From cruise ship antics to opening Antwerp’s first cocktail bar, Ben Van de Meutter has enjoyed a colourful career that has now led him to managing one of London’s most talked about venues, the Shepherd Market Wine House. Douglas Blyde takes a trip back through his career.
Ben Van de Meutter finds his feet at the Shepherd Market Wine House
The Shepherd Market Wine House venture began as a six week pop-up last November, becoming permanently rooted at the end of March. Steering it is Nathan Lowry, founder of Pall Mall Fine Wine and London Beer House as well as a licensee of easyCoffee, and manager, Ben Van de Meutter, previously head sommelier, Butler’s Wharf Chop House.
Van de Meutter explains that despite Russian backing he is “not wanting to be a Novikov” as he pours a generous serve of flavour house Champagne, Générosité Noire (£10/125ml), a blanc de noirs “crafted by students from Avize Viti Campus since 1952″.
As bubbles strike tongue like tiny pellets of hail, Van de Meutter reveals his interesting trajectory to this point. He describes his first role in hospitality, at age 14, as “a human dishwasher.” The location: the 12-bedroom Hotel De Rosier, Antwerp, once inhabited by the mayor in the time of Rubens. “I couldn’t reach the sink so perched on a beer crate!”
Despite its conversion from Baroque to minimalism today, the entire décor of antiques at the hotel was up sale during Van de Meutter’s washing up stint. “It caught all the celebrities, including Ralph Lauren and Grace Jones.” However, the real treasure drowsed in the cellar. A taste of mature Volnay proved to be a Damascus sip, fuelling Van de Meutter’s future ambitions.
However, before making wine a career, Van de Meutter ventured to Australia “to study English.” Despite having returned on eight occasions, his fanaticism for the country does not appear to extend to its wines – Shepherd Market Wine House’s core list does not list a single bottle reaped from the country’s fringes.
University followed. “I originally studied political and social science while my elder brother went to hotel school, and I followed him around,” says Van de Meutter. “He became a sommelier aboard a cruise for six months. Compared to how dirty politics was, I saw my brother earning $10,000 per month with no outgoings. So I joined the same vessel, age 23 for six months, initially, working towards becoming the head sommelier from 1994 to 1999.”
However, seven years working for a luxury American-owned cruise operator wasn’t all plain sailing. “Every crew member passengers meet on a cruise ship has to be rated 9+/10. If you’re three cruises under nine, you have to see your director.”
And then there were unforeseen issues of a mechanical nature which threatened to cramp the style of a floating pleasure palace.
“I remember when we were as far from the Philippines as we were from Hong Kong our engine caught fire.” The ship, carrying 700 passengers simply “bobbed about for three days without electricity or running water until a tug from Manila towed us to an old US military base in the Philippines”.
There was, however, much merriment aboard, with dinner served at 5pm “for the light” cooked over makeshift barbecues of halved oil barrels, followed by dancing. But supply issues could have spelt a more serious turn. Even food and water rations, dropped by air, soon proved insufficient – and the ship was drifting towards a coral reef. So Van de Meutter made do. “The only thing I had to brush my teeth with was Cristal. It really foams up the toothpaste…”
Disembarked, Van de Meutter took a 10% stake in what he believes was the first cocktail bar in Antwerp, deliberately devoid of beer. “The locals called us crazy back in 2000. But we knew American culture, where vodka was ordered by brand names, and within three weeks, we had to put someone on the door to keep people out!”
Ingredients came from afar. “There was no coconut for the Piña Colada, so we had to pick it up from Slough, and Clamato juice for the Bloody Caesar came from the importers in Ely.”
Like many curious minds, Van de Meutter eventually decided to navigate the world of wine that is London, arriving at City airport “with one suitcase” which he laid down in a friend’s spare room on Old Kent Road. Serendipity led him to D&D’s Butler’s Wharf Chop House, whose team responded positively to his enquiry, having been without a head sommelier for two months – and there he worked for two years.
He was then headhunted to Covent Garden staple, Clos Maggiore, where he became involved in the Shepherd Market project.
In a nutshell
The Shepherd Market Wine House is ideally suited for this small, traditional area of London, hidden away across the road from Green Park. Here the emphasis is providing excellent quality wine in a relaxed, friendly old school environment. For either drinking in or taking away.
Van de Meutter has crafted a wine list from around the world, but with a heavy Bordeaux and Burgundy bias. He draws from nine suppliers including: Alliance, Boutinot, Justerini & Brook, MMD, O.W Loeb & Company and Asset “who are located upstairs”.
So what makes an ideal list? “Ten to fifteen per cent of the labels must be recognisable for guests, with the bulk offering a good alternative from producers we personally know, who you get to know through us,” he explains.
An example is the directly imported exclusive, Château Panchille (£7/175ml), which Van de Meutter served at the Tuesday wine club I attended.
Relative bargains include Super Tuscan, Sassicaia 2011, priced at £180 to drink in (knock of 10% to take it away).
Overall, the Shepherd Market Wine House, with perfectly served wines, a cosy ambience unravelling over two floors, and pristine artisan cheese and charcuterie to absorb the ABV, is a welcome addition and accessible antidote to the more costly wine club type ventures mushrooming elsewhere in the capital.
Van de Meutter raises a Zalto glass to toast his “personal, little team” but chooses an extremely refreshing Mythos lager from Greece to do so. “When you get sticky, you need a crisp lager,” he says.