Looking after just yourself often leaves a bitter aftertaste

Listen: Somm 1
Listen: Somm 2

“Gosh darn it,” said the manager emerging from behind the stack of wine boxes.

Truth be told he didn’t use the word “gosh” or the words “darn it,” but this is a family publication.

“Where the heck is it?”

“I can’t find it either, I said emerging from behind another stack of boxes.

“Me neither” said the waiter, who was now not waiting on guests but rather rummaging around the wine room along with the two of us.

When a customer orders a $350 bottle of wine sometimes it takes a village to retrieve it. Or to not retrieve it.

“It’s on the gosh darned inventory sheet!” barked out the manager waiving said sheet around as if trying to swat an annoying fly.

“Italian wine! Spanish wine! French wine!” he pointed, jabbing his finger three times. “It should be right there!” he practically screamed.

After about 10 minutes the three of us called it quits. There is only so long you will make someone wait when they are spending that kind of money on wine. Better to explain it to them and hope they make another selection in the same price category. Once you’ve gotten over the hump of whether any wine is worth that price, it’s usually easy enough to just plug another one in.

The waiter got that pursed look on his face, the kind of look that only waiters can affect, that perfect combination of haughtiness and exasperation. He was from a particular European country so it came easy to him. I will leave it up to you to imagine which one. 

The customer moved on to another selection, and soon enough the three of us found ourselves in the wine room once again.

Nothing makes a restaurant look or feel less professional than being out of two items in a row ordered by a customer. If there is a suspension of disbelief in writing or film, there is a at least an illusion of competency in the restaurant business. We at least like to think the chef, or bartender, or the server, knows what he/she is doing.

“Gosh darn that guy!” said the manager.

Both the waiter and I knew who he was talking about, and it certainly wasn’t the customer. It was our sommelier.

There are some positions in the restaurant business that can breed a certain kind of arrogance. We all know of the tyrannical chef or the condescending bartender. But fewer people are aware of the sommelier, partly because fewer people in a restaurant ever interact with one. Food is prepared by the chef (or at least overseen) and drinks (both wine and cocktails) are dispensed by the bartender. But only if you order a bottle of wine does the sommelier routinely come over.

There are typically five different levels of sommelier: introductory all the way up to Master. There are less than 300 Master Sommeliers worldwide, but there are thousands of introductory level somms. And then there are thousands more wine buyers who have no certification at all yet still call themselves sommeliers. Ours was one of the latter.

As with bartenders and chefs, sommeliers often strive to create an environment where the restaurant can thrive. And then there are the ones who strive to create an environment where only they can thrive. With chefs it often manifests itself as not yielding any authority ever, with bartenders it shows most often as ridiculously fussy cocktail lists filled with “secret” formulas and the like.

The next time I saw our sommelier, I mentioned the wine.

“It’s there,” he said.

“Well, we couldn’t find it.”

“This place falls apart when I’m not here,” he said shaking his head.

An overstatement to be sure. But as with most overstatements it was followed by a whole raft of criticisms, of the other managers, the waiter, the bartender and even the owner.

“I’m the only one holding this whole place together,” said our Somm, a fact he whole heartedly believed.

“Where is it then?” I asked.

“I have it in a special place.”

“And where is that?” I asked.

It turned out that special place was tucked up in the ceiling behind a rafter. No rhyme or reason to it, other than only he would know where it was.

Sometime later that sommelier was let go. And you know what? That restaraunt didn’t fold or crumble, in fact it thrived.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

-Creating a work environment where only you can thrive is not a recipe for any success, not even your own.

-The customer always comes first is a concept some chefs, some sommeliers and yes even some bartenders, have a hard time understanding.

-Servers don’t like losing $350 sales because you can’t find something. And they are usually quite vocal about it, no matter what their nationality. Just saying.