Jean-Christophe Froge, restaurant manager, Restaurant Martin Wishart

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th November 2015
Growing up in the Loire Valley, Jean-Christophe Froge has held a lifelong passion for wine. After training as a sommelier, he moved to Ireland and then Scotland to pursue his vocation, linking up with gifted Scottish chef Martin Wishart at his flagship Edinburgh restaurant in 2002. It proved to be a career-defining move for Jean-Christophe, who upon initially working at the award-winning restaurant for four years as Head Sommelier, left to travel Asia before returning to take the Restaurant Manager role in 2009, where he has stayed ever since. We caught up with Jean-Christophe to talk New World wines, whether he thinks his restaurant would cut the mustard in his native France and the thorny issue of social media feedback. Leith128 low resSo you’ve worked at Restaurant Martin Wishart for over ten years? I first started in 2002; which was meant to be a year’s work experience as a sommelier. That turned out to be four years as Head Sommelier! Then in 2006 I decided to move on to experience other restaurants and other cultures, so I moved to Asia. First of all Kuala Lumpur for a year where I did a little bit of consulting here and there, that was quite a culture shock I have to admit! Then I moved on to Singapore for a couple of years where I worked for Hilton. In 2009 I came back to Restaurant Martin Wishart because Martin had a Restaurant Manager position becoming available - he and I had kept in touch because Martin had done a few events in Singapore. I’ve been back as Restaurant Manager from 2009 until now. So how different is your current role to when you were a sommelier? It’s two very different positions, both of which have got quite a lot of responsibilities. The maintaining of the wine list is a key role in a Michelin-starred restaurant – making sure that you stick to the menu, trying to rotate the wines, trying to adapt to new vintages, keeping an eye on the stock and all that. With restaurant management, I think there’s a lot more responsibility particularly when it comes to the staff. The responsibilities are obviously very, very different. It took me quite a bit of time to adjust but eventually you get there; you rely on your team as well.
Worst behaved customer: There’s always customers that tend to be a little bit rude, but once before we had to ask the customers to leave because it was just unmanageable. It’s very annoying when it happens and it’s very disappointing from the customers’ point of view, but also from our point of view because it feels as though we have not been able to meet the customers’ requirements. In that particular case it was just unreasonable customers who were not there to enjoy themselves - being rude to the staff and talking loud. Best service experiences De Bokkedoorns - It’s a two star just outside Amsterdam in a private reserve. I was really impressed by the whole restaurant service: cork procedure, wine, how they communicate with each other, making sure everything is on time. Le Gavroche - I thought the service was impeccable. In the industry I suppose it’s a long-standing restaurant and it’s just one of those models I suppose. The management has always been very strict, very particular about the details and making sure customers are enjoying it. The Waterside Inn – I’ve not actually been myself but I have a few friends that have and I keep on hearing really good comments from customers. It’s a little unusual to talk about a restaurant that I have not been to but I have to say that it is something that I’m looking forward to trying! Le Charlemagne – A Michelin-starred restaurant in Burgundy. It faces the lovely hill of Corton where they grow the Grand Cru. Fleur de Sel – A restaurant in Singapore. I just thought the service was really, really good. Its staff are ready to go out of their way to make sure you enjoy the experience of the restaurant.
How much responsibility do you still take for wine? I stay involved in terms of choosing the wines to go along with the menu, in fact so does Martin – there’s four of us doing the wine pairings. We go into the office, we try a dish and we try a bunch of wines that we think is going to go with the dish. It’s very easy for the sommeliers to go overboard with the wines, particularly because of flavour – you cannot overlook the flavours of the dish and you cannot overpower it with the wine. So I think it’s very important to keep the chef involved. How would you sum up your relationship with Martin? It’s obviously been very successful over the years… It’s always been very, very good. And I have to say Martin and Cecile are both very fair - not only just for me but for the entire team; they recognise the fact that everybody works really hard. They run their own business so there are days where it is a little bit more chipper than others but I suppose every restaurant is like this. Because we’ve known each other for quite a long time he knows how I work; I know what Martin is expecting from me. We communicate on a day-to-day basis and Martin is always here at the restaurant. So our relationship is very good, very strong. He’s quite a classical chef albeit with modern influences, do you think the business could work in France? That’s a very good question - I suppose so, why not?! We’ve got lots of French customers; we’ve got loads of people from Switzerland as well. We always have really good comments. I have tried a few Michelin-starred restaurants (in France) and, I mean, some of them are really good, but some of the one stars… sometimes it’s not what you’d expect. So I suppose Martin’s style would probably work over in France. You were still a teenager when you started out – I was fifteen. How does someone get interested in wine at such a young age? My family – my father and my grandparents – were all involved with restaurants. So I was always a little bit interested in it but ten, fifteen years old I moved on to this apprenticeship programme. And the person that trained me during my apprenticeship was a Head Sommelier himself and once the apprenticeship finished I carried on one more year with him in the restaurant – I was a sommelier apprentice, so that’s how I got into it.

