Alistair Myers, Co-Owner and Manager, Rafters Restaurant

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th December 2016

Alistair Myers is the co-owner and Manager of Rafters Restaurant, the only Sheffield based restaurant to be listed in the Good Food Guide for their ‘Outstanding Wine List’, an accolade they have maintained for three years. Rafters has also been awarded 2 AA Rosettes in the Restaurant Guide.

After studying intensely for two years, Alistair was crowned Sheffield’s first certified sommelier back in September being honoured with a Certified Sommelier qualification by the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Alistair about being named Sheffield’s first certified sommelier, retaining ‘Outstanding Wine List’ in the Good Food Guide and why wine pairing can be a bit like shopping for a dress.

Alistair Myers and Tom Lawson
Alistair Myers and Tom Lawson

How did you get into the industry?

By mistake. It sounds really bad but I was never really the most academic at school because I couldn’t be bothered to apply myself. So when it came to the dreaded work placement I said right, where’s the nearest place I can go from my house so I can be home early? So I went to this hotel and it was just mega, they were having so much fun at work so I was like right, this is the job for me. After school I got an apprenticeship at a catering company. I actually worked on reception so I would ask if I could get Friday and Saturday night off to work in the banqueting hall for some extra cash.

It was at Christmas and  my boss gave me some wine to try and after I tried it I thought to myself this is god awful, I hope we’re not selling this to people, so that set me off on a bit of a mission to try some different wines. I got out of hotels and started working in restaurants. I got a lucky break managing a 2 AA Rosette restaurant where I worked my socks off.

I just love learning all the time and kind of fell into it really.

What is it about wine that interests you?

I love it and whenever I go home I’m always looking in the wine fridge to see what will go with what. No two bottles of wine are the same, they have their own personality and I just love it.

Info Bar

‘Kitchen Nightmares’ 

It was a local taxi firm, not here but at my last place. Basically there was a table of 10 on a Saturday night and the chef cocked up two meals so there was a little wait but the aggressive behaviour from one of the diners was just incredible! He was swearing and shouting and I wasn’t going to be intimidated so I told him to go home because he had too much to drink. But he turned out to be the owner of a local taxi company we used to hire about 20 cars a week with! It wasn’t that he was a customer acting in that way but a local business owner that wanted to scream and shout rather than just deal with it.

I rang him the next day and he didn’t want to pay the bill so I passed it onto my owner. Eventually we got the money but we didn’t work with that taxi firm again.

Top 5 service experiences 

One of the weirdest ones is Geurito’s – the local sandwich shop. As a kid I would always order a sausage sandwich with brown sauce. I’m now 33 years old and I hadn’t been in there for 15 years but when I drove past a few months ago and went in for a sandwich they still remembered my order!

Four of us went to Gordon Ramsay’s last year and were a bit nervous because we had a couple of bottles of champagne and the service was quite stiff and rigid but when they realised we wanted it more relaxed their service changed and all of a sudden we got banter and it was incredible.

I went to the Ledbury with Max Fisher, who owns Fishers, and when they recognised him I have never felt so treated like royalty in all my life! Nothing was too much trouble, we got all these little extras, it was incredible!

There’s a little chain of restaurants up North and when I took my little boy the staff just took to him. These two service staff said we’re a family friendly restaurant and just took it to the next so me and my wife could enjoy our dinner.

We went to Manchester House when it first opened and the guy there was knowledgeable beyond knowledgeable on his drinks, not just the wine but the beer, the water used for the beer, the brandy etc. The knowledge on his products and the way he delivered it was just wow. So it blew my mind that someone could know that much about drink!

How does it feel to be the first certified sommelier in Sheffield?

It’s mega, I didn’t think I would be able to do it because it’s so hard. For things like this you often get put into study groups but this time it was just me, myself and I trying to pass this qualification so it was pretty epic and pretty hard work.

Do you feel there’s added pressure on you now that you have become certified?

No, it’s actually quite bizarre because I did an introductory level about two years ago where you just get this tiny pin badge and I was forever getting people in the restaurant asking what the pin was for. So when I passed the qualification to be certified I got a nice badge saying ‘certified sommelier’, so now people see it and ask if I can give them advice on the wine so it feels like people are more relaxed with me now. I actually feel an enjoyment for wine again now as well because it’s not just all about studying, now I can just pick up a decanter and try what I want as I’m no longer having to study exact subjects. 

Rafters
Rafters

Rafters has retained an ‘Outstanding Wine List’ in the Good Food Guide for three years running, how does that feel?

It’s great. I’m currently working on trying to get one in the Michelin Guide and the AA Restaurant Guide, it’s amazing it celebrates the chef’s cooking but sometimes you forget all the hard work that goes into it. Yes it’s the chef’s cooking but we’ve made the restaurant and we’ve thought about the wine. I must spend about 20 hours a week thinking about our wines, not just wine in general but our wine, is this the right wine done by the glass, what’s going to work with the food, etc. There isn’t a front of house and a kitchen team it’s just a team so to get that wine accolade it shows that front of house are doing well too.

Is there more pressure on you to maintain the title year-on-year?

