Seamus Sharkey, head sommelier, Tom Sellers' Restaurant Story

The  Staff Canteen

Seamus Sharkey is the head sommelier at Tom SellersRestaurant Story which has a star in the Michelin Guide UK.

He first became sommelier at The Nut Tree in Oxfordshire when he was just 19 and his interest in wine has continued to grow. Seamus is passionate about his industry and his main priority is delivering a flawless guest experience alongside the rest of the Story team.

The Staff Canteen spoke to him about how challenging it can be to pair wine to Story food, working with Tom Sellers and why he is so passionate about wine. 

How did you get into the industry?

I got introduced to wine by two gentlemen of the old school brigade, GM David Field and Deputy GM David Bryan when I was at Dormy House. I started having lessons with them on wine and started to understand how much more rewarding it was for a guest’s journey to be able to offer knowledge on something that not every place does.

Restaurant Story

You moved to The Nut Tree and within the year promoted to sommelier and wine buyer, at only 20 years old. That must have been a proud moment?

I loved it. Mike and Imogen North (owners of The Nut Tree) were massive role models to me, they purchased The Nut Tree when they were just 27 and I worked alongside them for two years and I did my WSET’s with them. I also worked with Michael Palij MW, he runs a company called Wine Traders and he lived down the road from The Nut Tree. I was really fortunate to have him mentoring me for those two years.

So, Restaurant Story, how did that happen?

I wanted another job surrounded by visionaries who wanted to champion British hospitality. At the time it was Jon Cannon who was restaurant manager. I came down, we met and went out for drinks – a classic first interview for a sommelier! We really connected on what a guest’s journey is really about. So we ended up working alongside each other on this vision.

Two dishes where we have replicated the dish within the paired drink:

Onion, Old tom and apple: Champagne method cider made by Hush Heath winery with a dosage of a cordial made from gin, bergamot and sloe gin Scallops, cucumber and dill: Cocktail made from the distillation of rum, cucumber and dill ash. Two of my favourite pairings we do as it gives distinction throughout the menu by using different beverage. We accentuate the common flavour compounds in both the dish and drink, match sugar levels and textures, and still with using fruit or acidity, keep freshness of the dish and drink.

We have a very talented kitchen brigade producing, for me, some of the best food in London. I don’t think there’s another restaurant in the UK which delivers the same experience. Dining time now is four hours and that means you have a long time to make mistakes but you also have a long time to layer someone’s journey and experience – it’s not just a three course meal. I like the pressure of knowing people have waited two or three months to dine with us. You only have that one opportunity to nail it with them.Has working at Story been the experience you expected?

What’s Tom Sellers like to work with?

I’m fortunate to have a very good relationship with Tom, which makes a massive difference inside this restaurant. He’s like most chefs, erratic, wanting stuff very quickly – yesterday mainly! But if you keep delivering he’ll let you get on with what you need to do. We have a good understanding of where we both want to head – I haven’t come here to work these hours not to get two stars. Tom’s a busy guy, we have our head chef Angelo so day to day business mostly goes through us. Any new dishes that come on then obviously Tom gets involved but me and Angelo have got on very well since I’ve joined. He’s a very talented guy at 22 to be running this kitchen for Tom.

As head sommelier what’s your main focus?

Restaurant Story Onion 2
Restaurant Story  

We’ve worked extremely hard on the wine flight, and that’s the one thing I want to gain a reputation on at Story. We’ve developed it over time hopefully as something people can connect to. There’s a drinks flight so we have beer, cocktails, cider and wine - partly because the menu is so long, if it was just wine it would feel like it all just blurs in to one. This way there is a good distinction on each course and people will remember it when they leave.

What is it about wine which interests you?

Its knowledge based, it’s daily changing, guest facing and for me the refreshing thing about the subject of wine is I meet so many amazing people. They work so hard to produce an amazing product and I’ve been fortunate to visit several European vineyards over the past year. I have a list which is very personal to me of people whose vineyards I want to represent in the UK. Also it’s one of the only subjects where you can continue to study every day and it will always change because of new vintages, new producers, new regions, new varieties being grown in different regions.

Restaurant Story

Is there more pressure being head sommelier of a restaurant with a Michelin star than one without?

Of course, guests come with expectations and that’s what we have to deliver daily. When you set out to do the menus that we do, and the dining experiences we offer, as a guest I would expect high levels of service, high levels of knowledge, everything people expect for spending the amount of money they do in a restaurant like this. It’s the nature of the beast – if you want to work in some of the best restaurants in the country you have to have the knowledge to back yourself on it. This subject is all about connection, having the knowledge and the people skills to be able to convert that into an understanding for guests makes a massive difference.

