Will Dennison, Head Sommelier and Assistant Manager, House of Tides

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 10th December 2015

Bright, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, Will Dennison is one of a new breed of British sommeliers determined to do things his own way at Michelin-starred House of Tides.

After unexpectedly finding his calling in a gap year spent working in Sydney, Will – still only twenty-four - now takes care of the wine list at Kenny Atkinson’s award-winning House of Tides restaurant in his (and Kenny’s) hometown of Newcastle.

Talk us through your role at House of Tides, you’re both Sommelier and Assistant Manager, is that right?

House of Tides
House of Tides

I think the role of the sommelier is changing massively. Being a sommelier is not just about pouring wine now. You have to serve guests; you have to clear plates; you have to help re-lay tables. It would be nice to just swan around the restaurant and pour wine!

Ales, cocktails, whiskies, specialist gins – do you deal with those, too?

Yeah I do the whole drinks list. There’s more and more young people coming in asking for craft beers, different types of real ales, which is great, because they go so well with food. A lot of young people aren’t into wine yet, but I see it as a good transition.

Do you have a young clientele there then?

It’s everything. Right from mid-twenties to fifties, sixties. There’s no pattern to it, even to what we sell, there’s no predictability to it at all.

Chef Kenny Atkinson likes to mix things up menu–wise, how difficult is it to react to that?

Kenny is great, he’s a bit of a nightmare for changing the menu at the last minute! But when you’ve got all these solid wines sitting there you’ve got a good idea of what’s going to work and what won’t work. He’s really good to work with actually. Sometimes he’ll throw foie gras or truffles on there without telling me but it keeps me on my toes!

Will's five top service experiences:      Pollen Street Social, London Pollen Street was just awesome - the canapés, the amuse bouche. The Restaurant Manager, Matthew, and the Head Sommelier were really great. That’s the restaurant we’ll always go back to.                                                     Est Restaurant, Sydney There’s loads of good places in Sydney. Est Restaurant - this was the first fine-dining restaurant I went to in Sydney – was really good. It was pretty laid-back, very Aussie!                 Momofuku, Sydney Another one in Sydney. David Chang – that’s one of his restaurants, it was number seventy-eight in the world at the time. You can’t fault those guys. The atmosphere – it gives you a bit of a buzz.                                                                 Nan Bei, Newcastle It’s a little dumplings shop in Grainger Market. The woman is just great, she’s like, ‘hi darlings, how are you? Can I get you dumplings?’ She’s always smiling and I’ve never seen this woman sad and, you know what, that’s service at its best.                                                 Café Royal, Edinburgh It’s just opposite the Balmoral. I had a seafood platter and a few beers in there with friends. It’s just a local Scottish guy, serving great food and doing everything properly.

And how long have you worked with Kenny? Did you know him before he opened House of Tides?

I’ve been with Kenny about twenty months now. He has said he’d never wanted that sommelier role, because we’re in Newcastle, at the end of the day.

I think he had this pre-conceived idea of that old school sommelier… I’ll try and pick my words wisely: everyone can imagine that old-school sommelier – ‘oh yes sir, good evening’ – whereas I am a little bit more of a joker. And if people want that – oh, yes sir - I am more than happy to give that to them but I’m more just about having fun with guests.

And is that just your style or are you tailoring that to the restaurant and where you are?

Yeah I think it’s a bit of both – I think my style suits the restaurant really well. I worked over in Sydney for a year and a half and worked with sommeliers over there and they just weren’t arrogant, they were just so nice.

They were like, ‘yeah, we’re going surfing down the beach tomorrow morning, do you want to come?’ They’d just be so on the ball and very humble, they knew absolutely everything though. I think a lot of people see sommeliers as being unapproachable. I think people are scared to ask the sommelier for advice. It shouldn’t be an embarrassing question to ask ‘how much were you thinking of spending on a bottle?’ Rather than me come back with three seventy pound bottles. If they just want a twenty-five bottle of wine, that’s not a problem.

So you’re trying to be approachable and knowledgeable rather than uptight and aloof?

Yeah, exactly. And there’s so many sommeliers that will just ram information down your throat and you think, ‘bloody hell mate, I just said it was a nice wine!’ I had that with Kenny and a restaurant manager in a starred restaurant in London: Kenny said, ‘nice champagne glass’ – the sommelier went on for about ten minutes about the champagne and Kenny was like, ‘I only said it was a nice champagne glass!’

