Faking It! 2010 - The Training

Imbibe’s Faking It, the only competition that pits bartenders against sommeliers, is back – and this time it’s the sommeliers who’ve got something to prove after losing out to their cocktail mixing counterparts last year. With two new teams, can the tables be turned? Alice Lascelles joined the contestants as they started training for the two-stage final this summer…

What happens when you let a bartender loose on a wine list? And how does a sommelier fare when faced with a cocktail shaker? It was these kinds of questions that first inspired Imbibe to launch a Faking It challenge last year. We wanted to take the two tribes from the drinks industry and throw them together for an afternoon of bibulous battling. Opening and pouring wine, recommending food matches, mixing cocktails, blind tasting and building champagne cascades – it’s all on the menu in this unique competition. But before we get to the final, there’s two months of intensive training to be done – we joined the teams as they took some lessons from two industry experts.

The Wine Bar Barians
Captain: Nigel Lister Royal Thames Yacht Club
Jade Koch St John Restaurant Co.
Andrea Briccarello Galvin La Chapelle
Chris Zoeller Asia de Cuba
A mystery member
The Varietal Vineyard Crew
Captain: Julian de Feral Lutyens
Dino Koletsas Bourne & Hollingsworth
Esther Medina Roast
Rich Hunt Kanaloa
Lewis Wilkinson Met Bar

Things get off to an inauspicious start for the sommelier Faking It training day, scheduled to take place at Kanaloa in the City of London. Just two hours before kick-off, Joris Beijn of 1901 at the Andaz Hotel is called away to a ‘cellar crisis’ at his restaurant, leaving his team one man down before they’ve even started.

Next, Asia de Cuba’s Chris Zoeller rocks up bang on time and ready to go – just at a different venue on the other side of London, an error that holds up proceedings for another hour. It’s a demoralising start, although more than one person remarks that on the up side, you could say that our sommeliers were already exhibiting some uncannily classic bartender characteristics.

Team coach Nick Wykes is philosophical. Not only has he seen it all before as a bar consultant for IP Bartenders, he can also draw on his latest burgeoning area of expertise. Unbeknownst to many, Wykes is currently studying on the side to become a sports psychologist – surely this will help our sommeliers to triumph over adversity?

Wykes rallies them round the tiki-tastic bar for a team talk. ‘To be honest, a lot of bartending is about front, and personality,’ he reassures them. ‘If you can get the fundamentals right, then after that it’s mostly about making it fun and personal. Try not to get too hung up on the details.’

And so to the first bartending challenge of the day – freepouring – which requires the team to pour accurate 25ml and 50ml measures by feel. ‘You can tell straight away who’s been behind a bar before by how they hold a bottle,’ says Wykes, as the sommeliers grasp their practice bottles gingerly. ‘You should be picking up not by the waist, but the neck.’

Elbows start flailing, sending jets of water variously into shaker tins and across the bar. ‘Try and limit the number of hinges you use, so that there are fewer body parts to control,’ advises Wykes, channelling his inner football coach, and before long the team are freepouring like pros.
 ‘Before this, my experience of freepouring was mainly straight down the throat,’ admits Zoeller, as he watches Koch complete a near-perfect series of pours both left and right-handed, despite the fact that the bar is practically level with her chin. Bricarello, too, doesn’t allow a soaking from Lister to stop him pouring some similarly impressive shots. 

‘Last year I think we were a bit too southern hemisphere and laid back about it all,’ says team captain Nigel Lister, as he reflects on the 2009 Faking It final. ‘Whereas the bartenders were just desperate to win. This year we’re going to take it a lot more seriously – we’ll destroy them!’

There's a debate about retronasal
aromatics and their impact on mixed drinks

But before the sommeliers can wreak their revenge, they need to learn how to serve an everyday round of drinks with speed and style. ‘You’re not making a gin and tonic, you’re making a Tanqueray No.Ten and tonic!’ chimes Wykes as he rustles up a perfect serve with plenty of ice, along with a Ron Zacapa and Coke and a Johnnie Walker Blue with iced water on the side. Things briefly take a more highbrown turn with a debate on thermodynamics, hydrophobia, retronasal aromatics and their impact on the mixed drink, before we’re brought firmly back down to earth by Lister’s attempt at a G&T. He’s good, but glacially slow. ‘The first thing you need to do, before you start, is get organised!’ urges Wykes as Lister’s pretend customers start to talk amongst themselves.

