James Lloyd joined Restaurant Gordon Ramsay as head sommelier in February 2016, however this was his third appointment within the Gordon Ramsay Group having began his time with the chef’s illustrious empire in 2002. It was then that he first joined the three Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay as a commis sommelier, rising to become assistant head sommelier. In 2006 Lloyd moved to New York as part of the opening team for Gordon Ramsay at The London in the city, before leaving the group to travel Italy, working as both a sommelier and an apprentice winemaker. On his return to London in 2008, Lloyd worked at establishments including Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester and even The Playboy Club as head sommelier and assistant restaurant manager, before coming full circle and back to the Ramsay group. Here, he looks back on his career that has seen him sample a Lafite from 1894 and bring down a chandelier with the pop of a cork.
What or who inspired you to become a sommelier?
A bit of luck really brought me to the sommelier trade, but since that day I have been lucky to work with many great people first being a gentlemen called Christophe Poidevin who started me on my way and Ronan Sayburn MS who guided me and mentored me to push me to where I am today.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
For me it has to be the satisfaction of a guest whom has truly enjoyed their experience with us at the restaurant. As sommeliers we are lucky to get instant feedback most of the time, unlike the chefs in the kitchen. The other aspect which I really enjoy is nurturing my team. To see people grow and push themselves to levels they never knew they could reach and to be even a small part of that is a wonderful thing.
What’s the biggest misconception about the role of a sommelier?
Where does the list end? I think many people think it is a fairly easy and glamorous role within the industry. We are seen at tastings, drinking wine, travelling which is a very small part of what we do. What people forget is all the hard graft behind the scenes, being an integral part of running a business which means you have to be essentially an accountant on top of all the studying, training, cellar work, negotiating and of course the long days.
What’s your go-to drink at the end of a long day?
Getting home in the small hours after work I am afraid just a good cup of tea.
What’s your most embarrassing front-of-house moment?
Many years ago while working in a hotel we had a wedding reception. Opening the Champagne I managed to fire the cork at a chandelier which in part decided to fall to the ground. At least I left a memory for the happy couple!
If you could give your younger self advice when starting out as a somm, what would it be?
Don’t be impatient to get to the top. Lay your foundations and do the hard yards and remain humble.
What bottle sparked your love of wine?
Honestly, I did not have that eureka moment, fortunately I have had many since to keep me going.
What to date has been your most memorable wine experience?
The first time I got to try a wine from the 1800s was mesmerising and eye opening. It was a Château Lafite Rothschild 1894.
Which customer habit annoys you the most?
When we are asked for recommendations without any information on tastes, likes or dislikes this makes it very difficult. I think this sometimes has to do with confidence of the guest which is understandable due to the overwhelming number of choices we have now.
Who is your inspiration in the gastronomic world?
It has to be Gordon.
What’s your ultimate food and wine pairing?
From our current pairing one sings to me especially at the moment. The dish is on our seasonal menu. It is dexter beef short rib, young peas, broad beans and smoked bone marrow. I pair this with the Ca’ del Bosco ‘Maurizio Zanella’ from Lombardy in Italy from the 1999 vintage, it’s just seamless.
Where would your fantasy vineyard be?
Piedmont. I have lived and worked there in the past, I just love it and of course the wines are pretty good to.
If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing and why?
Absolutely not a clue. Dream scenario would be a professional rugby player as rugby is my other passion. Rugby teaches you many great attributes as a person, team work, work ethic, clear thinking and confidence…..I really miss playing.
Which wine (grape/style) do you find it impossible to get along with?
Have to say Pinotage, I really struggle with it.
Who is the most memorable customer you’ve ever served and why?
I shall remain discreet if I may.
What makes you most proud to be a sommelier in London?
I just feel extremely fortunate. London offers the best wine market for me in the world. We have diversity, history and accessibility and working at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay I am afforded freedom whilst working in an environment which exudes trying to be better every single day to which we can all be proud of in the restaurant.
What’s on your wine bucket list?
I love my mature wines, so old vintages of the greats I am yet to get to.