>>> Read: Martin Wishart, Martin Wishart at Loch Lomond

Are the wines you were interested in then and now the same? Very different. Because in France it’s very much French wines driven. Back then I was into Loire Valley wines because that’s where I did my apprenticeship – that’s where I’m from – but now there’s loads of different things that I like. I like Northern Italian wines – Barolo, Barbarescos. I’m very interested in Rieslings from Germany and Austria. I quite like Californian wines as well; the way they are made, the way they are aged using the oak. So it has changed. Hospitality tends to be viewed as a real vocation in France, more so than it is here. Do you think that will change?Leith025 low res I think so. In fact, you can already see in the UK the enthusiasm there is around food and wine. When you switch on the TV there’s a good chance there’s going to be a cooking programme at some point. So I think this is changing the mentality of younger people. I remember back in the early 2000s when I first started, catering was not really seen as a career, it was very much seen as a part-time job or a summer job. But that has changed. You see a lot more catering programmes in universities, more hotel management in universities, more apprenticeships being set up. Even Martin has changed. The restaurant has currently got three apprenticeship positions. People are realising that, hang on a minute, actually catering might just be a good career. And what about when you’re looking for new staff, what kind of characteristics do you look for? Motivation is important. Customer relationships - if an employee is not comfortable talking to new people then obviously you’ve got a problem on your hands. Experience is always key, but if I employ a younger member of staff – you know, eighteen, nineteen or early twenties – I don’t expect them to have massive amounts of experience. But if they are willing to learn, then it is easy. Because you can model people to the way the restaurant works. JC 7 low resThese days, restaurants get instant feedback from social media and the likes of Trip Advisor, do you check those things? We work with a very good programme called Restaurant Diary and people that book with us we try to take email addresses - after their experience at the restaurant they receive an email asking them how their experience went. And obviously that comes back straight to us. So we take every feedback really seriously. We get loads of great feedback and that is really good, you know feedback that is constructive, when people think that we could do something better then it’s all looked over. But if people choose to make their feedback public, then you know… it’s not that I disapprove but I’m not sure it’s very constructive, it doesn’t actually help the restaurant to see if something went wrong. I suppose it’s very good for consumers. Whether you like it or not, there’s a good chance that people are bound to have a read of the feedback given on a restaurant they’ve not eaten in before. That you just have to understand and adapt to. So yes, it’s important that people express themselves, otherwise if nobody would say anything then how could you improve? You’ve had a Michelin star for a long, long time. How does that influence the way you conduct service?Leith014 low res Obviously the Michelin star is a big part but no matter what, we always try to make sure the customer comes in and enjoys their experience. We’ve got standards and customers have got expectations and we’ve got to meet them. How do you maintain motivation year after year? Whether there’s been a good or a bad day you always try to improve. You know, look forward to the next service, look forward to seeing your regular customers.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th November 2015

Jean-Christophe Froge, restaurant manager, Restaurant Martin Wishart