Time to put the sommeliers in the spotlight: Jan-Willem van der Hek
In restaurants it are always the chefs that are the ‘stars’ and get all the attention, but there are so many more people in a restaurant that try their best to make your evening unforgettable… like the sommeliers for example! This is why I try to put the sommeliers in the spotlight for once! So far we’ve already put over 70 sommeliers in the spotlight and there are many more to come :-)
The next sommelier I want to introduce to you (if you didn’t know him yet) is Dutch top sommelier Jan-Willem van der Hek.
Just like I mentioned in my previous interview with Norwegian top sommelier Liora Levi, some things in life happen by ‘accident’. In Liora’s case it was during a meal at a steak house, in Jan-Willem’s case it was during a part time job at restaurant De Limonadefabriek (Bib Gourmand) during his politics and governance studies at the University of Utrecht :-) If it weren’t for the part time job who knows maybe Jan-Willem would have been the next Prime ministers of The Netherlands :-)
The part-time job quickly became a full time job as head-sommelier of this same restaurant and a career in various top restaurants spread all over The Netherlands like De Nederlanden and De Hoefslag . Also in the competition circuit Jan-Willem has earned his spurs as next to gaining titles as Best Sommelier of The Netherlands (2012), winner of Trophée Henriot, winner of the Châteaux & Domaines Castel European Young Sommeliers Cup he also obtained his WSET level 3 degree and will be doing his exam in 2018 to become Master Sommelier (fingers crossed).
What is your favorite wine region to work with?
Last year I visited wineries and friends throughout almost the whole US Westcoast. From Walla Walla, Washington State to Santa Barbara, California. I was surprised by the enormous diversity and quality of the wines. Albariño, Syrah, Zinfandel, sparkling, sweet you name it and they have it! In good quality too! A lot people tend to think that all the wines in the US are expensive, big and bold but you can find some very affordable elegant reds and whites which are extremely food friendly and fun to work with.
What does it take to be a good sommelier according to you? It all starts with a high level of hospitality, being a good communicator and being passionate about what you do! If you have those characteristics you’re able to entertain and inform your guests, but you’re able to make sacrifices to study and work all those hours day in day out as well.
Is the job of a sommelier underestimated/valued? In general, I think that the interest in our profession has increased the last couple of years also due to the documentary Somm. Lots of young sommeliers are starting with the Court of Master Sommeliers or WSET, which is very good for the industry. On the other hand, I noticed a lot of restaurants in Holland and abroad where the head sommelier is more a maître d’ with some knowledge of wine. I don’t think this is a positive development. Because being a very good maître d’ or very good sommelier are two different jobs with different responsibilities. Except the similarity that they all work very hard to give the guests a wonderful experience! Therefore I find it important that they should be treated as very valuable members of the team with an honest reward system, which doesn’t necessarily means a higher salary, but good terms and conditions in general.
When and how did you get the passion for wine? It all started while I was studying politics and governance at the University of Utrecht. In my spare time I worked in a bib gourmand awarded restaurant. The moment I started to serve and recommend wines to guests in the restaurant it gave me a very rewarding feeling. Let’s hope those guests left with that same great feeling too! ;-) From that point on I decided to quit university and start to focus on becoming a sommelier.
Who is your big example in the wine/sommelier world?
There a many great examples for various reasons but to pick two: Ronan Sayburn because he is a mentor for so many great sommeliers and has a great personality. And second William Wouters (el Presidente). We have seen each other on various occasions and every time he’s so extremely friendly and with a great sense of humour. I respect his enormous drive for getting things done. It doesn’t matter if it’s making great wine with his wife Filipa, organizing competitions, running a restaurant or speaking 8 languages fluently. He does it with full commitment and most of the time with not too shoddy wines.
What is your approach for pairing wines(or other beverages) with dishes?
There are lots of things you can say about wine and food pairings. They can definitely make or break a dish or a wine for that matter. But to me the most important aspect still is the mind-set of the guest when he or she enters the restaurant. We can go above and beyond with bottles, but when a guest had a very tough day they’re experience of the same pairing would be a complete different one from the guests that have great company and maybe even something to celebrate. The first one might find the pairing average, while the last one believes it’s the best pairing in the world. So, it’s our task to make sure that every guest feels at home and leaves the restaurant with a positive feeling and experience. Which wine region would you recommend everybody to visit and why?
The first wine region I’ve ever visited was the Mosel region in Germany and I still love this region! When you’re there you immediately understand why these wines are something special. The people are extremely friendly and the region is quite small so it’s perfect to visit for a weekend!
For which wine would you make a big sacrifice to be able to taste? Do you have a minute? There are so many cult wines I really would like to try but if I should name something… Romanée Conti ’78, Jaboulet La Chapelle ’61 and ’78 Lake by Diamond Creek. For white Riesling Scharzhofberger Auslese ‘76 from Egon Müller.
What is your most wonderful memory of hotel management school or viticulture studies?
There are a lot of them but the thing that I cherish the most is that I’ve met so many great people and friends from all over the world in the last couple of years. Hopefully my greatest memory will come next year when I hope to become the 2nd Master Sommelier of Holland with passing my tasting exam for the Court of Master Sommeliers. A culinary or wine experience everybody should have had besides have a meal at your restaurant, shop, winery, etc..?
When people are coming over to Holland they tend to overlook Rotterdam and just focus on Amsterdam, which is a real pity. Rotterdam is a very vibrant city with diverse architecture, good working ethic and some of the nicest restaurant in the country. If you are there you should definitely try to visit Restaurant Fitzgerald, it’s one of the best wine restaurants in Holland! It has great little gems on the list but also some iconic wines. People should try to visit Wijnhandel Peeters as well. Lots of little treasures and a great (old) Madeira collection.