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The Interview: Matthieu Garros, Head sommelier, Umu, London

Published:  23 July, 2008

How have you got your head around so many different saks?
When I first arrived I was a bit scared, to be honest. I knew as much about sak as most Europeans do: absolutely nothing. There is a perception that saks are really alcoholic, or that they all taste the same, but this is complete rubbish, you can find many different sorts of sak. For eaxample, Mukantei Ginjo from Kikusui brewery is more about high acidity and freshness to go with sushi. However, if you are eating toro, the fatty belly of the tuna, you need a sak with texture to fight it, such as Momo Shizuku, from the Matsumoto brewery.

Do people drink wine at Umu too?

White Burgundy mostly, and that's not just because of my French background! It suits this kind of food. I'm really amazed by Austrian wines as well. They have their own grapes, their own style. Many people confuse Austria with Germany, which doesn't help, but they make really beautiful wines, such as the 2003 Sauvignon Blanc Smaragd from FX Pichler, who's a great winemaker. This is on our list at 68.

So what made you leave the safe haven of wine at The Greenhouse for Umu?

I was refused a visa for Japan three times, so this is my little revenge, working in a Japanese restaurant. A big part of our menu is Kaiseki, which is a way of serving food based on nature - you can form dishes into mountains or trees. One of our chefs is a bit crazy, so when Orlando Bloom from Lord of the Rings came in to eat, he made a dish with two towers out of bamboo, with animal skin stretched over the top of each. There were thin slivers of fish, especially sea bass, everywhere. Bloom loved it, although he was also a bit surprised.

What is it you like about Japan?

I'm intrigued about how they maintain such strong traditions amidst all the high-tech advances. It seems to be down to the respect you have in Japanese culture. Being here reminds me of working at Le Relais de la Poste, a Michelin two-star restaurant near where I grew up in France. First thing when you arrived for your shift, and when you left to go home, you had to acknowledge the head chef, Jean Coussau. So many other places don't do this, but at Umu you have to say Hello' to the kitchen, and I think it's important. Le Relais was amazing. Ducasse and Robuchon learnt their craft there. It has the second-biggest cellar in France, with 70,000 bottles - they buy most of their wines en primeur, and put 7,000 on the list.

Your parents must think you're mad then to work in a Japanese restaurant.

Well my father owned a vineyard in Armagnac, so maybe that has taken me towards sak. I've always thought of Armagnac as closer to wine than Cognac, because of vintage variation. Cognac is blended to be a standard flavour and tends to have a sour edge to it, while Armagnac is softer, more mellow in taste. But when I look back, I've worked a lot with distilled or even fortified products. I only managed two days harvesting in the Douro - the rest was in the winery. My God, you have to respect the people there, harvesting grapes in the heat, on such stony ground. After that I went to Gruaud Larose, in Bordeaux, where it was fascinating to see the way they vinify each grape separately - Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Carmenre. You might say: Why Carmenre?', but it gives decent structure at least.

So what made you become a sommelier rather than a winemaker?

I changed my mind after travelling, because I wound up in London and discovered the profession of being a sommelier, which, you may be surprised to hear, is not all that well known in France. I thought that if I didn't like it, I could always go back to the vineyard, but I'm 28 now and I have been happy as a sommelier for nine years.

You're not tempted to take over from your father?

That may happen, but I really love London, the fact you can do so much, and all these wines from all over the world. Perhaps I'll return home when I'm 40. My family is Basque, but I come from a small village in Gascony called Aignan, which is a really lost place - there are only 900 people living there. Before the Second World War Aignan was the capital of Armagnac, but we lost so many people during the fighting. There was a huge contribution from Aignan to the Resistance. There was a lot of tension, and many, many men and women died. My grandfather was in the Resistance and he survived, amazingly, but he doesn't like talking about it, and I don't have much to add. We have certain guilt in France bound up with that time.

Umu, 14-16 Bruton Place, London W1J 6LX Tel: 020 7499 8881

Matthieu grew up in Aignan, in south-west France, and attended Suze-La-Rousse University in France, studying winemaking. In 1997 he obtained the Meilleur Apprentis de France, as well as his Sommelier diploma in Nerac, close to Bordeaux. Matthieu then worked at Le Relais de la Poste, the oldest two Michelin-starred restaurant, with the second-biggest wine cellar, in France.

He moved to England to become assistant sommelier at the Michelin one-starred Putney Bridge restaurant in London, and followed that with the job of sommelier at The Square, in Mayfair.

In 2003, he left for The Greenhouse, and then moved to Umu, part of the same company as The Greenhouse - MARC - in October 2005. Matthieu oversees a wine list of 550 bins and the sak list is the largest in the UK, comprising 85 different styles.

Umu has 12 suppliers, including Enotria, WineBarn, OW Loeb and Vickbar, which specialises in Greek wine. Half of the list is derived from the company's in-house agents, MARC Fine Wines.