Please tell us about yourself
From Rajkot in the dry State of Gujarat to the Duty-Free Hong Kong where he is the Chief Sommelier in one of the top luxury hotels, Peninsula, Dheeraj Bhatia has come a long way because of his grit, determination, hard work and passion for wine. Subhash Arora had a chat with him at the hotel during his recent visit to Hong Kong and shared his vision and aspirations and his motivational advice to the budding sommeliers in India.
What do you do?
Hotel Peninsula Hong Kong is located in Tsim Sha Tsui in South Kowloon. It is the oldest and one of the highly rated super deluxe hotels of Hong Kong and the flagship property of the Peninsula Group of Hotels. With seven restaurants, it has an enviable wine list of around 800 labels. Being the Chief Sommelier of such a prestigious property would be any Sommelier’s dream; Dheeraj Bhatia, who has been working in the hotel for two years and a half, is the Chief Sommelier.
Bhatia was a fellow judge at the Decanter Asia Wine Awards in Hong Kong last year and impressed me as a soft spoken, humble and successful sommelier who is proud of his Indian heritage and had an interesting story to tell.
Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Born in Mumbai, Dheeraj grew up in Dubai. He started working at the age of 15 and says he knew from the beginning that the hospitality industry is where he wanted to be. He finished his 4-year bachelor’s programme in VIHTM, Rajkot (Vivekananda Institute of Hotel& Tourism Management) that doubled up as a restaurant too. He interned with Grand Hyatt in Mumbai but really wanted to become a Chef in the early days. ‘I came to Delhi where I interned for one month with the hope of getting a chance to work in the kitchen. During this time I worked exclusively with the tandoor (Indian clay oven).’ He didn’t succeed much in his mission but he did meet his wife at Hyatt Regency where she was also interning in the pastry department.
After he graduated from his college he was selected for the management programme in The Grand Hyatt Mumbai. But he decided to go to Delhi instead, hoping to find a job in the kitchen but was told everywhere that he was more suited for the front office job. Out of sheer desperation he took up the job at The Grand (Hyatt had been omitted in the name by then). But he lasted only 2 days in his first job. ‘This was not me. This was not what I wanted. I knew I won’t get anywhere working here,’ he says and he quit.
He got his lucky break when he was picked up by Oberoi. ‘My life was changed when I was chosen to be a part of the opening team of Threesixty Degrees Restaurant. The legendary Raj Rao who had come from the US was the driving force. They had a big wine program. I was enjoying flying all over the restaurant-behind the bar, in the cellar, on the tables, talking to guests, tasting and learning about cheeses.’
Tell us about your career path
He got another break when he was offered a job at Burj Al Arab in Dubai. ‘Actually I was not at all interested to go back to Dubai. But one day as I was chatting up a couple of female guests at the bar, they asked me if I would like to work in Dubai. I told them I wasn’t interested to go back to Dubai. As luck would have it, the women were the HR team of the Burj Al Arab group. They asked me to come for the interviews they were conducting in a week and check out the property they had in mind for me. I did and was offered the job at the iconic Burj al Arab where I was promoted to apprentice sommelier.’
He worked with some great chefs at the hotel. Then he moved to Cape Town as a consultant and opened a restaurant. From there he moved to Singapore, working for a French Chef, Julien Bompard, who was already in the limelight and was opening Le Saint Julien restaurant. As he finished his project, Raffles was reviving the whole F & B team and offered him a position as a Sommelier. Chef Bompard had worked in Raffles earlier and with his blessings, Bhatia joined the Raffles team where he was promoted as the head sommelier within a year. ‘I won a couple of internal awards and was also chosen as the Best Sommelier in Singapore in my second attempt. They sent me to Seychelles to open the new Raffles there. After the opening I was sent to Beijing where several high ended wine dinners were being organized.’
Bhatia was fortunate to meet Ferran Adrià, the famous Chef of the now-closed Spanish Restaurant elBulli, in Beijing, who had organized Spanish wine dinners. ‘I did the menu for him and selected wines from Spain though I was not much acquainted with them. Frankly I was very nervous and did a lot of research on Spanish wines. But when I showed him the Menu, he asked me if I had tasted the wines selected and instantly approved it.’
