Saturday, 10 August 2013

More sex, please...Robert Giorgione's An Epicurean Odyssey: Sommelier Stories

Anyone who has ever spent time with sommeliers knows they can get pretty wild when they’re off duty. It must be a reaction to the enforced discretion of their professional life. After hours, and away from clients, a group of sommeliers determined to enjoy themselves can be an eye-opening – even a fearsome – sight. I remember scenes straight out of one of Hunter S Thompson’s more lurid fantasies after a sommelier awards ceremony at a big London hotel. And, as we’ve seen from the splendid revelations in books like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, outrageous high jinks in restaurants aren’t confined to after hours.

Veteran sommelier and consultant Robert Giorgione has seen a thing or two himself, during 12 years pulling corks at some of London's best restaurants. ‘I went downstairs to the basement,’ he writes. ‘I needed to check on a couple of things. Whilst doing so I could hear a noise coming from the toilet. Someone was having sex (and quite enthusiastically by the sound of it) as I could hear much grunting and groaning.’

Moments later he surprises the restaurant manager and the sous chef snorting coke. Now, if this had been Bourdain, he would have joined them (the cocaine sniffers, not the rutting couple, though one never knows), and the episodes would have been the lead-in to an exhilarating chapter on the sort of behaviour that takes place behind the swinging doors marked ‘In’ and ‘Out’. If I remember, two of the main reasons Bourdain got into cooking were the thrill of back-heeling heavy oven doors shut, and the equally heady kick of seeing a chef shagging a female junior behind the waste bins. Oh, and the drugs, of course.

Giogione is a different pair of trousers, as they say. An Epicurean Odyssey: Sommelier Stories is a detailed look at the development of a sommelier, from his Anglo-Italian upbringing (his mother’s English, his father Italian), his four adored grandparents, their recipes for Minestrone and Papardelle pasta with rabbit sauce, and his apprenticeship through La Tante Claire, Orrery, the Oxo Tower, Fifth Floor Harvey Nichols….

He’s not afraid of putting the boot in. He offended Gordon Ramsay (who seemingly bore a grudge for ever after) and is waspish about various colleagues he doesn’t think up to the mark. ‘When it came down to it, not only did the guy have a bad attitude and was very petulant – he was also pretty useless.’ That about David Charvet, who I gather is a well-known huckster (if not, Giorgione had better get in touch with his lawyer, as indeed I should). One gets the feeling that he’s an exacting taskmaster, unforgiving of mistakes and jealous of his own successes. ‘I…demonstrated great skill and imagination and was rewarded with nominations for best wine list three years in a row…’

But the problem is, he’s just not nasty enough. That sommelier training – and they’re all butlers at heart – has gone too deep. Discretion is now part of his DNA. He quotes an anonymous source’s hardly world-shattering opinion that chefs are motivated by sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but there’s precious little of that here.

Even when it looks like he’s going to open up a bit – ‘I met a beautiful woman, who I went on to date briefly’ – it’s not to be. That ‘briefly’ is freighted with loss, and we want to hear more. Then: ‘I mentioned her to my parents, but I never had the opportunity to introduce her to them.

At the end of the book I feel I know no more about him, or the running of a restaurant, than I would have learnt had he been pouring my wine for the evening at La Tante Claire.

Giorgione is a well-liked figure in the London wine world, and I suspect he imagines little knots of colleagues past and present looking over his shoulder as he slaves over the hot keyboard. ‘Deservedly at this point I need to mention…for their hard work’: a list of half a dozen names of interest only to a tiny coterie of London restaurant folk.

Sommeliers are the most mysterious of beings, carrying more knowledge of wine in their little fingers than most punters learn (or want to learn) in a lifetime. They are omniscient and inscrutable, and they work in the heart of great restaurants - and everyone from Orwell to Bourdain knows how fascinating they can be. So what we want from a sommelier like Giorgione is dirt, not paragraphs beginning, ‘I cannot stress enough the importance of good back-of-house practice and sound financial management.’

Sound financial all my brain and body needs: Ian Dury
Good writing needs to be well-spiced. On the one hand I hugely admire the effort Giogione has put in – this book (as is I’m sure the preceding volume, A Road Trip Round New Zealand) is so obviously the work of a man in love with, and very good at, his profession. But unfortunately niceness and good will don’t make for compelling reading. We want more sex, more drugs, more rock ‘n’ roll. Let it all hang out, Robert. After all, Ian Dury wouldn’t have made much impact if he’d sung, ‘Sound financial management, discretion and ability to deal with difficult customers is all my brain and body need.’