Chiltern Firehouse’s head sommelier Beatrice Bessi tells us about her varied career, studying while pregnant and the need to think long term
We feel slightly guilty about talking to Beatrice Bessi. The Chiltern Firehouse head sommelier is on her first extended time off for a year, and instead of chilling by the pool or catching up on her sleep, she’s talking to us. Still, she has a lot of super-interesting stuff to say and we’re very happy to listen!
You’ve been in hospitality a long time…
I started more than 20 years ago to earn money in secondary school, in Parma, [north-east Italy]. I started in bars and never stopped – even when I was studying computer science at university. I just realized that I preferred hospitality.
So you didn’t begin in restaurants?
I was a bartender for 20 years between bars, night clubs and so on. After a while I realized I needed a way to show people this wasn’t just a profession I was doing for the moment but was something I loved – a career, and something I could grow up with. I began to think will I still be making cocktails at four in the morning when I’m 50 years old? So sommeliering became the best option. In some places I was a bartender, in others a sommelier, in others a waitress. It’s been a strength to work in so many different places, from bars to nightclubs to top restaurants, old school and modern.
You came relatively late to wine then…
I started to study as a somm 12 years ago. I wanted to know more – to have power in my hands and be 100% confident and comfortable; to be the person in charge of my career, my floor. I had my first courses while I was pregnant!
How did you end up in the UK?
I was working as a restaurant manager for the Alajmo family, who own a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants. One of my co-workers had just returned from London, working with Ronan Sayburn and he bombarded me with his ideas. I knew that Italy wasn’t enough for me and as soon as Ronan mentioned they were looking for a sommelier at 67 Pall Mall I applied for it. I moved to London in 2016.
Did that involve a step down?
I had been a senior supervisor in Italy, and I started as a junior sommelier at 67 Pall Mall. But it wasn’t a hard decision to make. I’d do it now if I thought the opportunity was worth it. I don’t have a lot of ego. If I can see a situation that gives me growth long-term I’d always change the position I am in for the sake of learning.
I guess you learned plenty at 67 Pall Mall…
I was very lucky to taste the best wines in the world, the best vintages, unicorn wines. I learned how to deal with Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers, winemakers, wine collectors.
Did you start the CMS qualifications?
I moved for this reason. I didn’t understand the full extent of what they offer. But once you’ve studied the Advanced, you want to try for the Master Sommelier. I wanted to be internationally certified, and it helped to be in that environment. The Best Sommelier of Greece, Best Sommelier of UK, Best Sommelier of South Africa – they were all [at 67 Pall Mall].
Any advice for people who are studying?
You need to be mentally balanced. You have a lot of pressure to manage the work hours and the studying. The MS is the hardest challenge of your life; the hardest exam in the world.
What challenges did you face moving from 67 to head sommelier at Chiltern Firehouse?
The biggest challenge was to change your style of service, and make it your own, and make all the experience of 67 worth it and applicable in Chiltern. You make your own style. We’ve doubled the wine list to 800 references, and my assistant and I have the freedom to select the wines that we want, from small producers to classics to expensive to traditional. It’s very rewarding.
What changes did you make?
I found some gaps that I wanted to fill. Some regions weren’t represented how I wanted, some producers were missing and there were others I didn’t like. So slowly, slowly we adapted. Can we only have a big modern producer in Burgundy, or do we want wines in a different style too – oxidative, new oak, old oak? I just went through the wine list and I wanted top iconic wines to be there – but different wines, less pricey. I didn’t try to massively increase the wine list. I just wanted to create something that would please everybody.
Any favourite regions or styles?
I love Burgundy and Piedmont. Our Burgundy list is three times bigger than before, while Piedmont has doubled. After that Australia and California are my strengths. I’d always be a big supporter of those regions – and Riesling is my favourite white wine, so I expanded Austria and Germany because of that.
How do you balance being a mother with the hospitality hours?
I don’t know how I do it. Honestly! I’ve always been someone who does too many things at once, and being a mum it’s natural that you have to do lots of different things at the same time. But it’s a big challenge. If I sleep six hours a night I feel lucky, but it’s the only way for the moment.
With such wide experience, do you have a final take on the profession?
Being a sommelier and a manager and a wine buyer are three completely different things. Being a good sommelier doesn’t make you a good manager, and sometimes you have amazing managers who are not good sommeliers and vice versa. You have to keep practising and training yourself in all these roles.