Chatting with Nigel Sutcliffe

Nigel Sutcliffe is the managing director of restaurant consultant Truffle Hunting. He was also the MD of The Crazy Bear Restaurant Group, one of the trio behind Terroirs, and the director of Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck.

real wine fair

1) Can you tell me about your background in the restaurant trade?

I’ve always had a love for food, the table and jolly conversation, but never thought about it as a career. I worked hard in both the kitchen and on the floor in a very focused manner, without much direction, before I could give it a great deal of thought I was working with Heston and after a lot more fun and hard work, we had built what is now known as one of the best restaurants in the world.

I left The Fat Duck because Julia and I were blessed with a daughter and felt Heston and I had achieved everything we could together, I needed a different type of role to grow into.
I became Managing Director of the Crazy Bear Group and within 3 years opened an award winning London Bar, developed the Stadhampton venue into a very funky 17 bedroom hotel, with a strong corporate following along with a 60 acre farm, farm shop, butchers. That was another education.

I started Truffle Hunting to continue to work in the same manner and help others reach their own goals and aspirations, as a form of short or long term partnership. It has given me the opportunity to work with some really terrific people and get an insight to how brilliant and challenging it can be working on ambitious projects such as The Royal Shakespeare’s Theatre, and Historic Royal Palaces among others.

2) What is your first memory of wine?

Apart from stealing my mum’s Liebfraumilch you mean?

I don’t have a very romantic introduction to wine in the early ’80’s, it was either very expensive, very poor, or both, but I remember the 1975 vintage of Chateau Musar, which was both very good and very inexpensive and the welcome invasion of Australia, California and South Africa, I’ve learned the wine world backwards really, oddly, I rarely drink anything outside France and Italy now.

3) Can you tell me about your consultancy company, Truffle Hunting?

We are restaurateurs, and work mainly in three ways;

As an investing partners such as with Chef Peter Weeden at Newman Street Tavern, he gets to focus on his detail we take care of anything else.

As a Management Company, as we do with The Henry root, operating the restaurant on behalf of a small group of individuals.

Or on an advisory basis as with Mele e Pere, where after helping the owners acquire a site, we run the critical path to opening with them, introduce trades and suppliers, they chose the ones they like, we help them avoid pitfalls and now they run the restaurant and we take care of the back office, payroll, HR, accounts etc. so they can focus on their clients and improve the product with every service without diversion.

4) Tell me a little bit about each of your restaurants

The Henry Root has become a little Chelsea hub, it is an all-day offering, which is why we nicknamed it a wine bar with cake, but essentially it has to offer items from elevenses to supper and is frequented by quite a few celebs. It is carefully balanced to satisfy the traditional and the youthfully spirited.

Newman Street Tavern is a very British affair, celebrating great produce in a very seasonal manner, it is fastidiously built on sustainability, and good housekeeping. We buy all the meat whole-carcass and hang until ready along with game. The fish comes mainly from the Helford or West coast of Scotland. It has a raw bar downstairs with a good draught ale from Crate brewery in Hackney and upstairs a slightly more comfortable dining room for 60.

We are in the process of developing the Princess Victoria, Shepherd’s bush, it is already well known for its menu and wine list, we are redecorating a little and using the room upstairs for more singing and dancing and probably more wine focussed fun.

5) What is the philosophy that binds your various projects?

We are very customer focussed, we must offer value and quality, but it is also our duty to bring new and more unusual products to market without experimenting on our clients. We work with small artisan producers, from table makers to potters, from dairy farmers to winemakers, we have the opportunity to work with brilliant people who aren’t pushed to work outside the realms of excellence.

6) What makes a good wine list and why is it so important to a restaurant?

A good wine list, regardless of size has to be right for the venue and the users of it, it has to fit into the ethos of the concept and work with the food, and it needs a good balance of styles at each price point through the list.

I start with 20 wines under £40 from house wine to top wine, that way you make each wine earn its place on merit – then double size in the same manner, from £40 to £80 then £80 to £160 and so on twenty wines at a time- its interesting where duplications arise the little face-offs begin to develop, where the holes appear – every time you do it you end up with a different list.

7) Do you think that terms such as organic, biodynamic and natural are useful?

I think they are for the buyer. I’d hope that all farmers work sustainably, after all it means they can continue to have a livelihood. If it’s organic I’m not so sure, certain aspects of organic such as spreading sulphur across the land can’t possibly consider wildlife conservation.

Biodynamic and natural for me is better – but from the consumers perspective they require a better product and those terms don’t mean that, I’d go as far as to say that most journalists see natural adversely.

I think that is unreasonable – Burgundy produces some of the greatest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the world – we champion that, but they are also responsible for producing some of the most overrated, expensive, poorly made pee, which we are somehow happy to overlook (most of it is sold in restaurants).

Conversely some natural wine is pee, which is being berated, however a good deal is incredible, inexpensive, a revelation against the principle of homogenised produce, we need help to champion that.

8) What do you understand by “natural wines?”

Those made with minimal intervention, which starts in the vineyard with good gardening to harvest good fruit, that’s essentially where all the hard work takes place. Then with care and a little control a very natural fermentation of the wild yeasts working their magic on the sugars of indigenous grape. If it’s slow then it’s more likely bottling can take place without filtration. Am I right?

9) What do you enjoy about these wines?

When they are good, the whites have terrific and always have that ripe fruit full mid palate, I also like the level of tannin achieved in some, that gives the finish amazing minerality.

Obviously one of the other great characteristics of Natural wines is the diversity, but there is an ethereal character in the reds that I used only to find in very expensive Burgundy–just look at what Jean Foillard has done with Gamay.

10) How do you communicate your enthusiasm about artisan wines to your customers?

I try to do it in a very quiet manner, I’m happy to give a few half glasses away, appreciate some feedback and work from there – make everyone feel included, and just encourage them to join in if they wish.

11) Will you be involved in Real Wine Month? Which restaurants?

Newman Street Tavern, Princess Victoria, Mele e Pere, Henry Root and anyone else I can convince, and most of our staff will be there for half a day to ensure they understand it.

12) How will you highlight the wines?

In each of our restaurants, the managers have put a dedicated wines by the glass and pot page together for the month, and we will change each wine after 6 bottles are sold, we have an internal contest to see who can sell the most lines, I reckon it will be the girls at Princess Victoria- they’re the most determined.

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