From blank slate to black sheep sake expert

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 June, 2012, 12:00am


Londoner Matthew Bradford, group beverage buyer of the Cafe Deco Group, started his F&B career at the age of 19 as a kitchen porter at Le Dome on Paris' Left Bank. He has since worked in other parts of France, as well as Britain and Canada. His career history includes a stint at The Groucho Club in London, and posts as a bar and restaurant manager, wine buyer and wine buying consultant.

In 2004, he managed the opening of London's Roka Restaurant and Shochu Lounge, and later repeated the role in Hong Kong for Sakesan in SoHo. He trained as a bartender, is a qualified sommelier, and was appointed an honorary kikisake-shi - sake sommelier - by the Sake Service Institute of Japan. While working as head bartender at The Rotterdam, which was a Dutch brasserie and microbrewery in Toronto, he also served an apprenticeship as a master brewer.

How did you end up working in Paris?

At 19, I was working for Mr Byrite on Oxford Street and I hit it off with a French girl who came in looking for a job. I went with her to Paris for the weekend, fell in love with the place and moved there. I got a job as a kitchen porter, and was forced on the head chef, who was a complete Anglophobe.

That must have been fun

He hated me, but I worked my way up quickly to commis/demi chef de partie for fish, and then the head sommelier came to me and said: 'What do you know about wine?' I said: 'Absolutely nothing,' and he offered me an apprenticeship. I was a blank page and he wanted to fill me. He was a fantastic mentor - influenced by the so-called Judgment of Paris [a landmark blind tasting in 1976 at which Californian wines beat those from France]. He taught me that 'grapes don't wave flags'. What they want is the right terroir. I was exposed to all the great classic wines of France and the regional wines. I passed my apprenticeship and got my tastevin (a silver wine-tasting cup).

How did you become a sake sommelier?

I was general manager of The Collection [in London], a great restaurant with an Asian menu. We needed sake to go with the sushi, and Kikkoman, one of our main suppliers, put us in touch with the Sake Service Institute. I met a couple of guys who came and trained me on the job. They gave me masses of their time and translated all the tasting notes and teaching materials - none of which were available in English, and this was all before Google Translate. I still have notes full of the most amazing typos. They taught me all the different styles. I thought that was the end of it. I put together my sake selection, and then one night I got a call from security saying: 'There are some very interesting looking guys down here asking for you'. It was a posse of Japanese, including one of the guys who had trained me. They presented me with a little triangular badge. They said that although I couldn't take the sake sommelier's exam because it had to be done in kanji [Japanese characters], they felt that I knew enough and wanted to make me an honorary kikisake-shi with a responsibility to represent Japanese culture and sake. It was very moving and unexpected.

Do you think you have done that at Sakesan?

I think here at Sakesan we have helped to popularise sake. Not everyone can go to Roka or Zuma - and they've got great sake lists - but they are quite elitist restaurants. Here we're a bit more of an affordable product.

What does the group beverage buyer's job entail?

I oversee all the wine lists and this has pushed me more than any wine buying job I've had before. We have all these wine and food offerings, and I work with the operations managers to find out what they need and see if we can anticipate the market, and get the right food and wines together. The market here is much more complex than London, Paris or Toronto. They are all international cities, but the market here is multilayered. You've got the Hong Kong people, expats and the returnees, all with different palates.

Do you like biodynamic wines?

When you realise that Domaine de la Romanee-Conti - arguably the greatest wine in the world - has been biodynamic for years, that says something. My disappointment with the biodynamic movement is that too many people have become hung up on labels.

Have you ever been tempted to study for a Master of Wine qualification?

Never. I know some lovely Masters of Wine, but I was exposed to quite a lot of them in Britain, a lot of whom became supermarket buyers, and I perceive the Master of Wine as quite a commercial qualification. To me, it's not about that. I tend to be a bit of a black sheep.