Like a fine wine - Danielle Meenagh, winner of Michel Roux's Service Sommelier Scholarship
PUBLISHED: 13:48 16 March 2011 | UPDATED: 15:39 24 September 2015
Claire Pitcher talks to Danielle Meenagh, winner of Michel Roux's Service Sommelier Scholarship, about her training at Winchester's Hotel du Vin and what being tutored by the famous chef was really like
Twelve months ago 19 year old Danielle Meenagh never thought that she would soon be an assistant sommelier at Winchester’s Hotel du Vin but, thanks to master chef Michel Roux, she has a bright future in front of her.
Many will remember her as being the sometimes stroppy teenager lacking in confidence on Michel Roux’s Service on BBC 2 – a show where the Michelin star chef wanted to find two protégés and offer them fantastic scholarships to kick start their career in the industry.
Over the eight weeks viewers watched Danielle go from being green behind the ears when it came to anything to do with the fine dining experience, to a capable and mature front of house superstar.
As seen on TV
Like most of the hopefuls who appeared on the show, Danielle was uncertain about what career path she should take, but as we sat in the cosy lounge at Hotel du Vin she looked as though she had found the right one: “I come from Manchester originally. When I applied to go on the programme I was just doing part time retail work and a Saturday job in a barbers shop. I wasn’t really doing anything and I needed a direction to go in life. This opportunity has given me that direction.”
Applying for the show was literally as easy as typing ‘jobs’ into Google. The advert said ‘find your dream career’ and Danielle wasn’t put off from applying when she discovered it would be aired on the BBC, “My mum was more scared than I was – ‘why do you want to share all your private business on TV’, she asked. The first episode I watched back I was sweating with nervousness. It’s funny, while you’re taking part you forget the cameras are there – it was only afterwards I started worrying about it.”
It’s fair to say that one of her less finer moments on Service was when instead of pouring out a 250ml measure of wine, she put the measure itself into the wine glass: “Well it shows how far I’ve come doesn’t it?” she retorted, as general manager Mark Jones reminded her of the cringe worthy scene.
“I did a lot of ridiculous things that, if they’d have shown them, would have portrayed my progress a bit more. The very first day I couldn’t even carry a tray with two glasses of Champagne. I managed to drop them all over myself when we were at the Hilton – I wish they’d have shown that.”
Watching all of Michel’s trainees transform during Service was fascinating to watch. At the start of the show some were acting like spoilt brats, fighting with each other. It was all mentor Fred Sirieix could do to keep them in check and Michel himself was at the end of his tether. But, as time went on: “We all called him Uncle Michel,” Danielle reveals. “I think because of chefs like Gordon Ramsay people see chefs as being mean and that they swear a lot. Michel isn’t like that all. He’s genuine, down to earth and honest.”
“Because of the likes of Gordon Ramsey people see chefs as being mean, Michel isn’t like that at all. He’s genuine and honest.”
As Danielle progressed through the show she began to come into her own when it came to the wine side of service and she still remembers the experience that sparked her interest: “It was when we went to Texture in Mayfair,” she recalls. However it was also just before this trip that she considered leaving the process: “It was Michel who stopped me. He got me through it. When we started getting into the wine aspect of the training I thought to myself ‘actually I’m really enjoying this’, so I stuck at it and I’m so glad I did. If I hadn’t carried on I don’t know what I would be doing now – I’d probably be back at my mum’s in Manchester.”
So from being so close to quitting to eventually winning must have been a real rollercoaster ride for the 19 year old and yet she still finds it humbling, “I couldn’t believe it. When they said I had got the scholarship I screamed in disbelief. I’m very aware that without the opportunity I was given it would have been much harder to get to where I am already, I’m so grateful for that. Michel, Fred and Ronan Sayburn were so genuine – you could tell they were pleased for us; they wanted us to succeed and do well.”
Six months on and Danielle has just completed her scholarship at the Hotel du Vin and she certainly seems to have endeared herself to the staff, as well as the customers (as we sit chatting waiter Tommy delivers her a hot chocolate topped with a frothy heart). But it hasn’t been all play and no work: “I’ve picked up a lot while I’ve been at the hotel. Head sommelier Bastian Fischer is fantastic. He’ll describe the wines to me, if there’s anything special about them – he’ll explain exactly what I need to know.”
And the compliments keep on coming, this time from Mark: “She’s so natural and relaxed with the customers and a very hard worker. All she has to do is be herself – she’s like a breath of fresh air.”
So impressed are they at Hotel du Vin that they are offering Danielle a full time sommelier role at a new venue in Clerkenwell, London: “Hotel du Vin’s director of Wine Ronan Sayburn already had Danielle highlighted as moving to London. She has the passion and commitment to stay,” says Mark proudly. What will hopefully take some pressure off though is that Mark will be the manager at the new Bistro du Vin: “He’s coming to keep an eye on me,” jokes Danielle.
What more could she ask for? It seemed strange to ask her where she sees herself in 10 years from now, as she’s already come so far for one so young. Ever humble, she simply replied: “I hope to be doing just this – but a head sommelier. Michel
said to me that within two years I could become just that and it’s his words that are motivating me and re my inspiration.”