Once upon a Time... (Apologia pro curriculo meo)


I'm often asked how I got into hospitality as a profession. The truth is it's only been my main source of income for just under two years. Before that, I was just an experienced amateur. Now, I freelance as a features writer, cocktail tutor, consultant/trainer to the industry and sommelier at a highly-respected establishment in North Yorkshire. Not a bad trajectory for someone who was a gibbering wreck under the table a few years ago, eh?

Let's revisit a significant phrase from that second sentence: "...only been my main source of income..." Nobody's skills and knowledge are limited to their field of employment, and I have been cooking, hosting, drinking and even teaching all my adult life. My journey to my current, happy career has taken longer than many people's, but I can trace a clear path that has led me here. Just as a canal has its towpath, so my former career in social care has a parallel path that I have walked in hospitality.

Regular or longstanding readers of my blog will know my story starts with my family heritage. Both my Mum and my Grandma have been accomplished cooks, and that is rooted in their love of providing for people. Socially, Grandma was quiet, but she loved feeding anyone who came into her orbit. She knew that good food conveys love like few other experiences. Mum was a more adventurous cook than Grandma; a young wife and mother in the years of plenty when British tastes were expanding and encompassing other food cultures. She combined her mother's gift for cooking with her father's sociability and good humour. She didn't just provide, she entertained. My childhood is filled with memories of gatherings, parties and other social occasions. Food was always central to these gatherings. My family belong to the Catholic Church, and I never questioned the Church's tradition that the closest we come to union with the divine is union with others in a ritual meal. It just made sense, given my experience of family.

My school had recently transitioned from secondary modern to comprehensive when I started. Somewhat radically for the time, the headteacher had taken the decision that all pupils would study all subjects. Thus my female peers joined us for woodwork and metalwork, and we boys were taught to cook, sew and manage a home. What I learnt in those lessons forms the solid foundation of my cooking, and I think those women who taught me (take a bow Marie Hitchen and Veronica Scott) gave me everything I needed to build on to become the creative cook I am.

My love of wine is as deeply rooted in my family history as my love of food. My Godfather, my uncle, owned a home-brewing shop. We'd often pop in to see him and my cousin who worked with him if we were out shopping in town. There is a distinctive aroma of dried hops and malt grain that instantly transports me back there whenever my work takes me into a brewery today. As a teenager, I had a Saturday job in the shop. I started packing corks from a box of 2,400 into packs of a dozen (I still have a horror of the feel of dry cork on my fingernails!) and graduated to more responsible tasks as I got older. By the time I was in the latter half of my teens, Uncle John would encourage me to examine finished brews and venture an opinion. Both wines and beers were offered for an opinion, and I was taught to look, smell, swirl, then look and smell again before tasting. I was told to comment not on my first taste but always rely on the second sip.

Armed with Mum's love of hospitality, Mrs Hitchen's obsessive concern for theory and technique and my Uncle John's lessons in tasting, I started university, just as the British market was discovering wines beyond France and Italy. Hungarian cabernet sauvignon elbowed out Chianti as my drink of choice. Liverpool has always been full of restaurants, and I spent far too much time and money visiting them. I started to realise that by analysing food as I would wine, I could identify the key ingredients and techniques used, so that I could replicate them in the kitchen of my hall of residence. On one occasion, I even fed fifteen people a 5-course Greek dinner, cooked on two 2-ring Baby Bellings! Becoming a dinner-host, I discovered what it was that my Mum got out of hospitality.

As a language student, I spent a year living in France. I think this has been the single most transformative experience of my life. We are told that travelling broadens one's horizons. It does - this and more. Among the many things I learnt about myself, about life and about France, I learnt how to balance a menu, how to discuss food around the table. I learnt a whole new culinary vocabulary that has served me very well for thirty-odd years, and - the most significant lesson - I fell in love with the wines of Burgundy. I have made it my life's project to drink good, red Burgundy whenever I can afford it and have grown to love in particular the foods that go well with it.

I think many people set the direction of their life in their twenties and give it little thought until the mid-life crisis hits. That is certainly true for me. I started a professional career working with vulnerable families. I also established a private dining society among friends. For thirty years this society has been my support in life and the reason to grow as a cook. Members' contributions have allowed me to play and experiment with ingredients I could never otherwise have afforded. Hosting the dinners has required me to become knowledgeable about an ever-widening range of wines, too, so that I can match new flavours to the new dishes I learn to cook. It never crossed my mind that this was leading somewhere. The society's dinners have become quite elaborate, immersive affairs, my need for challenge never abating. I take immense pleasure in the research and planning for these dinners - social and culinary history, geography, technique, even music and art have been the subjects of my researches.

I discovered a love of writing when I started to share what I had learnt with the guests coming for dinner, and many of these writings have become blog posts in recent years. I started to blog when I realised my years in social work were taking a toll on my mental health. Although I loved my work with families, one cannot spend one's life listening deeply to clients' traumatic stories without experiencing come collateral damage. Once I acknowledged I was coming to the end of a useful career, my knowledge of food, drinks and hospitality presented itself as the way forward. Using time off during a period of mental ill-health, I set about studying for qualifications that might help: food safety & hygiene, wine knowledge and licensing. This led to an offer of work managing the bar at a local deli/wine bar, where my cocktail making skills have been given space to really shine.

Not so long ago I passed, with merit, my WSET Level 3 exam in wines, which includes elements of blind-tasting. Uncle John, I hope, would be very proud of what he has achieved in me! What I had not expected was that my writing and my presence on social media have been getting me noticed. I was approached by the owner of an influential kitchen with the offer of a dream job. He knew me only as "The Aperitif Guy" and had to ask my name when we met. Such is the power of online content. I will never dismiss Instagram and Twitter as trivial: they have brought me into contact with knowledge and expertise beyond my imagining and provided opportunities to grow as a host, cook and sommelier. The new job offers space for me to learn from incredible cooks and vintners. I shall have access to beautiful wines and other drinks, and the owner is giving me the freedom to become even more than I am. My Grandma wouldn't understand what I do and why people pay for my services, but there is a single thread of learning and growing that reaches from her love of feeding her family to my work as sommelier.

That's Burgundy, of course!


Comments

  1. Fascinating Paul and I had no idea it started with your family. I always made the assumption that being a Francophile, an interest in food and alcohol was essential.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'm glad you enjoyed my story.
      Francophilia and food do rather go hand in hand, but my love of food has the earlier roots. Maybe that's what led to my love of France. 😀

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  2. You should be very proud of yourself and your achievements.
    You have a great story to tell and family mean a great deal to you. We have been lucky to have been the recipients of your generous hospitality. Long may it continue

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    1. Thanks, Sue. It's always a pleasure to entertain such delightful friends.

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  3. Excellent read and thoroughly enjoyed all the information re family , love of food , hosting and The reasons you can do what you do , well done

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  4. CathCase. 6th september 2022 22.5, wow.
    Hi Paul,

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    1. Thank you, Cath. You've known me through most of my 'journey.' I'm chuffed you enjoyed reading about it.
      X

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  5. What an amazing story which illustrates that one’s life is a journey and nothing is pre-ordained but one should follow your passions which Paul has done so well - it’s great to read, and to see someone enjoying what they do, and bringing pleasure to others

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  6. What a great story. It’s the love of what you do that shines through.

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