Culture: Taking flight with Gastrono-me's Mike Simmonite
I’ll be perfectly honest, I had no idea I wanted to be a restaurateur. I always thought I wanted to be an airline pilot. You see, my first holiday abroad was to Sardinia and we flew on the first jet airliner – the De Havilland Comet. Even now I view that ’plane as a thing of beauty. Inside the cockpit there would be four seats rather than the two we have in most modern airliners. There would be dual controls for the captain and first officer (co-pilot), a station for the engineer who would control key systems like fuel and electrics, and opposite him would be a dedicated station for the navigator, complete with a table for maps.
Four people in a confined space, all working on different things for the same common goal. It reminds me of our kitchen. We too have four stations; hob, grill, salad and fry, with the head chef controlling and guiding the kitchen and ensuring all the dishes arrive at the same time without crashing into other tables dishes. As complicated as it can get, it is fascinating to watch and equally exhilarating to be part of.
Growing up I was very lucky and got to travel to many parts of the world, often getting the opportunity to sit in the cockpit and marvel at the myriad dials, buttons and levers, listening to the ‘conversation’ between pilot and air traffic control. None of it made sense to little me, but I noticed how everyone was always so polite on the radio. Switching between control centres, people the pilots would never meet always had a ‘good day’ or ‘good morning’ as they guided us through their airspace on to our destination.
I remember once getting to sit in the cockpit for landing in a Dan Air BAC One-Eleven in to Jersey. My sister – and I swear this is true – once sat at the controls of a Boeing 747. “Hold on to the controls and don’t move,” the captain said. Then he turned the autopilot off. For about 10 miles, approximately 350 people were at the mercy of a 12-year-old girl at 37,000 feet.
Cabin crew, painted to startling perfection, would do everything to ensure the flight was comfortable for everyone, and it’s this incredible level of hospitality in a confined space that has always fascinated me when I’ve travelled. The functioning of an aeroplane involves so much more than making sure I’m OK, and yet they never give the secret away. Everything is smiles, everything is hospitality. Everything is controlled. I just love to observe it.
There is something very instinctive about hospitality, and it is as easy to get it wrong as it is to get it right. When we had our café in St John’s Street, we had to work really hard to get the ‘feel’ right. Thirty-five people crammed into less than 500sq ft requires a subtle cross between marshalling customers and creating an atmosphere where everyone had to be everyone else’s friend. Conversations between people who had never met before would be exchanged across the room. At times it was delightful to observe, knowing I was orchestrating the show. On more than one occasion I simply welled up with joy.
Here in Abbeygate Street we have had to adapt to our surroundings, change the pace a little, recognise that with bigger tables the ‘party’ is more concentrated than just
having one noisy room. I simply love it. Being a part of your meal is something we have to do. How much of a part is where our instinct comes in. And remember, a waiter will have another eight tables, who all want their experience to be unique to them.
You could be on a first date, meeting old friends, a business lunch, a quiet meal for one, a celebration. The reason you have come to dine with us will be as varied as the last flight you
I was travelling on holiday recently, someone else could have been meeting a relative abroad, a business trip, flying out to attend a funeral, a honeymoon. One party of about 40 people at our hotel had all flown out for a wedding. Every experience is – and has to be – different.
Something that Gemma and I have tried to do at Gastrono-me is to ensure that our menu, our wines, the experience we offer at the outset, is different to the other high street offerings. Our new evening menu is about to be launched in the next couple of weeks and it has taken months to put it together, so that it works for the four cooking stations in the kitchen.
More sides and starters on the evening menu, some exciting changes to the rest of the menus have also been made. We now have a full menu between 3pm and 5pm.
Cocktails! Oh the dessert cocktails are great fun, and we have made some changes to the wine offering, too.
Last night, a couple were dining with us, celebrating
their second wedding anniversary and asked to taste one of our wines.
As I’ve mentioned before, our wine list is provided by my friend Ed from Hallgaten & Novum wines. Ed and his wife Chloe are long-standing customers of ours and were able to bring their experience of dining with us to their ideas of which wines to match to our dishes.
Fratelli chenin blanc was introduced to me a few months ago. One of the things I try to look for with a wine choice is versatility, and chenin blanc is a great example of that, so I really wanted it on my menu.
My new friends at the table were intrigued as, despite the Italian name, Fratelli chenin blanc is a wine from India. A relaxation in local alcohol laws saw wine consumption in India grow by between 20 and 30 per cent per annum between 2002 and 2010. While imports have been the main source of consumption, India has not been slow in taking up production and matching their varied climates with modern production techniques to make some brilliant, award winning wines.
Pale gold in colour, Fratelli chenin blanc has a crisp acidity with tropical notes of citrus and peach with hints of apple and herbs. We chatted about a few of the wines they have had with us over the last few months and I felt honoured that they had chosen Gastrono-me as the place to celebrate their anniversary. I hope my instincts were right and they had the celebration they wanted.
As the restaurant emptied, we began the daily process of resetting the tables ready for the following day and the new customers that would bring. Plants replaced candles, the bar ‘broken down’ and readied for the morning. Glasses polished, coffee cups and saucers stacked. Tables refreshed.
In the kitchen, ingredients were brought up from the store rooms in readiness for service preparation. Counters, floors, plates and cutlery were cleaned and polished. At 4.30 this morning, technicians came in to service the intake and extraction systems and odour filters, and at 7am the restaurant was ready to go again. It’s a little like an aircraft after a flight. While you are heading to passport control and baggage collection, the ’plane is being reset for the next crew, the next passengers, the next destination.
I didn’t get to be an airline pilot, and you may think I’m a fool for thinking it, but the similarities are extraordinary in my mind.
Variety: Chenin Blanc 80% Sauvignon Blanc 20%
Vineyard: Plot D/E Motewadi Altitude: 548m (1,797ft) above sea level
Soil Composition: Mother rock, Alkaline, sandy N-S exposure
Cultivation Technique: VSP – Vertical Sprouting Process
Plants per Hectare (1Ha = 2.5 acres) 4000
Harvest technique: Hand picked from 8am/6pm
Yield/Ha: 14 tons
Total Production: 1,25,000 bottles
Fermentation method: Fermented at 18-20°C, in stainless steel tanks for 10-15 days and final ageing in stainless steel tanks.
Total Acidity: 6.0
A beautiful and vibrant Chenin based blend with aromas of peach, lemon and melons. Clean acidity and mineral texture adds to the freshness and the delightful palate of this wine from Fratelli.
Lahsuni Bhindi, Masala Khichdi, Kakori Kebabs, Som Tam (Thai Green Papaya Salad).
Mike Simmonite is co-creator, with his wife, Gemma, of Gastrono-me, on Abbeygate Street,
Bury St Edmunds