The announcement of the tasting segment of the day, however, swiftly brings things to order. Armed with a vibrant tasting vocabulary and extensive knowledge of wood ageing, our team are in their element as they prepare for a blind tasting which will cover gin, rum and whisky. ‘Cinder’, ‘coffee’, ‘toffee apple’ are all offered as tasting notes for Ron Zacapa 23, while Lister draws parallels with the wood characters of a Rioja. But it’s Lagavulin 16yo that really gets them going: ‘the dentist’s chair’, says Lister. ‘The sick bay at school and barbeque sauce’, says Zoeller, while they all agree it’s got a deliciously ‘big back end’. Now thoroughly warmed up, we move on to classic cocktails – the Martini, Daiquiri, Margarita, Negroni and Bloody Mary. ‘The Martini is all about the art of stirring,’ Wykes explains, before the team experiment with some techniques that are a little on the clunky side, but produce most enjoyable results nevertheless – especially when sampled on a rainy Monday afternoon. Next a Don Julio Blanco Margarita is tried over the rocks and up, with our tasters coming down on the side of the latter, before Koch learns to make a Daiquiri. ‘This is the first Daiquiri I’ve ever tasted, let alone made,’ she says as she tentatively sips the slightly murky-looking result. Bricarello’s Negroni, meanwhile, is a resounding success.

And so to the challenge which will see our competitors win 10 points if they get it right, and lose 10 points if they mess it up – the Brandy Blazer. After all the high spirits of the day, you can feel the tension in the air. ‘This is the triple somersault on the trapeze of the cocktail world!’ announces Lister excitedly.

'This is the first Daiquiri I've ever tasted,
let alone made' Koch announces

Jade steps up to the plate and ignites a snifter of brandy, just as the staff at Kanaloa dim the lights for the evening ahead, producing a Blazer that’s all the more theatrical. ‘You look like you’re going to tell fortunes,’ remarks Lister as she pours the flaming drink from one balloon to another.

But what fortunes does the future hold for our intrepid team of sommeliers? Will they find a new fifth member? And come the final can they freepour à point? And will Lister manage to mix a Tanqueray No. Ten Martini before the next Ice Age? You’ll need to read the next issue of Imbibe to find out.

Many thanks to: Nick Wykes for all his help and expertise; Kanaloa for hosting the sommelier training session; and Diageo Reserve Brands for supplying the spirits.

After the bartenders’ resounding victory at last year’s Faking It final, returning team coach Stuart Hudson of Viajante in Bethnal Green starts this training day feeling decidedly confident. ‘Look guys, most of this is stuff you do every day, so you’re at a distinct advantage over the sommeliers,’ he assures his new brood as they see off the effects of a late shift with several rounds of strong coffee.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that this lot don’t have an ounce of vinous training between them. ‘I like drinking wine though!’ declares Medina, and her team all murmur in agreement. Eventually Koletsas reveals he has just returned from a visit to Bordeaux, and is in the process of starting a wine course at the WSET. But as far as secret weapons go, that’s about the size of it.

 ‘Right, well, the first thing we’ll cover, is how to present and open a bottle of wine,’ says Hudson as he folds up a service cloth. ‘Incidentally, a good service cloth should be stiff when it’s folded and stand out straight to the side, and not flop down like this,’ he adds. The black cloth droops despondently in his hand.

 ‘Anyway, when taking the order, make sure you repeat it back to them – that way your arse is covered,’ he says before demonstrating the perfect place to cut a foil and hold the bottle. ‘Serve it with the label facing them, and generally pour the ladies first. It isn’t rocket science.’ But despite Hudson’s assured tone, the bartenders still grill him on every last detail, whether to offer the cork, how to present it, whether to decant and how to serve tables with more than eight guests or an awkward layout. ‘Perhaps you could use a mechanical arm!’ offers Koletsas in the first of a series of more imaginative service solutions that he contributes throughout the day.

There’s also a spot of discussion about whether the team will adopt what Hudson describes as the ‘old school European’ habit of presenting the cork attached to the bottle neck using its own foil. It’s clear that our fledgling sommeliers are already envisaging themselves in an establishment that’s nothing less than top flight (even if it does come with mechanical arms).

