Born in Athens, Jenny Pagoni is now restaurant director of Greek newcomer Ampéli, located on London’s Fitzrovia. Born into a close-knit family, Pagoni likens her childhood home to a bustling restaurant, with a constant stream of guests coming through the door. Pagoni learned to cook by helping her grandmother, making dishes from local produce sourced from the hills around the city. In 2004, she moved to London to study cinematography at MetFilm School and later travelled the world as a photojournalist. Her travels reignited her passion for food, and also developed her interest in wine. Missing the flavours of home, Pagoni decided to open her first restaurant in London. She was joined in her project by general manager Lorraine Abrahams, formerly of Corbin & King; head chef Oren Goldfeld, formerly of Nopi; and restaurant consultant Nick Gross of LandburyHundred.
How did you arrive at the position you are in today?
One thing is for certain, I enjoy the company of other people. Previously, I studied fine art, photography and cinematography. I am fascinated by stories and by people, images, memories and observations. Originally from Greece, I now realise that keeping a part of my home with me is always very important. My memories of smell, taste, food and hospitality are the strongest. Creating Ampéli is a little piece of home for me, each bottle of wine has a story to tell which fascinates me, and focusing on heritage and discovery through food.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
Encountering people, that are genuinely interested in wine; it is always lovely to have a conversation with someone that shares the same passion.
What’s the biggest misconception about the role of a sommelier?
That they know everything. Nobody knows everything, and this is why life is interesting. Or that they want to always sell the most expensive wine on the list, is not about that, is about making a connection and understanding someone else’s palate, then finding the right wine.
What’s your go-to drink at the end of a long day?
Depends on the day and what is in my wine fridge; but usually just an ice-cold soft drink, but if I had to say a wine, probably a nice elegant and smooth Agiorgitiko.
What’s your most embarrassing front-of-house moment?
The kitchen unfortunately forgot to put okra in our ‘Okra salad’ and when the customer queried it, I had to stand there and dig through their salad trying to find the okra that wasn’t there.
If you could give your younger self advice when starting out, what would it be?
Don’t let fear stop you from doing all the things you want to do.
What bottle sparked your love of wine?
It wasn’t a particular bottle, it was the love that I have for stories. Every bottle comes with a little story. That is fascinating.
Which customer habit annoys you the most?
Individuals that are really loud. Even if they are spending money and enjoying wine, there comes a point when they are impacting other people’s enjoyment, I find it very inconsiderate.
Who is your inspiration in the gastronomic world?
Danny Mayer for his focus on ‘guest experience’ and his creativity.
What’s your ultimate food and wine pairing?
A nice retsina with a portion of smoked Taramosalata.
Where would your fantasy vineyard be?
Probably at a high altitude area, as I love mountainous terrains.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant industry, what would you be doing and why?
I would probably be a cinematographer or a lighting designer because images are my other passion.
Which wine do you find it impossible to get along with?
I never liked Beaujolais nouveau, it’s just not for me.
What makes you most proud to be working in London?
London is my home, and I always felt proud for it’s diversity.
Finally, what wine and paired plate would you pick from your list and why?
A glass of Naousa Alta 2016 from Thymiopoulos is such a great expression of the Xinomavro grape. Cool climate wine with cherries, tomato and forest scents, it would be a great partner to any meat dish, but I would have it with our ‘grilled lamb chops, Baharat and skordalia’ they would elevate each other.