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The Interview: Stuart Elmes, Assistant general manager, Pacific Oriental, London

Published:  23 July, 2008

Is the City clientele different from that of other parts of London?
The City clientele is very civilised, although in some ways it is a very clinical audience. They don't really want us to talk that much. It's really about providing them with food and beverages, then leaving them to discuss the business that they need to. We don't check back on customers, which is very different after working in a hotel. We try to drum into the staff an awareness of body language. Could there possibly be a problem? If so, then we will ask if everything is satisfactory. We don't really get into conversations with people, apart from finding out the pet likes and dislikes of some of our regular customers.

Your background is in food. How did you become interested in wine?

I have always had a passion for wine. Also, my brother's a winemaker, for Lake Breeze in Canada. A lot of my interest came from him. I did small wine courses at home in South Africa and went to any tasting I could get to here. About a year and a half ago, I approached the management and asked if they would be interested in sponsoring studies, which they were. Since then I've done the WSET Intermediate and Advanced Certificates and hope to start the Diploma shortly. I learned so much. I think one of the things that surprised me was the actual making of wine and all the effort that goes into it.

Will training be extended to other staff?

We are going to allocate wine champions to each restaurant who will then be in charge of the wine list and the training. We already have quite strict systems in place. When new staff start, they have to tick off' a whole lot of areas, and one of the areas that will be added is the wine list, so they will receive training on the list. The way we've reorganised the wine list certainly helps, but there will also be notes in the kitchen in case someone asks for more information on a wine. Here we have a lot of European staff, but in the other restaurants there are more Asians, who haven't grown up with wine in the same way.

How would you describe your wine list?

A good solid variety. We recently changed the layout of our wine list, opting for categories such as Aromatic and Floral' and Crisp and Dry', for example. It's a way of coping with the diversity of clients that we get, because we're buying for six restaurants in different parts of London. Our clients here know exactly what they want, whereas our clients in the West End probably need a bit more help.

How do you source your wines?

Quite a few of us are involved. We work closely with suppliers, especially with Waverley and Bibendum. We've had a quite a few range tastings and meetings - where they test our knowledge, looking at what sells best, what wines don't sell and the history of the wine - to find the best way forward. We used to change the list once a year, but now that we have a structure we should be in a position to change it more frequently. There needs to be some flexibility when things aren't working.

Were any wines dropped in the redesign?

German Riesling, unfortunately - we opted for a New World Riesling. And some of the Australian Cabernets, which was surprising: we had three great ones, but they just didn't sell. Perhaps people felt they were too big for the food but Shiraz has always been popular.

What are your top-selling wines?

Pouilly-Fum, Sancerre and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, even by the glass - especially Sancerre, perhaps because it is a brand name. On the reds, we find that the Pinot Noir and Shirazes sell very well. With Sancerre and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, you're looking at 24 bottles a week each for Pacific Oriental. Across the group that could be 10 to 12 cases a week.

Is there still such a thing as the long City lunch, or are people more abstemious?

I think it depends on the time of year and what the financial markets are doing. We have 101 theories about why business goes up and down - school holidays, markets doing well - but I think people are more responsible in their approach to drinking. I don't think people have such large expense accounts any more. They are more thrifty, but they're not skimping. Lunches tend to get longer from the autumn until Christmas. It's partly the festive season, but also we find that people stay longer as the weather gets darker. People tend to drink less earlier in the week and more as the week progresses. For instance, on a Friday it would be very rare for a table not to have a bottle of wine or at least a couple of glasses each. Thursday is generally our busiest day.

Is it a mostly male clientele?

It's like a men's club! But we are getting more of a female clientele. We operate a policy that I like to refer to as one of a genderless society'. It could always be that the host at the table is a lady - we don't like to make assumptions. Like the men, they know exactly what they want. They tend to go for the lighter styles of wine, though, while the male clients tend to go for the bigger, meatier wines.

What are the challenges of matching a whole list to spicy food?

It's when you get to chillies that the problems begin. With lemongrass, coriander, garlic and ginger, for example, you can still match. Also, the oyster sauces and black-bean sauces - we have red wines that will stand up to them - for example, the Malbec. The Rioja also stands up really well to a lot of food. And then we've got the really big Shirazes.

Is there a family tradition of wine?

Not at all! My parents are actually teetotal - I've never seen anything pass my mother's lips. She sometimes has a chuckle about how one ends up a winemaker and studying wines'.