I first met Rahman while visiting the Sheraton Shanghai Hongqiao Hotel to conduct interviews for China Travel Hotel Biz Insider: The Sheraton Shanghai Hongqiao's convention(al) wisdom. After an interesting conversation in French, English and Chinese, I discovered that Rahman is not your average professional epicure, but the former Vice President of the Singapore Sommelier Association. With his considerable expertise so near at hand, I resolved to come back to interview him as soon as possible so that I (and you, dear reader) might take advantage of his insights into the realm of fine wine and dining.
Stephan Larose: What is your job and what do you like most about it?
Rahman Lal: I’m the Director of Food & Beverage at the Sheraton Shanghai Hongqiao; my duties entail managing the entire F&B operation in the hotel which includes all kitchen operation. The beauty of this job is that you have the chance to meet all kinds of people from different walks of life, and you also have the chance to meet dignitaries. In addition to all that, I also get to enjoy all the good food & wine we offer here at the hotel, and that's a perk few have that we enjoy in this business.
SL: How did you fall in love with wine?
RL: It all started at my first job in this industry. I was working with a German Maitre ‘D’ which was a really demanding job, very high expectations. As waiters, we have to know all the basics for all wines on a menu, that can be a lot of knowledge to take in. As I worked I discovered that wine and wine culture are extremely deep and complex. I was immediately interested.
Just a few weeks later I started doing research on wine, enrolled in some sommelier training and started attending wine tasting events. I remember the first wine that really affected me was a German Riesling, it created very particular sensations in my nose, there was a flowery aroma, like a hint of nectar, elegant notes and the body of the wine was very smooth.
SL: What led you to your position as VP of the Singapore Sommelier Association?
[pullquote]Shanghai is Asia's next New York City. It's full of amazing vibes, excellent F&B venues and really is the place to be now in Asia.—Rahman Lal, Director of Food and Beverage Sheraton Shanghai Hongqiao [/pullquote] RL: I was very active in the Singapore wine scene and I'd accrued a lot of knowledge and expertise, and that's basically what led me to be the VP of Singapore Sommelier Association. I enrolled in courses to broaden my knowledge as well, and they all helped me to achieve that position. I am still actively involved in the advising committee back in Singapore.
SL: How did you come to be in Shanghai and how long have you been here?
RL: I got this job directly from the hotel. I was in the Maldives just doing my job one day when I received a call from the GM here in Shanghai and the next thing I knew I was on a plane. I've been in this city for two and the half year now.
SL: But, the Maldives are a tropical paradise aren't they?
RL: Yes indeed it's a tropical paradise, but life there is just not as dynamic, I think after a while anyone would get very bored. I’m a very energetic type of person and I’m always looking to drive my career forward.
SL: What could possibly make a man leave such a beautiful place for Shanghai? I gotta tell you, that sounds a little crazy!
RL: (Laughs) Well, it depends what you're looking for, the beach life is heaven for some, but if you are an energetic person who needs to see life change, island life might not be the right place for you, but the Maldives were definitely a great experience for me as a hotelier, I gained tremendous knowledge about resort management and that experience served as a springboard for my career.
SL: What attracted you to this city?
RL: Shanghai is Asia's next New York City. It's full of amazing vibes, excellent F&B venues and really is the place to be now in Asia. That's what made me want to move here.
SL: Singapore has a very strong Chinese influence, but do the culinary scenes between Singapore and Shanghai differ much?
RL: Yes indeed Singapore has very strong Chinese influence but we have huge multi-cultural community too. Take me for example, my late parents are Pakistani, Dutch & Portuguese. The Chinese cuisine you experience in Singapore is actually totally different from what you get here, especially if you compare it to authentic Shanghainese cuisine, which I personally find a little too oily for my tastes. The Chinese community in Singapore produces something much more like Cantonese-style cuisine. Most of the Chinese Singaporeans speak Cantonese rather than Mandarin.
SL: As someone who deeply appreciates food and drink, do you have any favorite meal/wine combos in Shanghai/China you can share?
RL: Having been in this business for the past 24 years I have tried so many European cuisines, from French, Italian, Spanish, to Mediterranean, but at the same time, as an Asian I still enjoy authentic Asian cuisine—which employs so many natural spices and herbs. These authentic cuisines have their own natural flavors. Now that I’m in China I'm enjoying discovering all the different foods found in different cities. I'm particularly fond of the spicy cuisine from Sichuan and Hunan. I'm a frequent patron at a restaurant on Fumin Lu called Gu Yi and a Sichuan restaurant called Sichuan Citizen on Donghu Lu.
While in the Sheraton Shanghai Hongqaio Hotel I enjoy the cuisine from our Japanese restaurant Hanano, all our sashimi and seafood is very fresh, delivered daily. Plus I like that it's all you can eat, you get great value for your money.
We have another outlet here called Café Bistro, I love the “Big” Sunday Brunch concept we introduced recently, almost all the food items we serve are super-sized, I'm talking really big. Think king prawn, jumbo-sized sandwiches, family-size croissants, everything is BIG! Everything is also prepared fresh daily, we can’t keep these items overnight.
SL: You mentioned that you like the cuisine of the province of Sichuan. What wine would you match with such a meal? Or does it go better with a specific beer or bai jiu (rice wine)?
RL: I wouldn't necessarily pair Sichuan cuisine with bai jiu, I actually pair a lot of Chinese food with Riesling, this wine has a good balance of acidity and a well structured body, you also can pair Sichuan cuisine with Pinotage, Pinot Noir.
SL: There's been increasing international buzz about Chinese vintners. Do you have any Chinese wine suggestions for those looking to try a fine Chinese wine?
RL: Chinese vintners are growing very fast, even breaking out internationally, as most of the local wineries partner with international winemakers coming from Europe especially French, Italian and Spanish vintners. Some of the wines which I've tasted that are outstanding include wines from Grace Vineyard, Château Chanyu (Changyu Afip Yantai) and Chateau Haudon Parry (Qingdao).
SL: You also are a fan of bartending. Where do you go for a great drink in Shanghai?
RL: I’m not a trained bartender but I have so much passion for mixology. I like to mixed drinks whenever I have the free time while I’m working.
SL: Wow, I bet there are a lot of people who'd like to be able to say that!
RL: (Laughs) Well, I'm lucky, the opportunity to mix drinks when I'm free drove me to be a bit of a mixologist. I’m a big fan of Mojito’s but I'm having trouble finding a good bar that serves a nice Mojito these days. I heard that there is this new cocktail bar called Alcotel—I hope the spelling is right! I do Mojito’s mixed with a variety of fruit for the hotel bar, especially during summer when the local fruit called Yang Mei is in season. These fruits have a unique aftertaste and blend well with all the other ingredients in a nice Mojito.
SL: What's your top restaurant pick in Shanghai?
RL: In Shanghai? There are too many nice restaurants to choose from here! Well, the best restaurants I've been to recently are John Georges and Steelers, you should give them a look.
SL: I might just do that! Thank you so much for your time!
RL: My pleasure!