Tap Restaurant is truly one of Surrey’s hidden treasures, a tiny space tucked away in a residential area of South Surrey. The man behind Tap’s contemporary French bistro food is Alistair Veen, partner, Head Chef and self-confessed ‘Super Wine Nerd’. Veen recently added another feather to his cap in 2016 when he won the coveted title of BC’s Top Sommelier and was kind enough to talk to us about all things wine!
How did you become interested in wine?
My interest in wine came from all the food and wine pairing that was being asked of us at the restaurant, so the challenge of learning as much as I could was a big motivator for me. Wine, like food, is a deep rabbit hole once you start going down it. Wine speaks a language of its own. Some people can hear it talking to them, and are interested in what it’s saying.
Can you describe your journey to becoming a sommelier?
Becoming a sommelier is a weird concept. There are a lot of blurry lines that define what makes a sommelier. Where does a sommelier start and a wine-lover end? There are lots of people that know a lot more about wine than I do that I wouldn’t consider as a sommelier. I think it’s like being a chef. If you are in command of a kitchen and a menu, you are a chef. If you are in command of a beverage team and wine list, then you are a sommelier, professional education notwithstanding.
How do you think this role complements your role as a restaurateur/chef and vice-versa?
Instead of having your chef and sommelier meeting every week to talk about wine pairings, I can hold that meeting in my head. You can pick your wine list to match your menu with no one’s feelings getting hurt. You can foresee the direction the menu is taking and naturally shape the wine list to compliment it. You can also adapt cooking techniques to mirror or contrast flavours in wine. I think that the biggest beneficiaries are always our guests, who act as tasting panels for new and exciting things that haven’t hit the menu or the wine list yet.
What is your favorite food and wine combination?
Yikes! I can name a few, but it would be difficult to separate them. This is a bit rarified, but for me life is perfect when I have an egg pasta, shaved white truffles and a really good glass of Barolo. There is a cliche that what grows together goes together, and more often than not it’s true. Fatty German sausages and razor sharp German riesling. Herb crusted rack of lamb and medium-aged good Bordeaux. Sauternes and torchon of foie gras with brioche and high quality salt. Lasagne, garlic toast and a good Chianti. You could make an argument that all those are terribly cliche, but it’s for a very good reason.
Sometimes there is a lot of pretension around wine, how do you feel about that?
It is well deserved because most people think that price = enjoyment. There is a ceiling to your enjoyment that is directly related to your training. You can spend 10,000 on a bottle of DRC but I’ve got news for you, it’s just a bottle of wine. Most wine drinkers will enjoy a $60 bottle of wine more than a $200 bottle of wine, and I am very conscious of that. The pretense comes from the idea that the more you spend on a bottle of wine, the more you should enjoy it. A novice wine drinker trying to keep up with a top sommelier palate is like a pee-wee goaltender trying to stop shots from Sidney Crosby. It is awe-inspiring but you don’t stand a chance.
How did you prepare for B.C.’s Top Sommelier competition?
As a somm, you are always in competition form. We compete every single day on our restaurant floors, and the stakes are extremely high. It’s true that in a competition, there are scenarios created that are not realistic and we are required to perform inside those conditions at the highest levels. Those are all for fun though. The real competition is tableside.