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Interview: Thierry Tomasin, Angelus (Sept 2011)

Posted on: September 10th, 2011 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Thierry Tomasin is the owner and restaurant director of Angelus. With a long and distinguished career, having served as both restaurant manager (Aubergine) and Head Sommelier (Le Gavroche), Thierry shared some of his insights and philosophies with Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide. The Interview took place in the comfortable lounge at the back of Angelus restaurant, on one fine late summer morning.

Thierry Tomasin

Thierry Tomasin

I am from South West France and my passion was rugby, I played to a good standard but had injuries and that had to stop. My grandmother ran a small hotel/restaurant and was a very good cook. This inspired me to cook myself and I spent six years working as a chef. I went and did my military service in the navy in Africa and unfortunately came back with very little money. A friend of mine said there was an opening in a resort in Monaco as a waiter and room service manager so I took the job.

At the turn of the 1990s I applied to four restaurants in the UK, the one I wanted to come to was Le Gavroche. Silvano Giraldin (the restaurant director at Le Gavroche) taught me almost everything – he made me cry and he made me laugh, he will always be like a second dad and it was the start of a wonderful relationship that lasts to this day.

The trigger for my passion for wine came at Le Gavroche.There was a wine importer – Richards Walford – who did a lot of business with the restaurant. One day Roy Richards and Mark Walford (the two directors) came into Le Gavroche and offered me a blind tasting of two white burgundies. The first was a 1971 Meursault. The second was extraordinary – rich, buttery, fatty but still with a hint of acidity, it was a 1921 Meursault. Wow! I was blown away! I still remember the taste experience from that day and that was the start of my love affair with wine.

I was so lucky to open so many fantastic bottles of wine at Le Gavroche – from £20 to £10,000.

I enjoyed every day of sharing the excitement of these great wines with the customers. I always wanted those on the team to be inspired, lifted and to share in my passion and enthusiasm for the subject. I later became chairman of Sommeliers for five years, having earned an Award of Excellence from the Academy of Culinary Arts, whose patron is Prince Charles. I remain the youngest person to have won this award at 26 and a half years old.

Despite being monumentally happy at Le Gavroche in order to see what else was out there, I tried and failed to give notice 4 times. It was very hard to leave, but I felt that if I was going to gain wider experience it had to be at that time. So I joined Aubergine. We did well there for a period of time; built up some good regulars and doubled the numbers. There was a customer who had followed me from Le Gavroche, who I have known for many years and he is now a financial backer in Angelus. The restaurant started in 2007 and has been doing very well.

What is your restaurant Philosophy?

The restaurant business is a team effort from front to back. I went to the Academy of Culinary Arts Awards Dinner and Heston Blumenthal gave a speech – he lamented how front of house gets so little time in the media when the end product is so clearly a ‘whole team’ effort. In my opinion it is important for everyone from the waiter to the kitchen porter to have knowledge of the business – this provides motivation, enthusiasm and a sense of pride in the end product. It is also important to come to work with a smile on your face – to exchange ideas and share your passion; the more people at every level that are involved in the process, the better for any business.

The host is the conductor, he may have his or her name above the door and take ultimate responsibility, but that’s what the head chef, Maitre d’ or restaurateur are – the conductors, everyone else is a musician and each must be participating in harmony. The chef’s table at Angelus is a classic example where guests may meet everyone from the host at the door to the porter in the kitchen. Each and every person in the team will have a part to play in the overall experience of those guests. It is also important for people to realise that the fine dining restaurant trade is not a 12 ‘till 3 and 7 ‘till 11 business.

The amount of sourcing and preparation for each service is phenomenal and again that ranges across the whole team (which can lead to very long days for many people). This hard background work enables Angelus to be (during service) not just waiter or chef but sales people of pleasure!

Customers must also appreciate that the restaurant business is an interactive one and customers who have the best time are those who ‘participate in the theatre of fine dining.’ This means getting to know the staff if you are a regular or just engaging in conversation if it is your first time. The experience will be all the better as each side of the service – customer and waiter – feed off of each other’s attitude and approach in a positive manner.

We have something between formal and informal service at this restaurant – it’s so difficult to get the right balance but for me, Angelus is everything a restaurant should be. A place where you do not compromise on service, food or wine, but you can be at ease as if you were in your own home. From the responses and relationships we have with our customers, I am delighted to see we have achieved that.

The beauty of Angelus is our honesty – in that we have nothing to hide – should a customer come into the chef’s table they will see a clean kitchen, fresh produce and hard work and hopefully enjoy some fine wine and good service at the same time! The restaurant is perhaps a reflection of the characters whose life and soul is in the business – we take our customers at face value and they can take us at face value, too. What you see at Angelus is what you get.

What is your wine and food style?

I like to think we have 20th century food with a touch of the 21st century. I say this in the sense that you will not find liquid nitrogen or fifteen ingredients in dots or smears – you will get bistrot style food from the heart, where the chef has spent more time with the pan in his hand than decorating the plate. At the same time, we are not blind to the customer, should they wish to have their lamb cooked in a certain way we will aim to do it – the customer must walk out thinking he had a great time at Angelus and want to return.

Wine and food are similar in that people should respect them; the heritage, the craftsmanship and the culture. To say you do not like someone’s food or wine is not quite right, to say it is not to your taste and then move on is more appropriate.

What are your views on the market for fine wine?

In terms of the wine market, I think it was 2008 that Hong Kong removed VAT and taxes from imports of fine wine. The Chinese market had been dominating for some time but this only added to the upward pressure on the en primeur pricing. They say if you buy shares and the market crashes all you have left is the tissue to wipe your eyes, if the market for wine collapses, at least you have the wine to drink! (Laughing)

Whilst the Chinese markets are predominantly buying a few selected brands in the top end of Medoc (Such as Ch Lafite), the price pressure has extended to cru bourgeois and then outward to other regions of France. Even wine growing areas such as the Cote du Rhone are seeing inflated prices nowadays. This has made French-led restaurants to stop and think about their wine list strategy – I have even contemplated taking Bordeaux completely off the wine list! At the same time we are looking at areas such as Languedoc-Roussillon en primeur for quality wine at the right price.

At the beginning of my time at le Gavroche there were 12,500 bottles at £250,000 cost, at the end of my tenure there were 66,000 bottles at £1.3m. At Angelus we currently have around £220,000 stock in a four year old restaurant. This sounds a lot but is because I am here for the long term and wine will improve with age, giving customers the opportunity to buy something mature, that they will appreciate, at a reasonable price. The price will be good because I bring the wine in en primeur or while still young and let it mature in the Angelus cellar, the list price of the wine will remain the same and not get marked up further each year.

How would you describe your personal philosophy?

I think that we still live in a material world and people like to be recognised. At the same time people are more interested in where they came from – you might be the best today but if you are not true to your roots then one day you might feel hollow. If you are true to yourself there will be people who like you and people who don’t but those at your core will be true forever.

They say if you smile then the world smiles with you – when you come to Angelus and smile the service will light up your evening!