Top sommelier Seamus Sharkey tells Shelley Carter about his rapid journey from gap year student to a master of fine dining
A wonderfully snappy name like Seamus Sharkey suggests a life full of adventure, so when we caught up I was worried he might disappoint. I needn’t have, he’s as plucky as the name suggests. Seamus is head sommelier and restaurant manager at Peel’s at Hampton Manor. Impressive sure, but what’s so special about that? Well, firstly he’s just 23-years-old, secondly the commitment and tenacity it’s taken to get there so quickly is extraordinary, and thirdly this isn’t just a job – it’s a way of life. Seamus’s CV reads like someone twice his age.
Post A-Levels, Seamus did what thousands of youngsters do and planned a gap year. This included working in a hotel to save the funds to travel followed by a trip abroad then back to reality to study osteopathy at university. All fairly standard except Seamus caught the hospitality bug big time and never made the trip or started his degree. Both of his parents have a Masters degree in ecology and his sister is studying medicine, so I wonder how they felt about this departure from the Sharkey family norm? “They could see how much I wanted it and knew I wouldn’t waste the opportunity.” You can say that again. Seamus threw himself into it wholeheartedly and as well as spending most of his time working, he spent ‘a disgusting amount of money’ dining in top class restaurants to fuel his knowledge of the industry. He regularly travelled to London, sometimes dining alone, to see first-hand how it’s done in Michelin-starred establishments and attended top wine tasting events.
Having started out with the Menzies group, he then moved to the Dormy House Hotel in the Cotswolds where mentors David Field and David Bryan had a big impact on him. He started waiting tables and quickly moved to restaurant supervisor and began to notice that the level of interaction with the customer serving wine was different to that of serving food. Seamus learned a massive amount at Dormy House before moving to the Michelin-starred, Nut Tree under Michael and Imogen North. “The sommelier at the Nut Tree, Frank Embleton, was brilliant and I worked with him for six months before he moved on and I took on the position of sommelier.” Seamus was 19 at the time and studying wine working towards WSET qualifications furiously when not in the restaurant. He made the bold move of writing to every three-starred Michelin restaurant in the country to ask if he could work there free of charge – or a stage as it’s called in the restaurant trade – for a couple of weeks. With determination and a bit of help from a contact at Bibendum Wines, Seamus managed to get a stage at Gordon Ramsay’s Hospital Road, Sat Bain’s, The Ledbury and the Hand and Flowers under Tom Kerridge.
After two successful years at the Nut Tree achieving a Notable Wine symbol in the AA Guide, Seamus got the call from James Hill at Hampton Manor. “I’d enjoyed working at privately-owned restaurants, so Hampton Manor appealed. The team in place was exciting and the ambition was palpable.” Two years on, he’s created a magnificent 250-bin wine list plus the restaurant which he also now manages has Michelin ambitions which are sky high. “The restaurant has been awarded five AA gold stars and two AA Rosettes which is the highest accolade they can give for a first visit plus we’ve had two inspections by Michelin although we won’t find out the outcome until October.” Seamus talks non-stop and with such passion that I’m slightly embarrassed about what I was – or wasn’t – doing between the ages of 19 and 23. I wonder where his incredible work ethic comes from? “I had a tough paper round as a kid!” he says…