Next it’s setting a table. ‘However you do it, make sure you’re consistent, and agree on a house style,’ says Hudson. ‘And make sure you check every glass for chips and smudges, as we will be messing with them!’ he warns, prompting one bright spark to ask if he will be the one administering the lipstick marks.

‘Perhaps we should wear white gloves,’ ponders Koletsas. ‘I was thinking more like tracksuits,’ says de Feral. ‘We are the Vineyard Massive!’

Hudson quietly curses the three
double expressos that he had earlier

At this point the increasingly boisterous bartenders must be calmed down for the most intricate challenge of the day – the champagne cascade. The opposite number of the sommelier’s Brandy Blazer, this sees four coupettes stacked one a-top another and filled by pouring champagne into the uppermost glass. It’s a challenge that requires an ultra steady hand, and as he starts to demonstrate, Hudson quietly curses the three double espressos he had earlier.

‘This is so unfair!’ cries Hunt indignantly as we watch Hudson’s trembling hands with mounting anxiety. ‘This is so much harder than making a Brandy Blazer!’

‘Can you bring your own glasses?’ wonders Koletsas out loud. ‘In which case perhaps we could bring coupettes that screw in to each other.’

Just moments later, Hudson steps back and opens a bottle of Chapel Down Primrose Hill with a triumphant pop. ‘It’s really important to pour the wine dead centre into the glass, otherwise it will fall over,’ he says, as the tower starts to lean. ‘But in this case, as it’s already leaning over a little away from me, I’m going to start pouring a bit closer towards me.’ We sigh in relief as he completes the task, and skilfully extracts the four glasses without a spill – the trick, he says, is to stop when the bottom one is only half full, to allow for the overflow which occurs as the cascade is dismantled.

Next, we move on to a tasting of six wines from Bibendum. First up is a New World Riesling, which is opened with much hilarity using the officially approved roll-it-up-your-arm technique for Stelvin. Hudson encourages the team to use the formalised tasting approach described in the Court of Master Sommeliers guidelines, prompting a debate about the exact difference between the ‘starbright’ and ‘daybright’ descriptors cited in the notes. Things warm up over the Sancerre, a Grand Chaille, Domaine Thomas 2008 - ‘passionfruit, asparagus, gooseberry and hubbly bubbly fruit tobacco’ declares Hunt – while the full-bodied Chardonnay, a Journey’s End 2008 from South Africa, prompts happy sighs and a wealth of comparisons including toast, vanilla, melon and crème brûlée.

Come the Burgundy, a Gevrey-Chambertin, Domaine Roux 2008, Hudson starts to get tougher on the tasting notes. ‘Cherry coloured? What kind of cherry exactly? Brick? Which brick? There’s all kinds of brick out there.’ By the time we get to the Château Lezongars 2005 claret – ‘a stunning vintage’, declares Hudson – everyone’s scribbling furiously in their notebooks, and the notes come thick and fast: ‘blackberries’, ‘ripe cheese’, ‘a hint of lavender’, ‘a lot more tannin’, ‘tomato bush’, ‘a real food wine’.

A momentary confusion over Messrs Robert Parker and Robert Palmer ensues, and then it’s on to the final Katnook Estate 2005 Shiraz, whose red fruit, wet earth and pepper notes soon have everyone fantasising about a juicy steak to go with it. Alas, our team must make do with sandwiches from Pret a Manger, which they nonetheless match very satisfyingly with the dregs.

And then it’s time for the final flourish – the pouring of the magnum. In theory, this should be done one-handed, with only minimal support, and result in 16 identical flutes of fizz, along with an empty magnum. No going back, and no top-ups allowed. ‘We pour magnums all the time at Kanaloa!’ chips in Hunt. ‘Although that’s normally vodkaaaaaaaaa.’ But today it’s champagne, and the man of the magnum is captain de Feral. He starts off well, but by glass four he’s grimacing in pain. ‘Take little breathers along the way,’ advises Hudson, while Medina proposes a strict gym regime. The final result is a tad on the uneven side, but Hudson is still pleased. As I leave, the bartenders are already scheduling their next training session.

It’s clearly going to be a great fight...

Many thanks to: Stuart Hudson for all his help and expertise; Lutyens for hosting the bartender training session; and Bibendum for supplying the wines.

Add your comment

Please sign in or register if you'd like to comment.

Register Forgotten password? Sign In

Subscribe Imbibe Magazine