Serving Assembly: Planqueby Ben Sibley
With close to twenty years' experience in his pocket, James Lewis' reputation as one of London's most accomplished hospitality professionals goes before him.
Now General Manager and Head Sommelier at celebrated Haggerston restaurant Planque, he sat down with us during preparations for their second birthday to reflect on his journey to this point, pertinent trends in wine, and the fundamentals of a satisfying dining experience.
From football, to theatre, to the floor
When I was a kid, I used to play football every Saturday. After one game, I kicked my boots off in a tantrum and said 'I'm not going back, I don't want to play football'. I was quite naughty at the time and my mum saw it as something that gave me structure and discipline, so she told me it would have to be replaced with something else. And it ended up being youth theatre.
Acting became a huge passion – I did stints abroad and it became a huge part of my extra-curricular life and my social life. And, when I later began to discover good restaurants, I saw that the choreography, interaction, communication that I enjoyed so much in theatre had such obvious parallels with hospitality.
The whole thing was a performance. I noticed the front of house team playing characters as they were hosting their guests, presenting different versions of themselves in public than they were in private. It was like I was watching the live recording of a TV show and I had a front-row seat. The human element and the kinetic quality of the environment was so exciting to me.
I was in my mid-twenties. From the age of 16, I’d worked in pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants while at school, during my time at university, and then even alongside 9-5 office jobs. After ten years’ experience right across the spectrum of hospitality, I felt ready for a gear change.
At the time, I had a full-time job and was picking up shifts as a part-time waiter at Lyle’s in Shoreditch, east London. On a rare day off I visited friends in Bristol and they made a point of commenting on how animated I became when I was talking about the restaurant. It was the final nudge I needed. Not long after I quit the day job and went full-time on the floor.
Obsession, self-education, progression
At Lyle’s, I had begun to develop a keen interest in wine but felt like I had big gaps in my knowledge and needed to catch up. I became fixated with learning. I wanted to go home at the end of the day and feel like I knew everything I could at that moment. I didn’t want to ever feel like I was bluffing.
The interest turned into obsession and I feel lucky to say that I am genuinely still obsessed with wine to this day. And this impacts our approach to hiring and staff development at Planque. It’s assumed that if you’ve taken a job with us, you share our genuine passion for wine and you’re keen to learn.
Of course we invest heavily in training our staff but really the aim is to set a tone that prompts our team to stay curious, to indulge their interests and to find their own tracks. If someone is motivated to take responsibility for their learning, they benefit themselves and their team.
We think this can have a positive impact on the industry. Despite some progress over recent years, hospitality continues to be seen as a second-rate career.
By paying salaries, implementing an academic structure for learning, and having clear paths for progress, we’re fostering a professionalism that has the potential to advance the sector.
The trick is to balance this with the more playful, less formal qualities that are so important, which I’m confident we’re doing.
Natural wine - its benefits, its impact
Firstly, we all know the huge strain agriculture puts on the planet. If there is an opportunity to work in a way that has less impact on the environment, that should be embraced.
In some regions of France, the amount of chemicals used during the production of wine has contaminated local water supplies to the point where it’s unsafe to drink. When you have field workers wearing hazmat suits to harvest grapes (to avoid skin and eye irritation), you have to question just how did we get to this point?
The context of history is important here – it was only in the mid-twentieth century that we started using chemicals to produce wine. Labour shortages drove up the cost of production – the use of chemicals brought it back down.
So, really, natural wine is a return to methods that had been commonplace for hundreds of years. We’re seeing similar movements in other sectors that replaced labour with synthetics – bread, cider, coffee.
And then you consider the shared trend across many industries of lower scale, higher quality. It’s true for natural wine and it’s true for coffee, chocolate, honey, even hot sauce.
There are less people involved in production, less steps on the supply chain. The value created by producers is distributed more fairly and with more transparency. Consumers are beginning to understand this and it’s being proven that they want to invest in it.
What we’re seeing is that the cloudy, funky bottles of natural wine attract more attention and so are often the gateway for the more curious wine drinkers. They’ll try chilled reds, oranges, pet nats and they’ll build an understanding of what they like and what they don’t.
The next step is usually something that tastes like the classic wines they love. Something like a natural white reminiscent of their favourite cabernet sauvignon.
Then they’ll recommend this more classic bottle to their less adventurous friend who’s been unsure what to try first. So these more accessible natural wines are just as important as the more off-piste stuff that first pulls people in. There really is a bottle for everyone.
The knock-on effect is that smaller producers are successfully participating in new markets, and are influencing larger producers to produce their own lines of natural wines.
Life is full of homogenous behaviours but we’re really seeing evidence that smaller entities can be successful, challenge the status quo, and tangibly contribute to progress no matter their size.
Removing the intimidation, encouraging exploration
The end goal in hospitality is always satisfaction. It’s that simple. Our job is to enable the customer to choose something that they will enjoy. It shouldn’t be stressful, it shouldn’t be intimidating.
Sights, sounds and smells all contribute to how relaxing and accessible the environment is but this all falls down if the staff don’t have the empathy, perception and communication skills they need to make every single guest feel completely at ease.
It’s charisma, but the right sort. When used well, charisma is nuanced and its fluid and flexible. Read between the lines, understand someone’s body language, really listen. It’s these skills that tell your guests they can relax into their experience and, ultimately, leave satisfied.
Don't just take James' word for it, visit Planque and settle in for a glass or two of something delicious:
322-324 Acton Mews
Open Tuesday-Thursday 6-11pm; Friday 6-11.30pm; Saturday 12-4pm, 6-11.30pm.