Christian Mortensen, sommelier at Neat in London, works a 15-hour day. Luckily, he enjoys it, as NATASHA HUGHES discovers
When the celebrated chef Richard Neat made a triumphant return to London earlier this year, a key member of the team at his new South Bank restaurant was sommelier Christian Mortensen. The 30-year-old Dane had been hoping to work in London for a while, and in Neat he found the ideal opportunity.’I’m incredibly lucky,’ says Mortensen. ‘I only live about a 10-minute walk away, so I just get out of bed and I’m here by 9.30. Over a cup of coffee, I’ll plan the day’s wines. While the dinner menu only changes every couple of months, the lunch menu changes daily, so my priority is to prepare a list of wines by the glass that will match the day’s food.
Mortensen gestures towards the windows, which overlook St Paul’s to the east, the Savoy, the Temple gardens and the Houses of Parliament to the west, and the Thames below. ‘The wines are cellared downstairs in the basement, next to the water, so that keeps them cool,’ he says. ‘I hardly have to chill the whites at all when I bring them up.’
Every other day, Mortensen and manager Gareth Hill meet to analyse who’s drinking what. ‘When you’re working in a new restaurant it’s something you need to do,’ he explains. Neat’s original list was put together by consultants, but Mortensen wants to reflect his tastes and those of the diners. ‘When I began working here, the list was very French. Now it’s split about 50/50 between the Old World and the New as this is what customers want. Of course, I have to like the wines,’ he points out, ‘or how could I sell them?’The team – chefs, waiters and sommeliers – sit down to a quick lunch of bacon and eggs around 11am, then the lunch service, which can last up to three hours, begins. ‘As we’re near the City and the South Bank studios, we’re pretty busy at lunch,’ says Mortensen.
After the rush has died down, Mortensen gets on with the business of establishing his contacts in the trade and ordering new stock. ‘I haven’t really had enough time to get out to tastings yet, as this is such a new restaurant,’ he admits, ‘but I see merchants here most days, and that gives me a chance to taste new wines. Once I’ve got the cellar established, I’ll start laying down wines for the future.’Any spare time he has is spent fine-tuning the day’s list and bringing up new stock from the vaults in the basement. Dinner is at six. ‘And then it all starts again. People start arriving at around seven, and they keep coming until about 9.30 or 10.’It’s important to Mortensen that diners feel he’s on hand to offer advice, but that they shouldn’t feel pressured into ordering anything they don’t want. ‘Some like to choose their own wines, while others want recommendations,’ he explains. ‘I always tell people that if they don’t like the wine I suggest I’ll bring them something else and drink the first wine myself!’As the customers leave, Mortensen tries to to teach the waiting staff more about wine, often using any leftover bottles as examples. ‘It’s important for the others to know something about wine,’ he says, ‘especially the maître d’, so I encourage them all to try something new.’I usually get to go home at about one in the morning – and I fall asleep straight away. It’s a tough job, but I’d miss it if I didn’t do it.’