She swirls, she slurps, she serves!

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Leanne Altmann  - waiter to wine buyer

by Dominic Rolfe

 

Leanne Altmann perched on her hotel balcony in Tournon-sur-Rhône and gazed up at the hill of Hermitage. It was 2002 and still a few months before torrential rain would turn the vintage into one of the most forgettable of recent times. But at this moment, Altmann is mid-epiphany. Not only has she just twigged that the village smells like chocolate because Valrhona (“valley of Rhône – ha!” she laughs) is just around the corner but the divinity of terroir has just swept over her. “I saw the setting sun, where it left shadows, the exact appellation of Hermitage and the idea of French wine being of a place rather than a style,” she says, “and it really hit home that it’s because of the geographic features of that region.”

Altmann’s moment of clarity did more than help spirit her to a higher vinous plane. It taught the 2008 Electrolux Young Waiter of the Year the value of going to the source, of learning by doing. “I realised how much understanding you get from looking at something like the hill of Hermitage,” she says, “You can’t learn that properly from books. It was the same with the EAFE experience in a whole restaurant sense.”

Altmann is the wine buyer responsible for the list at Andrew McConnell’s pumping Melbourne restaurant, Supernormal and his latest venture butcher and wine merchant Meatsmith. Her Twitter description reads: “She swirls! She slurps! She serves!” It’s a long way from the moment she stumbled onto the EAFE site and was gripped by a program specifically targeting waiters. “I thought ‘wow, there’s some recognition for being a waiter’,” she says. “and I know it’s a bit harder to get that recognition in the media because what we do it a bit more intangible. But to be honest some of the best dining experiences I’ve had have been created by the people serving me. It’s not just about the food for me, it’s about the atmosphere and service.”

Altmann grew up in Adelaide and finished her Level 4 Wine & Spirit Education Trust Diploma in wines and spirits in early 2015. She has been working in hospitality since she was 15, eventually deciding that her job as a waiter at the Hyatt Adelaide’s fine dining restaurant was more interesting than her business degree. From there she took a job at the National Wine Centre, won the 2001 Daniel Pontifex scholarship and moved to the big, bustling Adelaide restaurant, Cibo, where they made her sommelier. “They really taught me how to run a restaurant,” she says, “and gave me great guidance especially the importance of keeping a great culture at work.”

There followed a stint in the Barossa (Altmann and her partner still ship in bacon from their favourite Barossa butcher) and a job at Gordon Ramsay’s three Michelin star restaurant in Chelsea. “Working there highlighted that next step of professionalism that service allowed,” she says, “the tight culture and attention to detail in the business. It was marvellous … but my visa ran out!”

It was when she returned home, that she entered the EAFE program. “I liked the idea of the questions, how I was exploring my own personal philosophy in the industry,” she says, “and I hadn’t really expected to hear back from them.” But she did and while she admits to being nervous when chosen as one of the finalists on the produce tour. “I thought it would be really competitive,” she says, “but we had a great group and it ended up being like a school trip. The only problem was seeing blokes pulling uni (sea urchin) straight out of the ocean and having some. It’s the best I’ve ever had and I always end up comparing all other uni to those! Some of the chefs that have opened restaurants still use the suppliers they met on the tour.”

Mixing with the other applicants, visiting and listening to suppliers and being in the company of the well-respected judges took her back to that balcony in the Rhône Valley. She was learning by immersion. It also gave her a professional nudge. “The program definitely pushed more and gave me a new focus on my career,” she says, “when you have the opportunity to see how dynamic the Australian restaurant scene can be, it’s an exciting place to learn and grow as a young waiter.”

Follow Leanne on twitter @LeaAlt


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