When I first became curious about wine, I made frequent Sunday visits to Lush Wine & Spirits, to talk and taste with their staff, especially Jane Lopes. It’s not a surprise that Lush’s alumnae have flourished since leaving the store. Especially in Jane’s case; she is now a sommelier at Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan. She was recently profiled in Wine & Spirits magazine as one of their “Best New Sommeliers” and she recently placed second at an international competition for wine professionals sponsored by the Chaine des Rotisseurs.
Jane has been a great role model to me as I study towards My Dream, and I hope you take inspiration from her recent experience competing in Denmark among her peers.
Can you tell us a little about the Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs and how you first became aware of their international competition for sommeliers?
I believe it was Christopher Bates, MS, who first told me about the Chaine competition. Chris is a big proponent of competitions as a way to better ourselves as wine professionals, meet other like-minded people, and have some fun. I had enjoyed competing in the Guild of Sommelier’s Top New Somm competition, so I figured I would give the Chaine a try. The Chaine is an “international gastronomic society” devoted to all things culinary, and they do a really great job of promoting a culture of community and camaraderie within that world.
How did you prepare to compete in this competition other than your performing your normal nightly routine as a sommelier?
I study quite a bit in my free time. I make my own study guides for every region of the world, with maps pasted in, producer profiles, appellation laws, flash cards, etc. I also attend a weekly tasting group where I practice blind tasting. I’ll often have the bartenders at my restaurant pour me spirits blind to practice that (which is often a task found in competitions and exams). I try to make sure my service is “exam ready” when I practice it at my restaurant every night, so that all the minutiae of service becomes ingrained in me — I alawys wipe the bottle lip before and after the cork is removed, I make sure I move around the table in the correct manner every time, I never backhand a guest, etc. The more I can perfect my service on the floor, the more comfortable and natural it will be in high-stress situations.
If you’re comfortable discussing, aside from the academics, did you focus on anything else to get you ready; either physically, mentally or spiritually?
I believe that once you do the work of preparation, most exams and competitions come down to mental dexterity and your ability to work well under stress. I used Lumosity, which is an app designed to force your brain to work more effectively and I believe it works well. I also practice yoga, which helps me remain calm in times of stress.
What was the most stressful part of the competition for you, and how similar or different was the atmosphere compared to a shift at your regular restaurant?
Certainly the most stressful part of the competition was the final round in front of an audience. While I perform service in front of people at my restaurant, it is a different beast to be performing service tasks, answering theory questions, and blind tasting in front of an audience. The greatest thing you can do when you’re in competitions or exams is to be able to put yourself in the mindset of being on the floor of your own restaurant. It’s not always easy, but this tactic will not only allow you to stay calm, but also afford you the right instincts for service and hospitality.
Did you get to know your competitors pretty well at your regional competition and the final in Copenhagan? Were you pretty friendly towards each other or was the mood a little more, shall we say, intense?
I’ve never been to a competition that wasn’t all about camaraderie! No one is cutthroat or competitive. Sure, we all want to do well, but the main point (at least in my opinion), is to have fun, hone your skills, and meet some colleagues. If I don’t place well in a competition, but I feel good about my performance, that’s all that matters. If nothing else, in inspires me to push myself a little harder to be better at what I do. And if you miss out on the opportunity to make friendships, you’ve missed the point.
Did you have time to explore Denmark at all? What can you share about the food and wine scene there?
Copenhagen is a beautiful city, full of friendly people and exciting food. I had wonderful meals at No. 2, Le Sommelier, d’Angleterre, and Studio while I was there. The modern Nordic style of food is all about simple ingredients, contrasted boldly, with beautiful plating and imaginative presentation. My favorite dish I had while over there was one of the simple: a cannelle of black caviar topped with a light broth of walnut milk at Studio. Two ingredients. The nutty sweetness of the walnut milk against the salty, briny caviar was superb.
Within the wine scene, there’s a “war” (as many Danes called it) between the enthusiasts of “naturwein” versus the anti-enthusiasts. The natural wine movement has taken hold there, but many are not a fan of the wines, and you can see restaurant wine lists lie staunchly in one camp or the other. Cocktails and beer are also taken quite seriously there – it’s a good town to drink in!
Now that you have returned home, how will participation in this competition make you a better wine professional?