Tommy Lam, the 64-year-old chairman of the Southeast Asia Sommelier Alliance, was in Phnom Penh last week to host the second Cambodian Sommelier Competition at Topaz restaurant. Since he first came to Cambodia last August to host the first competition, Lam, who was born in mainland China and raised in Hong Kong and is currently based in Singapore, has been on a mission to promote the profession in the Kingdom’s restaurants and hotels by holding workshops and contests for fledgling sommeliers. He spoke to Bennett Murray about Cambodia’s young wine stewards, the limited wine education in the region and his own conversion to wine aficionado in Singapore.
What is the state of the sommelier profession in the region?
In Asia, many countries do not have a profession called sommelier. But now we are getting more. In Singapore, they will include ‘sommelier’ in the directory, the government gazette, in 2015. So sommelier is becoming a proper profession.
Where are the highest quality sommeliers in Southeast Asia?
Malaysia and Singapore are very high. And Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam are coming up. Cambodia is just quiet, but who knows. The kids are very keen and hard working. They will come up. They can be on par with Malaysia and Singapore. I’ve never been to Laos, but after Cambodia, I will go there. Myanmar too.
How did you end up in Cambodia?
We have many different sommelier associations in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Hong Kong, so I thought: why can’t we have an association in Cambodia? I knew someone here who happens to know Alain [Darc, former executive chef of Topaz] and they are very keen here on building up the profession. Then I came here last year and ran the sommelier competition.
How good were the contestants at last week’s Cambodia Sommelier Competition?
The kids are very green. But since last year, they remembered what I taught them and they got a lot better. The three finalists all came from last year’s program [contest] and they’re all very good now. I will show that after two or three years more, Cambodian sommeliers will be as strong as any Southeast Asian country.
How did you get involved with wine?
I had a French restaurant in 1995 in Singapore. At that time I knew nothing about wine. I came from Hong Kong, and I only knew beer, whiskey and brandy. But as I had a French restaurant, I needed to know wine. From the beginning, I only ordered wine by looking at the label – if it was beautiful, I bought. If it wasn’t beautiful, I rejected. Then I realised I needed to know more about wine so I went around to look for people to teach me. I found a master’s degree program in Bordeaux, so I went to study and came back with my wine MBA, and people asked me: “Tommy, we want to learn about wine.” I started from the bottom, knowing nothing about wine, and slowly I learned, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to go out and learn from other people, and I realised at that time, very few people knew, so I decided to teach, and from 2006 I started teaching. The Asia-Wine Institute is my own company set up for wine training.
Where should Southeast Asians go to learn the trade?
Going to Europe, France or Germany, they have sommelier schools. But it’s a long commute. In Asia, young people don’t have so much time and the luxury. You’ll have to study in Europe for two or three years and it’s too much money and time. So the best way is to bring it here: a short course with a precise, practical base, so they can play an active role in the restaurant. Because being a sommelier, the first, most important goal is they must know how to recommend and how to sell wine. That comes from knowledge, experience and practical learning.
What needs to happen in Cambodia for the country’s sommeliers to get better?
Restaurants and hotels supporting their kids. [Sommeliers] need five to 10 years to reach close to the European and American standards. But if you think of all the spending in a hotel, beverage contribution is very high. Sometimes the check is 60 per cent beverage and 40 per cent food. And the waste is minimal and the overhead is very small, so when the industry really realises the importance of the sommelier, the sommelier can earn more and can become more important.