Formerly a head chef, Christine Parkinson is today one of London’s best-known buyers, having joined the opening team at Hakassan in 2001 and creating its first wine list. She is now heads the group’s wine and sake operations worldwide, having also created one of London’s first major sake lists at Sake No Hana. Sharing her love for both wine and Sake, Parkinson is a WSET Certified Educator, and has run wine and sake courses for Hakkasan staff across three continents, leading Hakkasan Group to win WSET Educator of the Year. She has been called “one of the most creative wine buyers in the UK” by wine guru Jancis Robinson, and is frequently called upon to share her insights on the industry as a guest speaker at beverage conferences worldwide, all while writing numerous articles for trade and consumer press. Here, she looks back on her career, recalling an encounter with Elvis Costello, a run in with a meat cleaver-wielding head waiter and reveals why she could have ended up an astrophysicist.
What or who inspired you to become a buyer?
I was in the right place at the right time when Hakkasan opened, and the role evolved over the years. Alan Yau encouraged me to push the boundaries, which was fantastic.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
Playing a part in people’s careers, and watching them develop into more senior roles.
What’s the biggest misconception about the role of a buyer?
That it’s only about buying! You have to understand what will sell, and how, and where, before you can make good buying decisions.
What’s your go-to drink at the end of a long day?
Honey Jun. It’s known as the ‘Champagne of Kombuchas’, and being based on tea is incredibly reviving
What’s your most embarrassing front-of-house moment?
My worst ever experience was Christmas morning, as duty manager for a 400-bedroom hotel, when an oven caught fire in the kitchen at the same time as a head waiter broke up with his partner and ran amok with a meat cleaver. At the peak of the mayhem, as the fire engines and police cars arrived, the hotel’s general manager walked in with his family, for their Christmas dinner.
If you could give your younger self advice when starting out as a buyer, what would it be?
Studying isn’t enough. All real progress comes from relationships. Get out there, talk, and listen.
What bottle sparked your love of wine?
A Condrieu, back in the 1980s. It was the first ‘smart’ wine I ever tasted, and I never forgot the sensational flavours and texture.
What to date has been your most memorable wine experience?
There are so many, but that first Condrieu always comes to mind.
Which customer habit annoys you the most?
Nothing annoys me unless guests are unkind to the people serving them.
Who is your inspiration in the gastronomic world?
Sake brewers. The skill to turn rice into such a complex, delicious and varied drink is extraordinary.
What’s your ultimate food and wine pairing?
Piping hot cheese on toast (a good, strong Cheddar) with well-chilled Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Heaven!
Where would your fantasy vineyard be?
Right in my back garden. Unfortunately, I don’t have a garden, but I do have a Chardonnay vine in a pot on our terrace. It’s doing very well.
If you weren’t a buyer, what would you be doing?
I would be an astrophysicist. I was studying a degree in maths and physics, on my days off, when the chance to work with Hakkasan came along. I think I made the right choice.
Which wine (grape/style) do you find it impossible to get along with?
Anything that tastes of cold fermentation, instead of fruit.
Who is the most memorable customer you’ve ever served and why?
Elvis Costello – I was a huge fan, completely star-struck. I don’t even remember what he drank, but I do remember he didn’t like the hotel breakfast the next morning: he went up the road to a local caff for a bacon sandwich instead.
What makes you most proud to be a buyer working in London?
I feel lucky, more than proud: so many great wines to choose from, so many great people working or dining in our restaurants.
What’s on your wine bucket list?
A great wine from when I was born – but it wasn’t a great vintage, and it’s a long time ago! Apparently, Inglenook 1958 was superb, but I’ve never come across a bottle.
Finally, what wine and paired plate would you pick from your list and why?
Camel Valley Brut Rosé with venison puff. The wine is made from Pinot Noir which goes well with the deeply savoury venison, and of course the combination of cool fizz and sweet, melting pastry is heavenly!