A South Surrey restaurateur has won the title of BC Sommelier of the Year.
Alistair Veen, 37, co-owner of Tap Restaurant in Rosemary Heights, gained the prestigious accolade – recognition of his expertise in serving wines and teaming them with different menus – in a grueling service exam last week before an expert panel at the Captain’s Dining Room at Rogers Arena.
But Veen noted laughingly he’s still not sure how many people outside the wine and restaurant business know what a sommelier is.
“You could say I’m a wine-nerd, or a wine-guru,” he said with typical self-deprecating humour.
He is proud, however, that, as he puts it, “the hardware is coming out to South Surrey” – even though he’s not sure yet whether ‘the hardware’ will end up being a trophy or a plaque to display at his premises, at 15350 34 Ave.
He admits he was considered the dark horse going into the annual competition, presented by the BC chapter of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers and sponsored by the Vancouver International Wine Festival.
In the 15 years since the contest was established, he said, the title has never gone outside Vancouver.
Indeed, Vancouver media reporting the event were seemingly astonished that anyone from Surrey had the expertise and the flair to ace the competition – quite apart from keeping his cool and his sense of humour through the tense proceedings, which involved a written theory exam and a practical service test, including decanting both white and red wines.
“I was determined to treat it as a learning experience,” the Langley born and raised Veen said of his entry into the field of 10 competitors, noting the irony is that his fellow contestants – including two that accompanied him into the final round, Sean Nelson of Vij’s Restaurant and Shane Taylor of CinCin Ristorante – are far from strangers.
“They’re all close friends of mine. We all get together regularly to discuss wines, we study together. We all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and any single one of us could have taken the title. In fact, I really thought I was not the one who was going to be having this conversation.”
Veen was once part of the Vancouver restaurant scene, himself, in a career that first began with an unglamourous position as part-time dishwasher at a Murrayville pub when he was 15.
The family man (he and his wife, Aron, events director for Tap, have a year-old son, Alex) joined Tap as chef four months after it opened 10 years ago.
With current partner Les Pereira, Veen – who bought out majority partner Curtis Moyen in 2010 – has continued to grow the business as a “premier dining room” blending modern and classic cuisine.
Veen believes that being a chef gave him a distinct advantage in the food and wine pairing component of the contest.
“I have the edge from the sheer amount of wine and food pairings I’ve done around the world – when asked to do that in front of an audience it was like pulling on my socks,” he said. “I’m a chef first and foremost, but once I started really appreciating what was involved in running a restaurant, I realized it was a huge area (to explore). When I turned 27, I decided I was going to focus on wine education.”
While he has appreciated the expressions of support that have flooded in since his win, Veen said he hasn’t “fully absorbed what the ramifications of the award will be” for Tap.
It’s certainly focused Vancouver attention on the venue, he acknowledged, though he’s not expecting a heavy influx of trade from the city.
“It’s a long way to come, through a tunnel and across two bridges.” he said.
“What I’m hoping is that it will make people really interested in staying put in South Surrey, rather than feeling they have to travel through the tunnel and over the bridges to Vancouver – to have the feeling that, holy smoke, we’ve got the top sommelier in B.C. right here in our own backyard.”