‘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