staff training is key to success and without team work; a great restaurant can fall flat on its face. If indeed the level of enthusiasm on leaving the conference is anything to go by however, the UK’s diners are surely in safe hands.