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The Interview: James Harris, Proprietor, 11 Abingdon Road, London

Published:  23 July, 2008

You must be relieved that the restaurant is now open?
A new place is very similar to childbirth. When it's finished you say, Absolutely never again, not in a million years,' but then sometime afterwards you begin to forget the pain and think, Wouldn't it be great to have another one,' and you're off again. But the real hard work starts when the adrenalin levels go down and you've still got a snagging list from here to Brighton.

What was your role?

I did all the designing and helped with the building. That's been the pattern for most of our sites. I tend to fade away after that and look after the wine list. When I was younger I used to find it a shame that the alcoholic content of wine made you drunk; I liked the flavours so much. But as I get older I find I'm more interested in inebriation.

When you choose wine, is it down to the person who sells it to you, or the wine?

You'd hope it was the wine, but a lot of wines are as good as each other, and relations that you've built with a supplier are important. Most people know that I'm pretty honest with them. I sometimes say to a salesman after he's sent over a wine, Actually that was absolutely horrible,' and then they turn around and agree with me! I think some companies try it on to see if you know what you're doing so they can fob you off with any old rubbish. But you have to be firm. Serving a bad wine to customers makes you feel horrible.

You've managed to keep the list down to 60 wines, which is something of an achievement.

I don't want people to spend unnecessary time reading through pages and pages. Wine lists aren't just intimidating, they're silly. People go out to spend time with each other, not be confronted by a huge bible. To use that ridiculous phrase, we run some wines up the flagpole and see who salutes them. De Trafford Chenin from South Africa, for example, has proved a real success. Michael Saunders from Bibendum said we had to try it - that people would love it and they do, which is something completely unexpected for Chenin. I'm not a great Sauvignon Blanc fan either; in fact, if asked, I would rather have any other grape, but some people love it, and you can't be too precious. Wine is a great joy, but frequently it can be too much of a performance. At the end of the day, it's only wine.

Is your interest in wine more one that is born out of necessity, then?

Oh no, I just wanted to be an actor for so long that I ignored my roots - which were pretty vinous. I was playing Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest in Bury St Edmunds - funnily enough, with Adrian Webster, who publishes Oz Clarke under his Webster's Wine Guides. It was after university, and up until then I thought everyone had a secret ambition to be an actor, and the only reason they weren't was because the competition was so stiff. But I was walking down the street in this Suffolk town, and I thought, Who would want to do this? It's dreadful.

Wasn't your dad involved in the wine business?

Yes, eventually. He was a clothes manufacturer until he was 40 and then started Ehrmanns with Rudi Nassauer. We were often going out to restaurants, and there was always wine around. He had one of those mid-life changes where you want to do something different, and luckily at that time he met Rudi and they got on terribly well. Rudi was an amazingly curmudgeonly and charismatic character. He was a novelist, involved with Paula Rego, the artist. So our life became quite bohemian and wine-filled. They had a lot of good Spanish wines at Ehrmanns,

and in their honour we put Muga on our first list at Sonny's.

Were your parents worried when they found out you were dating a waitress?

Yes, they weren't great when I met Rebecca, but it wasn't long before she was my wife. Being a waitress then wasn't the fashionable pastime it is now. Over 25 years ago no one had friends who were waiters or waitresses - you just didn't know people like that. But it was eminently sensible for Rebecca. She was working as an actress and could earn really quite good money waiting tables. It's different now because the entire world is turning into one giant restaurant - eventually they will all join up. There's a really underrated movie called Demolition Man, starring Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock. They're going out for a meal at a Taco Bell, and the girl says, But I don't want to go to Taco Bell.' Don't you know about the restaurant wars in 2047?' Stallone replies. Taco Bell won. We have to eat in their places; there is no other choice.'