Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

The Interview: Benot Allauzen, Head sommelier, The Greenhouse

Published:  23 July, 2008

A total of 2,400 bins is a huge number for any wine list. How do you get to grips with such a large selection?
Well, it takes about two years to become familiar with a collection this size. I was at Morton's previously, which helped me, because a few wines are the same for both lists. But the good thing about The Greenhouse is that it has wines from the New World. I had to move from Morton's to remind myself of the differences between Central Otago and Nelson.

But there's still a distinct lack of bins from South America or South Africa.

In South Africa, you have such massive concentration. Chile has Almaviva and a couple more, but there just isn't the premium level you have in Australia or California. Mr Abela is a big fan of Napa, so it isn't all my fault!

You mean you're biased because you've worked in California?

Yes, I had such a magical three years there, even if going to San Francisco was a complete fluke. I was with a girlfriend at the time, and we were young and we didn't have any responsibilities. We were buying plane tickets in Paris for New York, when the guy at the desk told us there was a blizzard, so planes weren't landing at JFK. We went for San Francisco instead, which, as it turned out, was a great choice. You're so close to wine country, it's European in terms of size so you don't need a car, and it's Asian, gay, whatever you want. I worked at La Folie, which was the number-one restaurant in the city, according to Zagat.

Were you given a hard time in America for being French?

No, because San Francisco isn't San Antonio in Texas, and because service is so good wherever you go in the US. There's a big tip waving at them, but whatever we say about Americans, they are so brilliant at customer care. In Europe, you can spend 1,000 and someone will make you feel like you're throwing 20p at them. I often feel like saying, 'Do you want my money, or not?' There's such rigidity in Europe of 'do this, don't do that, do this; serve from the right, serve from the left'. I would prefer people to feel comfortable. If your guests are talking at the table, sometimes they don't care what they're eating, so you don't need to tell them about every ingredient for the next 25 minutes while the food goes cold.

Why did you drop down a level, in Michelin terms at least, by moving from Le Manoir to Conran's restaurants?

Le Manoir was a nightmare because of its staff. For the guests the ambience is sublime. You eat in the conservatory and walk in the herb garden after dinner. But I was working with 17-year-old kids out of catering school, who were just there to get their letter of recommendation. I had to leave. Conran gets a bad press, but it's very structured. And Orrery under Patrick Fischnaller was fantastic. He was like a machine - even sometimes to the point of being a bit insane. His wife worked as a receptionist at Orrery, and they had two children. She would arrive late sometimes and he would shout at her, in front of the staff, 'Why are you late?' She'd say, 'I had to take the kids to school.' But that didn't wash with him; he'd keep telling her off.

Have you always wanted to work in restaurants?

I'm trying to say no, but when I think about it, my parents had a big house in the centre of Avignon and they used to give a lot of dinners. I was 12 years old, and I remember always serving the wine because I liked doing it, setting up the tables correctly and setting out different kinds of glass.

That's quite a weird preoccupation for a boy of that age.

Well, I was interested in wine, too. In France, you have to be - it's so bound up in family conflict. My father had always reacted against his father, who had been a doctor, and would only care for rich people. So my father looked after anyone who needed looking after. When my grandfather passed away he left 60 hectares of vineyard in Tavel, as well as the house - he had enjoyed making wine. But at my father's first vintage, he took the grapes, put them to ferment in the vat, and it was a disaster: the wine was like vinegar. Fortunately, his sisters took on the vineyard and for the next 25 years made superb ros. But then a couple of years ago, some other members of the family wanted cash quickly so the property had to be sold. That's the problem with family ownership. You can be brother and sister, but in a situation like this, money will always come first.

The Greenhouse, 27a Hays Mews, London W1J 5NY, Tel: 020 7499 3331

Benot was born and brought up in Avignon, in the Rhne valley. After taking his baccalaurat, he moved to San Francisco in 1996, where he worked at the highly rated La Folie, as well as a number of bistros and brasseries, for three years, before returning briefly to France to study wine.

He moved to the UK in 2000, working at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, followed by two Conran restaurants - Orrery and Pont de La Tour - then Morton's club, in Mayfair, owned by restaurant group Marc. In September 2005, he moved to The Greenhouse, part of the same company.

Marc, run by entrepreneur Marlon Abela, owns The Greenhouse, Morton's and Umu in London, as well as Gaia, in Greenwich, Connecticut, in the United States. Abela also owns a number of mid-range restaurants in the US.

The Greenhouse uses 30 wine suppliers, including Marc Fine Wine, Les Caves de Pyrene, Enotria, Laytons and OW Loeb.