So how did Bhatia end up in Peninsula? ‘Actually, the process of change took 6 months. I was in Hong Kong on a holiday and had lunch with their Director. He convinced me to come here as the Chief Sommelier. I have 2 Sommeliers and 12 beverage ambassadors reporting to me. These are F&B people focused on beverages including wine and spirits. We have 7 restaurants, a pool-side beverage service and room service-each of these outlets has at least one ambassador overseeing the service.’
With such a vast experience, it might appear that he changes job frequently. ‘Not so,’ he says emphatically. ‘Everywhere I have worked consistently for around 2.5 years.’ So is it time for another change? I ask in a lighter vein. ‘No, I am very happy here. I have got interesting assignments that keep me on my toes for 12-14 hours a day.’
How does it feel being a wine sommelier
One of the reasons he has to spend so much time is ‘because I must read constantly to upgrade my wine knowledge. The customers that come here are all wine-smart. If they ask me a question I must be in a position to answer them correctly and instantly-everyone here can Google for the correct information in seconds and it can be embarrassing if I don’t have the right answer.’
How does he feel being on the wine side rather than becoming the Chef that he always wanted to become, I ask? ‘It’s been an interesting journey. Wine has changed my life. It changed me as a person,’ he says looking thoughtful .
So what are his goals, now that he has reached the pinnacle as the Chief Sommelier of a top hotel? “There are two options. I could step up and go towards general management or continue exploring in the same direction. My senior management wants me to step up and look at the bigger perspective. I am analyzing at this point. But right now I am busy drawing up plans for interesting events besides creating leads for new business, work as a buyer for the hotel for all wines-including rare wines and fine wines.’ His job also involves focus on training and working very closely with chefs and pairing food with wine.
How big is the wine portfolio at Peninsula? ‘We have over 800 labels now but in January we are looking at around 900. Apart from the Old and New World, we also have exotic stuff from countries like Japan, Hungary, Czech and Greece. You have been to Georgia recently; I would love to have those wines we call Discovery wines-for the wine connoisseur looking for something exotic and different. At the same time they won’t sell by themselves. It is my job to be able to explain to them properly.
Would he be interested in keeping Indian wines in stock as we talk about the recent launch of Vijay Amritraj Reserve Collection in India and the event hosted by the Indian Wine Academy at the Spice Market, Delhi? ‘Surely, we would be keen-provided they are available in Hong Kong, even though we might not be able to sell big numbers. We like to have a story; I think VA Reserve Collection would make a good story because of Amritraj.’ A food for thought for Grover Zampa!
What are your future plans?
Would he consider relocation to India? ‘It is a possibility. My wife is from Delhi and would love to be stationed there. But I am not sure we are ready for good sommeliers in the Indian environments. A Sommelier’s job is extremely important. Besides education, a sommelier must have a hands-on experience; he must work very closely with the chefs. He also needs to understand the customer very well and should be able to handle all situations.’ He goes on to illustrate how Raj Rao used to drive them at Oberoi. ‘He would hand out a bottle of wine to us and say-go talk to the customer about it. Engage them. We would be uncomfortable then but I realise now how important it is for a sommelier to engage with the customer,’ he says.
Your advice to students?
‘What is your advice to the budding Sommeliers in India’, I ask him as I take the last quick sip of Peninsula Brut- the private label champagne from Deutz. It is past midnight and I must rush back to my Hotel across the Bay and pack my bag to checkout and leave the hotel next morning at 8:30 for the Hong Kong Conference and Exhibition Center where I am judging at the Cathay Pacific HKIWSC.
His advice, ‘explore every opportunity with wines. Visit domestic or international vineyards whenever your time and situation allows. A good Sommelier must also have immense food knowledge of different cuisines, flavors, taste etc. Be good friends with your chefs and indulge in a food and wine chat with them. Be humble and approachable to all guests & staff at all times. With this slowly you will spread the wine-centric culture.’ He says as he gets into a sentimental mode and proclaims, ‘India is going to be one of the top wine markets and demand for professional Sommeliers will rise. I am at disposal any time should they wish to know more details or need any kind of further assistance.’
As we say goodbye, he gives me his email firstname.lastname@example.org for anyone interested and says he will always try to answer all their queries and assist them in all ways he can.
Here’s to Dheeraj Bhatia- A Successful Sommelier who is proud of being an Indian! We are proud of him and his success.