But what about if you did get a job in the future in, say, a big country house hotel, how would you adapt your style, or would you not?

will dennison, house of tides

Will Dennison

house of tides

To be honest, I wouldn’t do it. If I went over, I’d say, ‘this is very much me’. I’d give you a very correct service, correct placings, set the cutlery up correctly and serve the wine to the proper etiquette – I’d do all that, don’t get me wrong but if it was ‘good evening sir’ and very formal, it just wouldn’t fit my personality. I’m a little bit of a joker in the restaurant with guests.

There are not that many British sommeliers, how did you get into the trade originally?

When you’re 18, 19 and you finish school, you’re in that place between university and what you’re going to do. I had taken some time out, I was working in bars and restaurants and I decided to go travelling to Australia. The first job I got in Sydney was in a two-hatted restaurant.

They had two or three sommeliers, and I said, ‘oh can I try that wine?’ So I was tasting all these wines… to be honest, I just wanted to get drunk before I went out; I was a backpacker and I was trying to save money! So after three or four months of this it all started to make a bit more sense and the Head Sommelier went, ‘c’mon, which one is this wine?’

I gave it a sniff, gave it a smell and said, ‘it’s from Northern Italy, peach, banana’ – it was a pretty tough wine. He said, ‘you know what, you’re bang on!’ I was like, ‘oh, really?’. The next morning, I bought Oz Clarke’s Let Me Tell You About Wine and Larousse Gastronomique and I was reading those. After a year and a half I came home, I said, ‘Mum, Dad, I’m not going to university anymore, I’m going to study wine. Every parent goes, ‘oh no, here we go, our son is going to be an alcoholic!’ But it was really good fun actually and they’re really proud as well.

House of Tides
House of Tides

Where do you go to keep up with the world of wine?

Books – I’m a nightmare for books. I buy two or three books a month, just on different regions.

Have you visited many of the big regions?

I’ve done a few, I’ve done Burgundy which was actually… ah, it was magical, it was unreal. I’ve been over to Italy. There’s still a few big regions I’d like to do.

Are there any up-and-coming wine regions that you think in the next five years will be big?

There’s countries like Uruguay, really great Tannat - if you know your wines a little bit that’s one making really big waves. Everyone is making wine at the moment though. I had a Chinese wine on Sunday night. It was OK, it was good, I don’t think it was one of the best Chinese wines out there; I wouldn’t buy it again. But China is now the second largest wine producer in the world.

And what about the state of British wine?

It’s that cliché: the sparkling is absolutely fantastic; you can’t fault it. I think the white wines, they’re still a little bit hit and miss. I mean, there’s some really great ones – we do the Bolney Estate Pinot Gris and that’s awesome. But I’m yet – in my personal opinion, I bet there’s plenty out there - to have a good British red.

House of Tides
House of Tides

You seem to have quite a young team at House of Tides, would that be accurate?

Yeah everybody is pretty young. I’m 24. I think it’s such a good thing to have a young team because in the North East of England it’s pretty hard to get restaurant staff that want to choose it as a career. Kenny sort of grabbed us guys, saw potential and let us roll with it. The original Restaurant Manager wasn’t really working out for Kenny, so Laura the Assistant Manager stepped into the Restaurant Manager and she said to me: ‘will you be my Assistant Manager as well as being Head Sommelier?’

And we were a bit nervous. We started having the inspectors coming in from Michelin and the AA, and we were thinking, you know, this is a big thing. So we get our three rosettes and then we got our Best Newcomer at The Cateys and then we got one star Michelin as well. We were buzzing!

What’s next for you and the House of Tides staff, what else do you push for? It’s now just running a really successful business model for Kenny, and just getting that right. Making sure everyone’s happy that comes through the doors as well. The first few months no one gets it right, no one gets it perfect. So we battled with that the first few months. But now I think it’s just about getting slicker and slicker; it’s about developing the wine list, developing the staff.

And I suppose keeping the team together will be important as well, it sounds like you have a good camaraderie there?

We’ve got some really strong guys. The relationship between myself and Laura the Restaurant Manager is really strong, really solid, and we’ve always got each other’s back.  

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 10th December 2015

Will Dennison, Head Sommelier and Assistant Manager, House of Tides