Updated: 2012-05-04 11:12
By Mark Graham (China Daily European Weekly)
Belgian sommelier gets head start in Chinese capital
Koen Masschelein's fresh eyes, enthusiasm and youthful approach make him stand out as a sommelier in Beijing. [Mark Graham / for China Daily]
Many restaurant sommeliers can go their entire career without drawing up a fine-dining wine carte from scratch. But moving to China has allowed Belgian Koen Masschelein the opportunity to do it twice in the space of a few years, picking and choosing vintages he thinks are appropriate for wine drinkers in China.
Masschelein first came to Beijing as sommelier with Maison Boulud a Pekin, a gourmet restaurant in the former American legation compound, just off Tian'anmen Square. His wine picks, and expert knowledge, impressed oenophiles in the Chinese capital, so much so that he was later hired as sommelier for the flagship Grill 79 in the China World Summit Wing hotel.
His brief was to produce a wine list that would stand out from the rest in the city - a dream assignment for any sommelier, especially one of such tender years. Masschelein, who is only 28, acknowledges that in other cities, the job would likely have gone to a veteran sommelier.
"To get to this position in Europe would have taken me a very long time, without a doubt," he says. "I worked in a couple of very nice restaurants in France and the problem with those very big hotels and restaurants is that there are people who have been working there all their lives, so you have to wait until one of them retires, or moves on. Also, it is rare that new places such as Grill 79, or Maison Boulud, open up in Europe and when one does come up there are a bunch of candidates already there."
Even in Beijing, Masschelein's appointment raised some eyebrows in the industry. But the hotel's then general manager was determined to have a distinctively different wine list - and figured that the young Belgian's fresh eye, enthusiasm and youthful approach would be perfectly suited to the task. The decision has proved to be a sage one: Masschelein was recently singled out by the owning group, Shangri-La hotels, for fast-track executive training.
"We had a bunch of money and we had our hands free to do whatever we wanted; I was told to get the best wine list possible," Masschelein says.
"It was a great opportunity to start a wine list from scratch, you don't have the heritage from someone before that you have to work your way through.
"It is the best job in the world, you can do whatever you want. It would have been easy to make a big wine list that only has Petrus, Lafite and all the expensive wines, but we took the approach of also making sure there were affordable wines."
"It took almost a year to draw it up, because we were pre-opening for almost a year," he says.
"The biggest surprise was that we get a very different crowd here at Grill 79 from Boulud, it is more Chinese people are more open here and wines I thought would not necessarily move well have done very well and vice versa."
Early in his career, when first introduced to the fine wines in the Belgian restaurants where he worked, Masschelein was puzzled as to why diners were prepared to pay a king's ransom for a particular bottle.
Gradually, the eager-to-learn trainee began to understand the subtleties and nuances of wine, ultimately deciding it was an area he wanted to specialize in.
"I got interested and started to dig deeper and find out why some wines are so special and my interest got bigger and bigger," he says. "After culinary school for four years I did a year of wine studies - a hard job doing wine tastings at 8 in a morning.