Do the majority of your guests already have an understanding of wine and what they like?

Restaurant Story wine
Restaurant Story

It’s completely varied. From people who look at the wine online before because they are excited about it to people who say this is my budget, I don’t know what I like and we work from there. It’s a very honest dining room in that respect. We have guests who don’t know the difference between varietals but that’s not a problem at all – I bet I don’t know much about what they do either, that’s what I’m here for to help them connect with the offering.

How do you decide which wines to put on the list?

I don’t write a run of the mill wine list. That’s not because I want to alienate people from the product, it’s because I want to give people the opportunity to try stuff that’s amazing quality and value. Our food is very fresh and clean, there are a lot of acids and vinegar profiles and there are no carbs on the dish. So our wine list has to replicate the style of our food. Don’t get me wrong I’m a sucker for iconic estates and we have a few on the list but if I find something which is amazing and suits our food then we will list it. I don’t want to be halted by an appellation not being known.

Do you ever get the pairing wrong?

That’s the beauty of it! As you pair more and more food together with beverages, the more of an understanding you get of the food and the cuisine and the wines you are looking for.

Restaurant Story

Some of the best pairs have been the wild card out of the six bottles we have got in for samples to try with the dishes. I think I’ve now worked long enough with Tom and Angelo to understand where I need to go with the wine.

You mentioned you have cocktails as well as wine – why did you decide to include them?

There’s no point in having a huge range unless you have integrity behind it. So we stream down everything we do and then we build it slowly when we feel we are at the standard to offer it inside the restaurant. We only do four cocktails and they are all taken on classical aperitifs. The cocktails are made off site and they are pre mixed ready to be served, it brings a huge amount of consistency and speed to service. We thought about what people classically think about to drink so a glass of fizz, beer, wine or Martini. The cocktails are a twist on all of those, it’s a very small offering compared to a lot of restaurants but it eliminates inconstancies that can occur when having to big an offering.

Restaurant Story porridge
Restaurant Story

And do you enjoy a cocktail as much as a glass of wine?

I’d probably start with a beer myself! But it depends I only like to drink wine in restaurants where I know and trust the wine flight. I’ve experienced too many poor wine flights where no thought has gone into them and the same goes with cocktails. Sometimes there is too much free reign and the quality of the cocktail suffers.

It’s generally the chef who people come to the restaurant for, is it tough working front of house without the same acknowledgement?

There’s a big intensity on the floor and it takes a certain kind of breed to work at a restaurant like Story, partly because the dining time is so long. Regarding people coming in for the food rather than the drink, I really hope in the long run that more and more sommeliers get the recognition. That’s not just on a selfish level, it’s on a level that we all work extremely hard to give people the experience within the restaurant. I’d like to see the sommelier scene here become the same as in New York where more and more people recognise the hard work of sommeliers and their knowledge.

Second birthday celebrations - credit to Seamus Sharkey Instagram
Restaurant Story

You said people book months in advance for a table, do you still get difficult guests?

I think you would be stupid as a guest not to come in and try and enjoy yourself. We don’t always get it right, especially on the wine front but it’s how you rectify that – we’ll take the bottle back and try again, we won’t say ‘no, you have to drink it’. That pretentiousness needs to come out of the business as sometimes you get it wrong, there’s no point saying we are always right on a pitch - hopefully we’ve had enough of a conversation with the guest to understand what they want.

Do you think there is still a bit of a stigma around Michelin-starred restaurants?

I think people do feel going to Michelin restaurant is something they have to perform for but it’s not the case, they are just going for a meal and we are the ones performing. I’d hate for anyone to feel uncomfortable within this dining room, I want them to be happy to dine with us. Everything we do here is tailored for the guest.

Talking about guests, what are your thoughts on social media?

Restaurant Story

We use social media quite heavily and it is nice as we get a lot of guests saying thank you through social media directly to staff. But it’s a double edged sword, we’re very fortunate that we don’t get many negative reviews. It’s good to be able to promote what we are doing and give guests an insight into the restaurant before they dine with us. It’s also great for the industry to network on. I don’t see social media as a negative at all, it just needs to be used correctly and not abused.

So, is the plan to become a master sommelier?

I’d need a bigger team before I could do that! I think I have a different goal to most somms, I just want to continue to work with visionaries inside this industry and in the long run give people the understanding that as a British person you can make a successful living inside this industry.

If you like the sound of working in London either as a chef or within the front of house team then head over to our jobs board.

>>> Read more from Are You Being Served here

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th July 2015

Seamus Sharkey, head sommelier, Tom Sellers' Restaurant Story