Unfiltered: Beatrice Bessi, Chiltern Firehouse

Beatrice Bessi has been working in hospitality for 20 years. Starting out in her native Italy, she rose to the position of restaurant manager, working with Massimiliano Alajmo, considered one of the 50 best chefs in the world. Keen to move more into the world of wine, she joined Ronan Sayburn MS and his team at 67 Pall Mall in London, as junior sommelier. She spent three and a half years preparing to study her Court of Master Sommelier exams, recently passing the advance level certificate. Working her way up to assistant head sommelier at the wine members’ club, she left to join Chiltern Firehouse in Marylebone as its head sommelier. She is currently working towards the Master Sommelier examinations.

How did you arrive at the position you are in today?

My career started more than 20 years ago, when I considered a job in hospitality as way to pay for my computer science and engineering studies. I later fell in love with the industry, working as a bartender for the first 10 years. After I had my daughter, I felt I needed a career change, and I found that specialising in wine was the answer.

What’s your favourite part of the job?

Making people happy. When I’ve cheered them up and they are shocked because I could read their mind and find the wine or the exact pairing they wanted. When I’m able, by getting the little details right, to change their day.

What’s the biggest misconception about the role of a sommelier?

That it’s only fun and tasting wine! We are also committed to pursuing excellence, working for at least 12 hours per day while we study at night. We sometimes have to be psychologists, absorbing the energies of all the people around us, and transforming the negativity in positivity. I don’t think it is a career for everyone.

What’s your go-to drink at the end of a long day?

Riesling. With a glass of Riesling, possibly off-dry, all the worries of the day are gone!

What’s your most embarrassing front-of-house moment?

I had to pick up a bottle of Champagne for a customer, a friend of mine, that came with his boss. He is a Champagne lover, so I had to find something he had never tasted.

It was a very busy moment in the service, so I picked up a bottle and, since it was not cold enough, I left it in the ice for five minutes, managing the situation, I felt brilliantly… This was until I opened the bottle and it was a Coteaux de Champenois, a red still wine made in Champagne.

My friend is still laughing at me! But he did definitely discover something he never had.

If you could give your younger self advice when starting out, what would it be?

To keep listening and be less impatient to show my willing to learn and willing to do always better, as this can sometimes be misinterpreted.

What bottle sparked your love of wine?

Barolo Pajana 2009 Domenico Clerico in Magnum. I will never forget that day. One of the worst days of my life, and one of the first times I felt that wine was important for regenerating my soul .

Which customer habit annoys you the most?

The type of customer that assumes, since I’m a woman, that I don’t know anything about wine. I need only few minutes for make them feel differently. But it is still irritating!

Who is your inspiration in the gastronomic world?

In every phase of my life I have had the opportunity to know amazing and talented people. I would say chefs like Massimiliano Alajmo have inspired me. As a sommelier, I would say Ronan Sayburn, Terry Kandylis, Roberto Duran, Gareth Ferreira and Heidi Makinen, are my role models. I would love to be like them one day.

What’s your ultimate food and wine pairing?

At Christmas, I enjoyed a nice paté of fois gras on toasted bread, paired with a 2017 Fleurie from Anne Sophie Dubois. I didn’t expect such a pairing to work, it surprised me!

Where would your fantasy vineyard be?

Barolo, or less known areas like Carema. Nebbiolo vineyard for sure. I could accept as an alternative a vineyard on Etna.

If you weren’t working in the restaurant industry, what would you be doing and why?

My dream was to work in the statistics, I was a proper maths geek. I wanted to work in the national institute.

Which wine do you find it impossible to get along with?

Zinfandel is the variety that I still struggle with, but I’m working on it!

Who is the most memorable customer you’ve ever served and why?

I would say Robert De Niro, as I was captured by his gaze, so magnetic and intense. We spoke in Italian also. What a kind and lovely person.

What makes you most proud to be working in London?

Living and working in London can be a challenge. But London is a unique town, full of opportunities, and working here gives you the opportunity to taste all the wines in the world and be in contact with the best wine professionals too.

What’s on your wine bucket list?

I would love to travel in America, especially to California and Oregon. I would love also to visit Japan. Let’s see!

Finally, what wine and paired plate would you pick from your list and why?

I would pick our fresh pasta with black truffle and walnuts, and I would suggest a 2002 Pommard Les Noizons from Paul Pernot. The combination of red berries layered with leather, forest floor and toasted nuts in the wine matches and beautifully enhances this pasta.

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