Descendant of legendary wine merchant still has simple tastes
Geordie Willis is a member of the eighth generation of the Berry family, who own wine merchant Berry Brothers and Rudd (BBR), founded in 1698. However, it was not a foregone conclusion that he would work in the wine trade. After studying English literature at university, he worked in magazine publishing, helping out at weekends in the cellars of the historic London store. After a period of working there full time, Willis spent five years as a design consultant before rejoining the family firm in Hong Kong in 2008 as business development manager.
As a member of the Berry family, were you exposed to fine wines at an early age?
In the cellars, I was lucky enough to be able to taste some amazing wines, but I didn't grow up drinking particularly smart ones. In Hong Kong, there are quite a lot of people taking wines quite near the top end as their starting point, which is lovely, but also rather sad because there are so many wonderful wines across all price brackets. My taste in wine is not particularly grand, and constantly changing. I'm very fickle. I grew up with bordeaux, I suppose, but at the moment I'm tasting a lot of pinots from the New World, as well as burgundies.
Do you enjoy the food and wine scene in Hong Kong?
I do. I've heard it said that Hong Kong restaurants have great food and wine, great service and great views, but very seldom all three. I think that's changing now. I love not just the food in Hong Kong, but also using Hong Kong as a springboard to explore other wonderful food cultures in places such as Vietnam, Thailand and Bali. I love Vietnam; I think Ho Chi Minh City has some wonderful food, and also mainland China.
What are your favourite restaurants in Hong Kong at the moment?
Otto e Mezzo I think is good for Italian. I eat in Alfie's a lot, but obviously I'm somewhat biased about that. (BBR's Fine Wine Reserve adjoins the restaurant.) Che's [Cantonese Restaurant] in Lockhart Road for dim sum: they have these char siu and pineapple buns which are just wonderful. The Night Market [is a good] Taiwanese restaurant in Stanley Street. If you are going high end, the Mandarin Grill is still an institution.
Do you automatically drink wine with Chinese food, or are you equally happy with tea?
Great food and great wine complement each other. It's not a tenuous link, and great wine can almost always add something to a great meal but, at the same time, I'm happy having a cup of tea with dim sum.
You also have an interest in spirits and cocktails?
I like the idea that cocktails are about construction. They are close to cooking, in a way. There is something about the balance and precision that appeals to me, and I think it is something that Hong Kong is getting the hang of, although it's not 'there' yet. In this very cosmopolitan city, people are still drinking Cosmopolitans, which is a shame. We're behind our own expectations in that department. ... There are very few classic cocktails that originated in Hong Kong. The Gunner is the only one I can think of.
Is there a classic cocktail bar in Hong Kong equivalent to the great hotel bars of London and New York?
I think there are people doing wonderfully interesting things, but because Hong Kong as a place moves so quickly, people change lists too frequently or come up with elaborate new cocktails when perhaps they should be concentrating on the classics. From a hotel point of view, The Upper House and The Mandarin [Oriental] hit the mark, but there are also wonderful little places serving fantastic cocktails that no one's ever heard of. There is a scene here, and the responsibility for developing it lies on both sides of the bar. Until we start sending back bad martinis, the bars in question are not going to start making good ones.