Chefs who take an active interest in their wine list, and can tell the difference between a Cabernet and a Côte Rotie, are thin on the ground, even at the highest level. Theo Randall, the man behind one of the biggest restaurant launches of last year – Theo Randall at The Intercontinental – is among the handful of exceptions to the rule.
‘I’ve always been interested in wine,’ he explains. ‘My father had a very nice cellar of mostly French wine, and I was encouraged to take an interest on family holidays to France and Italy. One of the earliest experiences I can remember is, aged about eight or nine, going to visit the cellars of one of the big Champagne houses. There were miles and miles of cellars – it was awesome – and I got quite obsessed about wine even at that early age.’
Randall (right) went on to train as a chef, then moved to the iconic River Café, where he was head chef for many years. It was while he was working there that his fledgling interest in wine was nurtured into a passion, partly as a
result of the restaurant’s hands-on approach to research. Together with Ossie Gray, the restaurant’s manager and wine buyer, Randall would visit Italy on a regular basis, tasting wines and researching local dishes.
‘I really enjoyed meeting the winemakers and experiencing regional Italian food with them in their local restaurants,’ he says. ‘It’s where a lot of my inspiration comes from.’While his work at the River Café provided him with a thorough grounding in the diversity of Italian wines, Randall’s oenophilic interests have expanded now that he’s running his own restaurant. His current list, although dominated by Italian bottles, offers an opportunity to indulge in some of the very best of France, Spain, Australia and the Americas.
His preferences, however, are dictated by his familiarity with some of Italy’s most iconic wines. ‘I’m a big fan of Barolo and Barbaresco,’ he says, ‘particularly those from Aldo Conterno. I like the fact that they have amazing length and mineral, truffley flavours. I associate them with the local food – truffles freshly shaved over tagliarini is a perfect match for the wines.’
And, even though Randall has eaten in some of Europe’s best restaurants, he returns, time and again, to Italy, a country whose down-to-earth, egalitarian approach to wine and food fills him with enthusiasm.Whereas in Burgundy, by and large, you have to go to a smart restaurant if you want to match really nice wine with food, in Italy even a little trattoria will have a fantastic selection of wines,’ he explains. ‘It’s the norm there that everyone, from peasant to aristocrat, experiences the same pleasures.’
For Randall, there are no hard and fast rules to food and wine matching. ‘It all depends on the mood you’re in,’ he says. ‘But it’s important that the wine shouldn’t overpower the food, and vice versa. If you have a really big, complex wine and you want to cherish it, you have to be careful what you eat with it – you need a dish with simple flavours.’
(left: Restaurant Theo Randall).
Some of Randall’s favourite food and wine matches:
Azienda Agricol Specogna, Tocai Friulano
with roasted turbotTheo serves this with charlotte potatoes, artichokes, parsley and capers. The ideal pairing will be a wine with a good amount of freshness and enough body to complement the intense flavours. This wine not only stands up to the turbot, it complements the garnish of artichokes, parsley and capers.
Massolino, Barolo Vigna Rionda 1998
with Limousin veal chop
Served with fennel, Swiss chard and salsa verde, this masculine dish needs a wine with structure and tannin. Barolo, a wine made with Nebbiolo grapes, will balance the flavour of the veal and highlight the mint aroma of the salsa verde.
Alpha Zeta, Soave
with taglierini of red mullet, tomato and parsley
To complement the taglierini of red mullet, you need a wine with acidity and plenty of fruit. This Soave is both elegant and fruity and will enhance the flavours of the tomatoes and parsley, while remaining in balance with the taste of the taglierini and mullet.