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The Interview: Pete Gottgens

Published:  18 January, 2007

What is a South African doing with a hotel and restaurant on the shores of Loch Tay?
Enjoying it! I opened four restaurants in London over a period of 10 years, but I fell in love with Scotland and the salmon fishing, so I had to move somewhere I could fish! We looked further north initially, but from an economic point of view it didn't really make sense. The advantage of this place is that it is within commuting distance of Glasgow and Edinburgh, so people can leave work on a Friday evening and be here in time for dinner. Our policy here is that we don't close the dining room until the last guest has checked in.

Why did you leave South Africa and move to the UK?

I had run various restaurants back home, but the pond was getting a bit small. London is one of the harshest cities in the world in which to survive, both personally and professionally, but it is also one of the top culinary capitals, and being part of that is fantastic. I've also been able to prove to myself, and a few others, that South African cuisine and South African wines really can hack it.

Is your wine list entirely South African?

Yes. Ever since I opened my first restaurant in 1996, I've only ever sold South African wines, and I've never had any other wine on my list.

Why did you decide to do that?

The main reason is that I don't know anything about any other kind of wine! I'm also a proud South African. When I sell a South African wine there is a story to tell because I know a lot of the winemakers personally. It's great to be able to tell guests a story from a trip there or something about a particular wine region.

Do you get many South African winemakers visiting you here?

Yes, and many of them have become good friends. We give every South African winemaker who comes to Scotland a

free night of dinner, bed and breakfast as a way of saying thanks for making the effort. In return we just ask that they

either speak to us or to our staff about their wines.

Have you noticed any difference in the reaction to South African wines here compared to London?

When we moved here, everybody told us that we would have wines from other countries on our list within months. But our 100% South African list has actually turned out to be an asset, and it's now one of our biggest draw cards. Wine clubs throughout Scotland have started asking us to host special wine events for them.

Do guests ever ask for non-South African wines?

Oh yeah. I just tell them that if they want to go to France there is a train leaving shortly! But if they ask for a Chablis or a Sauternes, that establishes the style they are looking for, and we can usually help them from there. Last night we had a typical scenario with a guest who was here for a gourmet meal but was incredibly sceptical about South African wines. We gave him a selection of six different wines with his meal, and this morning he asked for a 12-bottle case to take home with him because he enjoyed it so much. That's the biggest accolade you can get, and that's really what it is all about. It's great when the winemaker has done his job with the

wine, we've done our job in the kitchen and the two have come together.

Does being a chef make any difference to the way you taste wines?

When I taste wine I taste it to go with food. More than 90% of the wine consumed in hotels and restaurants is consumed with food, whereas around 65% of all wine purchased in a supermarket is consumed on its own. For me that requires two totally different wines.

The classic problem we have in the restaurant is when four guests sit down and order different dishes but share the same bottle of wine. For someone on the table, the match is not going to be doing justice to the wine or the food.

Do you offer many wines by the glass to get round that problem?

I am not big into glass wines, and I don't promote that at all. And there are almost no half-bottles available from South Africa because of the extra costs involved in shipping and so on. Instead, we have an open-bottle policy. We will pull the cork on any bottle of wine for 50% of the bottle price, which basically covers our costs.

For that you can drink up to 50% of the wine. Thereafter it is pro rata, so if you drink 75% you pay for 75%. Nine out of ten people drink the entire bottle anyway. The best thing is that it allows a couple to have a half-bottle of white and a half-bottle of red, and it works very well for people staying in the hotel, because over a stay of several days they can work their way through the wine list, and they will generally move up the price range as they do so.

Ardeonaig Hotel & Restaurant, south shore of Loch Tay, by Killin, Perthshire FK21 8SU, Scotland Tel: 01567 820 400

Pete Gottgens is a celebrated South African chef and restaurateur who moved to the UK 15 years ago and opened a series of restaurants in London, including the highly acclaimed Fish Hoek in Chiswick. In June 2003 he and his wife Sara bought Ardeonaig Hotel & Restaurant on the south shore of

Loch Tay in Scotland, transforming it into an idyllic retreat that combines some of the best salmon fishing in Scotland with Gottgens's award-winning cooking and one of the most comprehensive South African wine lists in Europe.