Described as a ‘consummate professional with a sense of fun, contagious love for wine and an ability to explain it to almost anyone’ by Wine List Confidential content editor Douglas Blyde, Katie Exton has all of the credentials for running what is a balanced, drinkable and affordable wine list at Lorne, her London restaurant. As one of a few female sommeliers in the UK, she explains how she came to the job, her Michelin starred experience and why she and her business partner Pete Hall decided to go it alone.
“After university I wanted to go travelling but my parents put their foot down and said that it was time that I started earning some money! I have always loved food and was really interested in ingredients and cooking and so I thought that I’d like to do something with that. I looked at the Waitrose food buying programme, but my dad said to me, ‘why don’t you think about wine, it’s an interesting field, a bit dominated by men at the moment but that might mean for a woman that it could be an interesting place’. He knew someone who had a vineyard in Canada and said ‘if you want to do a bit more travelling you could go to Canada and you could pick grapes there which was just ideal. And it was from that point that I started reading about wine and I suddenly realised that there was this whole world that you see, you’re aware of and you interact with because I drank wine, but I had no idea how complex and wonderful it was. It’s a really romantic subject and it tied into my love food and I just wanted to know more and more. So, I spent a year travelling around vineyards, came back to the UK definitely wanting to do something with wine. I went to Majestic who had graduate programmes and paid for your wine education so again, it was learning more about the subject. I had by now decided that retail wasn’t for me at all and then I watched a tv show where a sommelier was one of the jobs in a restaurant and it looked incredibly glamorous, talking about and tasting wine all day and thought that I’d give that a try. “I was aware of Chez Bruce (opened in February 1995 by Bruce Poole and his business partner Nigel Platts-Martin) through working in Clapham and so I decided to send them my cv as I had decided that I wanted to be a sommelier and it was just really good timing as they were looking for a trainee. As luck would have it the sommelier was Canadian so with my experience of Canada and the vineyards there, he gave me a go.”
Despite the sommelier’s reservations about Katie’s abilities and whether a restaurant would be the right place for her to work, she found that she fitted into restaurant life and wine beautifully. “It was the right restaurant for me – I think I could have gone and worked for someone like Gordon Ramsay was really flying at the time and had loads of sommeliers but Chez Bruce was a much more structured set up. It was a combination of what Chez Bruce represented as a restaurant which really resonated with me and was everything that I loved: attention to detail, enough for me to care about but not things that seemed pointless and I met Terry Threlfall the Head Sommelier who tasted the same as me, we liked the same types of wines, he loved sharing and talking about wine. It was just a great fit and I stayed there for six and a half years. As a restaurant we also bought wines to put aside and when you were the Head Sommelier you weren’t only responsible for buying the wine list but also for think of the cellar and what the wine list would look like in five or ten years. You were allowed to love wine, and you were spending someone else’s money and as long as I was learning and growing, I was happy.”
Katie did leave temporarily and went to work at one of Nigel’s other restaurants, The Square and that was where she met Pete Hall a chef who is now her business partner and chef owner. “I worked there for about six months and it was an incredible experience. A two Michelin starred restaurant in Mayfair with a wine list, because it was owned by Nigel, which was amazing, it was a great job, but I felt that Chez Bruce was my real fit and my real home and I wasn’t at home at The Square. So, when I got the opportunity to go back as Head Sommelier I went back as quickly as I could.”
Having got to thirty, Katie reached a professional crossroads and needed to decide where she felt that she wanted to be. “I thought I’m either going to be working for somebody else really hard for the next ten years and I treated Chez Bruce like my own restaurant in terms of how much I cared and what I gave and that’s what all of the members of staff are like because that’s what Bruce instils in people, or I’ve got to go and work as a food and beverage director in a hotel so that I can have more sensible hours or I’ve got to have my own restaurant. From deciding that I wanted to run my own business and handing my notice in at Chez Bruce (because I couldn’t commit to both) took five years and during that time I got asked if I’d like to work at The River Café which is something you don’t say no to and so what was supposed to be a temporary six months ended up being three years because I just fell in love with the company ethos, with Ruthie and the food. If I think of food that’s influenced me, the food at The River Café is just what I loved to eat so it was such a pleasure to work there.” In the meantime, Pete and Katie had kept in touch in the years since they’d been at The Square – he was in the States working for a three Michelin starred chef and she asked if he’d be up for coming into business with her. He said yes and came back to the UK. “Pete went and worked at Brawn and then we both decided that we really needed to get things going which took about 18 months and after lots of the usual ups, downs and setbacks Lorne was finally born. We love the area, it’s got an SW1 postcode, is near to a busy transport station, it’s residential, business and I was well aware that a lot of the wine trade is based around or lives in south west London. People eat and drink differently in parts of London and I knew that the restaurant was going to have a wine focus to it. I’ve always worked in south west London and I wanted to open a restaurant somewhere that I felt that I really knew my customers.
