‘I’ve been in hospitality since the age of twelve…’

Having been introduced to wine through his father’s cellar – nosing wines and trying to guess the vintages – Jan van Heesvelde knew from an early age that hospitality was the career for him. And he has pursued that goal with single-minded dedication ever since – as the surprised winemaker at Chateau Rayas found out!

You actually started to study hospitality at secondary school didn’t you?

When I was 12-18 years old I went to the Culinary Arts School in Bruges. I wanted to be a chef at first, and in the first three years you do chef, bakery and butchery. Then I did chef and restaurant manager for three years. After that I specialised as a sommelier. So I’ve been in hospitality since the age of 12.

But you weren’t instantly attracted to service…

In the fourth year of school – aged 16 – I hated waiting on people. Especially at school where it’s for your friends and it’s like a big performance, which you obviously don’t like because they’re trying to play jokes on you. But after a while wine just took over from the chef side – it just felt more interesting, and I had a bit of a vibe for it. I’m very lucky. I’m determined, and I knew where I wanted to go from an early age.

Have you always taken drink seriously?

When I was going out with my friends [as a student] we would all have a 10 Euro allowance for the night. They would buy 24 beers for E0.50; I would buy four for E2.50 apiece because I’d rather have four good beers than 20 lesser ones. My dad always told me, if you can buy smaller quantities but good value, then do it. That’s something I always live by.

You seem incredibly focused. Have you made any wrong decisions?

I graduated from school winning ‘best junior sommelier of Belgium’ in 2014. It’s a competition held between the hospitality schools in Belgium. I thought ‘well, I have a plan B, so let’s try university’, and went to study Business Management, which was very fashionable at that time. It was the worst decision of my life. The first six months were amazing – I passed all my courses. The second part – disaster. I had to resit everything. I did one more term, and then said ‘that’s enough’. It did teach me one thing, though. ‘Don’t do anything you don’t like…’

So you went back into hospitality?

I worked for two years at Tafeltje Rond in Belgium, then decided to work abroad. I was talking to restaurants in Scotland, Portland and LA before Hide offered me a job. I came to London in September 2018.

Hide. That’s quite some wine list…

I tasted things there that I would never have tasted in a lifetime in Belgium, opening a bottle, having a small taste and sharing it with the team. I don’t think anywhere has a list as crazy as Hide.

So what was the attraction of L’Enclume?

At L’Enclume [in Cumbria] we’re about breaking the rules for service. Everyone does everything. Everyone is in at ten in the morning, from commis to the restaurant manager, and everyone leaves at the same time. Everyone works together, and no-one is afraid of doing any job: folding napkins, mopping the floor, cleaning things – there are ranks without there being ranks. I’d never have expected it for a two-star Michelin. It’s an amazing vibe. We’re like a nest of ants running all together, but moving gracefully like swans. I definitely got more attracted to service there.

Have you managed to keep your wine education going?

I passed the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced level in February just before lockdown. I always knew I wanted to become a MS, and it’s something I’ve been pursuing for quite a few years now.

How do you fit studying around the work?

We’re four days on, three days off – and Monday is always free – so there’s plenty of time to study. You can put time in after and before service, too. When my friend Davide Dall’Amico and I were going for the Advanced, we both had flash cards on us, and we’d test each other before service. You need to be creative with your time.

Which do you think will be the toughest bit of the MS – theory or tasting?

It’s a comprehensive exam and everything is hard! Right now I’m taking a break from studying after the Advanced, to go for the Best Belgian Sommelier competition in October. It’s not about lines on the CV, it’s about representing your country and showing your best at the highest level.

Do you have a favourite wine style?

As long as it’s good and drinkable, I’m fine. I like everything from old Shiraz from Australia to the most natural wines from Friuli. Lately, though, I’m most into Chenin Blanc. There’s plenty of young producers in Swartland making amazing old-vine Chenins. From the Loire, the one I still love the most is Le Clos de la Meslerie Vouvray, made by Peter Hahn. The 2014 is my go-to Chenin at the moment.

Do you have a favourite visit?