Not right now because now, it is adding more enjoyment to the wine list. I love getting the accolade provided the customers are enjoying it because that is what it is all about at the end of the day but to get it is amazing.

How do you and the chef (Tom Lawson) work on wine pairing?

Tom is my business partner as well so we have quite a different dynamic because we work as one team. It will always start with the food, I’m not going to lie, but sometimes Tom will give me the list and I will go away and have a coffee whilst I think about it, maybe pull out a couple of wines I think will work. Other times when I look at the list I say to Tom it’s going to cause me an absolute nightmare because there’s nothing I can think of to go with it!

Over the last two or three years Tom has learned a lot about wine from me and Tom, as a chef, has an incredible palette. Sometimes it’s making the food work with the wine to make sure the customers don’t just get an amazing dish or an amazing glass of wine but both. There will be some things that work well on the dish that just won’t work with any wines you try, they’re just going to clash so we’ll work together and taste things, and then re-taste things and we usually go back to the first one we tried. It’s a bit like dress shopping with women, you try all these different ones but you will always go back to the first one.

Have you ever got a pairing wrong?

Not that’s gone out into the restaurant. We have some pairings that people don’t get but then there are others that are just like wow. It’s subjective and I’m waiting for someone not to like sherry because it’s quite well known to like sherry in London but not in Sheffield.

We have had some where I thought it would go with something but Tom’s just looked at me and asked ‘are you on drugs?!’ so we’ve reworked it and rehashed it.

Rafters
Rafters

Where do you source your wines?

Predominately it’s House of Townend. I’ve had a great relationship with them and been on some fantastic tasting trips over the past couple of years. They’re one of the North’s biggest wine merchants. Fine wine isn’t a regular commodity in the North so you have to get a great supplier and House of Townend are but then a mate of mine, John Mitchell, owns a great little wine shop in Sheffield. He’s just a one man band who owns a wine shop that I’ve been shopping at since I first discovered wines back in my 20’s so I might go to John occasionally for the handpicked stuff. It’s nice to have the big wine merchant behind us but to also go to the little man and go, what have you got that’s cool today? What’s the next big thing?

What do you look for when selecting a wine for Rafters?

It’s good to have a chat with wine merchants, like if you go to a restaurant, they’re the expert in what they have. I remember Nigel Wilkinson, one of the master sommeliers when I was doing my first exam said that he always asks the wine merchants but I was like ‘you’re a master sommelier, why?’ and he said it’s because they know their wines better than what I do. So when you get that advice from a master sommelier it lives with you.

It’s about listening to everybody to find out what’s the best instead of thinking I’m a certified sommelier therefore I know it because you’ll come unstuck very quickly.

You have done training in spirits and have developed a cocktail menu, how did that come about and what made you want to do the training?

That’s one of the things that threw me about the master sommeliers because I’ve never worked in London so I’ve never had to learn the cocktails. Part of it is cocktails and spirits so all of a sudden you think you’re going to immerse yourself in that world which is an animal in itself.

Tom and I came up with this vision of what Rafters is all about and as part of it we asked the staff for their involvement. One of the things they came up with was a cocktail menu so we looked into developing it.

It’s classic cocktails, we have some gin martinis, there’s nothing ground-breaking on there but again the cocktails had to suit the restaurant. We won’t sell mojitos because our average customer is 35 plus so as we sold classic wines it made sense to have a classic cocktail menu. We really researched our spirits and cocktails which led me into thinking that being a sommelier is about the whole drinks package so what about the person who wants to come and drive? So we looked into a new soft drinks range as well.

We also started looking at micro brewery’s because we have more micro brewery’s per person in Sheffield than the rest of the UK so it’s a never ending process and I’ll never get bored.

Alistair Myers
Alistair Myers 

Would you say you’re partial to a cocktail just as much as you are to a glass of wine?

It really depends on what mood I’m in. Unless I’m going to the wine bar up the road after work, very rarely do I sit down with a glass of wine. I like to enjoy wine when I have food and nibbles in front of me. Wine is not necessarily an occasional drink but something I would enjoy with other things. So it really does depend. Coming up to the change in seasons I’m going to start drinking a rich red because I’m going to be cooking stews and getting in from work at night I’m not going to want a cold beer I’m going to want something that will warm the soles of my feet. So I’m very much dictated by the change in the seasons.

What does it take to be a sommelier?

I don’t think it’s the exam, it was important for me personally but I think it’s also about the dedication to provide the best service to your customers.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to become a sommelier?

Make sure you’re tasting all the time because that’s what I found. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for advice and just get ready for hard work because it will involve getting up at 6am to read and reading again for another two hours when you get home at night so it’s not easy and it’s not glamourous. It’s very time consuming and quite costly as well, I probably have a £400 library now and own about 30 books on wine, if not more!

What are your future plans?

It’s always just about turn over and I would like to get on the AA Restaurant Guide wine list too. I think I would also like some of the staff to compete in the quarter master sommelier exams, maybe just the introductory level because I think doing the exams has been an integral part of me becoming a sommelier. I would like to do the advanced exams too although I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do it -  I’m going to at least give it a go.

 >>> Read more in our Are You Being Served series here......

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th December 2016

Alistair Myers, Co-Owner and Manager, Rafters Restaurant