Sitting, as we are, in the restaurant, the bright, fresh décor at Lorne is a nod to simple California style. As a former Indian restaurant, the previous interior was dark and having just spent time with her sister in California, Katie wanted it to remind her of fresh air, the sea and open spaces. This dovetailed neatly with the name Lorne which she and Pete came up with having found it was a place that they had both visited and loved in Australia – a beautiful coastal spot with a pared back Mediterranean atmosphere. Since then, Lorne has gone from strength to strength and has now moved into opening for Sunday lunches as well as their usual lunches and dinners. “Lorne‘s menu is relatively small, the idea being that its very ingredient led but also that the ingredients are really fresh. So, if we only have five dishes, we know that we’ll sell all of those dishes and we won’t have anything that’s been sitting around for five or six days. It gravitates towards a slightly older audience rather than families and so we like the idea of making Sunday lunch a family event. For some of our regulars it gives them the opportunity to forgo the baby sitter and come with their children and treat it like a local restaurant.” On the menu are sharing starters and a twist on the traditional roast to make it different from the usual pub fare along with a good pud like apple crumble to round things off and there are also children’s dishes.
Two years after the launch of Lorne, Katie muses on the ethos behind it and where they’ve got to. “The idea with Lorne was that Pete and I didn’t want to open London’s best restaurant. We just wanted it to be, for some people, their favourite restaurant and that’s what a good local restaurant should be – somewhere that you walk away from feeling that you’ve had a really great evening and the food has been a component of the evening rather than the entire night. Pete and I have grown too and relaxed into our roles; we’ve been able to let go of wanting to be in control of everything. When you first open a business, you want to be in control of everything but as we relaxed and realised that we need to learn to delegate more we feel that we’ve become better restauranteurs. Even with the wine, I’ve had to relinquish control over that because I can’t run a restaurant, look after staff, oversee some of the things that Pete needs support with and run a wine list – it’s just not possible. It means that I’ve had to slightly sacrifice my passion to run the restaurant whereas Pete is still doing what he bought into at the beginning, cooking. Maybe in a few years I’ll be able to come back to that. Owning your own business is hard but so rewarding – it’s more emotionally difficult that I ever anticipated but it’s a lovely feeling to think that the restaurant is ours.
Katie’s thoughts on trends:
If I think about the time that I’ve worked in restaurants and see how they’ve evolved and changed, all restaurants are constantly responding to trends because our tastes adapt and change, we’re influenced by health, younger chefs coming through have different palates – so what Bruce likes in food is definitely different from what Pete likes in food. Pete is more inspired by trends that come through whereas Bruce has made up his mind and has his palate quite defined and doesn’t need to respond as much. We eat lighter food, we eat fresher food and any good restauranteur must respond to what your customer wants. I think there are still restaurants that will stay the same because that’s their signature – The River Café has still got the squid with red chilli and rocket that it had when it started and will never change because it’s popular and timeless, so it doesn’t need to.
We are slightly different here at Lorne because I represent front of house and Pete the kitchen and often in restaurants that are chef led everyone must do what the kitchen says and are far too scared to say anything different whereas in this restaurant there are two very strong personalities representing both departments all of the time. Right at the beginning we had a massive argument over balsamic vinegar – to have or not to have. We have an olive oil that comes from one of the staff, it’s beautiful and quite peppery and Pete was adamant that we wouldn’t have the balsamic vinegar, but I couldn’t see the point of getting into that conversation with a customer who wanted it. In the end we decided and there is no balsamic vinegar here.
People are obsessed with food especially in London and this comes through in television programmes, cooking, baking and it’s at every level. Take the street food movement and all of the food vans that have appeared. That didn’t exist at all when I started in the restaurant industry and now it’s huge. There’s incredible Thai food, vegan food and vegetarian and as all of these become more mainstream and people become more interested in it, the quality of that will grow. Food is really at the top of its game in London and this is filtering down through the rest of the country and people are going out more than ever to eat.
Interview and words : Amber Beard