Chateau Rayas in Chateauneuf du Pape. I didn’t even really know what it was. I know now, but I didn’t then, that it’s one of the best producers in the appellation, at a very high price point – and very difficult to get in. I just knocked on the winemaker’s door and he said ‘come back on Friday, there’s some Germans coming in’. I think it was the most epic tasting because I had literally no clue – I’d never tried a Rayas. And it was incredible.

What are you hoping to gain from being part of the Sommelier Collective?

To become a better sommelier, in terms of knowledge, building a network and – the most important part – help each other to make a strong sommelier profession.

Find the wines

Clos de la Meslerie is imported by Dynamic Vines

Chateau Rayas is imported by O W Loeb

‘You have to have passion…’

The professional journey in hospitality is rarely straightforward. You can begin as a sommelier and end up running a hotel, or start by pulling corks and polishing glasses, and end up as a world-beating bartender.

Take Giovanni Ferlito.

It might be hard to believe, but the current head of wine and beverages at the Ritz Hotel began as a bartender at the Hard Rock Café in his home town of Catania. His main influence was not Gerard Basset or Paolo Basso, but Tom Cruise in Cocktail.

The Sommelier Collective caught up with him to find out how he got to where he is now, and who and what has inspired him on his amazing journey.

You said you came into wine ‘sideways’ – tell us a bit about your journey

After Hard Rock Café I worked for a big Italian resort company, Valtur. That job took me all over the world and I made my way up to Bar Manager, then F&B Manager. It was an opportunity to understand the whole hospitality operation, to know a bit of everything about costs and leadership.

When did you come to the UK?

In 2010. I planned to continue as an F&B Manager, but the problem was that my English at the time meant that I wasn’t even able to do an interview! It was really, really poor.

So you started to study, I guess?

Yes. I would have taken any job just to pay my studies. I knew a lot about hospitality, spirits and cocktails, and I’d taken a few wine courses, but I wasn’t a real professional sommelier. I sent out a few applications, and got a call from Locanda Locatelli. Virgilio Gennaro was the head sommelier, but it was really funny. He did the interview in English, even though we were from the same part of Italy. He really wanted to put some pressure on me, to see my potential.

And was that what lit the wine spark for you?

It was my first experience as a sommelier, but I wasn’t yet sure that it was going to be my new career. I was just learning something new. It’s Virgilio’s fault that I’m in wine. He was so passionate about it, and he transferred that passion into me.

Where did you go from there?

To Hélène Darroze at the Connaught. I found another passionate wine lover with great charisma as my boss: Hugues Lepin. And I though that’s the person I want to work with – I want to learn everything from him. Then it was clear that I wanted to do wine.’

Do you think qualifications are an essential part of wine education?

It depends. It’s important to take courses, but something that is non-negotiable is that you have to have passion. You might have the knowledge, but if you don’t have the passion you won’t be able to share it with your guests. Hugues Lepin, for instance, has no qualifications at all. But if you speak to him he knows the producers, the soils, the stories, everything. You can learn more from someone like him than taking WSET Level 3. For someone at my level you’d probably already expect that I am a Master Sommelier or have a Diploma, but in fact I started my Diploma last year.

How do you go about working with your suppliers?

I’m a big fan of building the relationship with the suppliers, rather than just looking at pure contract. My job would be much easier if I just worked with ten suppliers, signing contracts based on retros and volumes, but it would lack dynamism and uniqueness. With wine we have 20 main suppliers, and we work with another 15. I’m more interested in the story behind each product than the retro stock they might be offering.

What do you love most about the job?

The variety. It’s like being an entrepreneur – I need to do a bit of everything. I need to be on the floor, but there’s a lot of work to do behind the scenes too. I’m lucky to have a strong team – I couldn’t do this on my own. I delegate a lot.

What are your favourite wine styles?

In general I’m interested in the expression of the terroir, and I like diversity. I prefer wines made with indigenous varieties – a Nero di Troia from Puglia, for instance, or a Lacrima di Morro d’Alba from the Marche. And I love Germany. I really appreciate Riesling.

And what excites you about being part of The Sommelier Collective?

I’m looking forward to sharing my knowledge and transferring my passion to youngsters in the hospitality industry – and to be able to talk to my peers. There’s nothing else in our industry that brings all the sommeliers under one roof.

Contact Giovanni or view member profile.