International sommelier ensures fine dining at Hippopotamus
When eating at a top-end restaurant like Hippopotamus in Wellington’s iconic Museum Hotel, diners expect the best, in terms of the food and the wine selection. With restaurant manager and head sommelier Maciej Zimny at the helm, they are guaranteed both – the Polish-born professional was acknowledged as New Zealand’s top sommelier in 2015. We chatted to Maciej about his journey from hospitality school in Lubuske to running one of the capital’s best restaurants, and asked him to share some of his secrets of success.
Maciej was born into a very hospitable family, where every mealtime was a special occasion and, as a boy, he dreamed of being a chef. “But when I was young in Poland, there weren’t many options; that’s all changed now.” So, instead, he attended hospitality school as a teenager and specialised in service, a much respected profession in Europe, passing with distinction.
After graduating from high school he decided to study for a degree in European Administration, but didn’t really enjoy it, and soon moved to Southern Italy to continue his hospitality studies. “What better place to immerse yourself in wine culture, exposed to so many great wines!”
A Master’s degree back in Poland, specialising in Hotel Management and Catering, followed but once again Maciej was soon looking for new challenges, and learning English had always been a priority for him (he’d already mastered Italian and German) “The UK would have been too easy, I wanted to immerse myself in a completely different culture.”
Which is how he ended up on this side of the world, studying English and working in Sydney, initially front-of-house at Dockside, and then as senior sommelier at Matt Moran’s Aria.
But the quest for new experiences had taken hold and Maciej decided to apply for positions on this side of the Tasman. “New Zealand appeared as a country of opportunities, that would continue to evolve in terms of the food and wine scene.”
And Wellington and the Museum Hotel seemed the natural choice. We asked Maciej a few questions about what makes the experience at Hippopotamus, where he’s been since 2012, so special, and he shared a few wine tips and matches with us.
Describe the essence of Hippopotamus for us.
We provide an old-fashioned European fine-dining experience. The whole structure of the restaurant is about the experience – it is an individual place with character, driven by people who are passionate about what they do. It also serves one of the best high teas in the world, and was global winner of the Dilmah High Tea Challenge in 2015.
Being sommelier for a top-notch restaurant must be a demanding job. What makes it all worthwhile?
I treat any business I work in as if it were my own – I give it 120% of my time and passion to make it successful. It’s all about satisfaction – when a guest finishes dinner and I see the satisfaction in their eyes as they say ‘thank you’. It’s like a drug, it is the best feeling.
What constitutes a good wine list to you?
The core of its success is that it has to match the restaurant and the level of food – a fine dining restaurant serving entry-level wines will not work. It shouldn’t be overcomplicated – offer some well-known brands to make people feel comfortable and offer some interesting options as well. And always have someone well-trained on hand to guide guests through the options – that makes it easier to introduce them to different wines.
What is your personal favourite food and wine match?
As a sommelier I like to drink different wines – to drink something I haven’t tried before excites me the most. But, at home and with friends, I do love Champagne, matched with seafood or simply with parmesan cheese.
Name Hippopotamus’ signature dish and your perfect wine match for it.
Our Salmon Sashimi My Way – five cubes of salmon wrapped in cucumber with a thin soy jelly topped off with wakame salad and ginger syrup – paired with a glass of Grüner Veltliner from Saint Clair in Marlborough. It’s a match made in heaven. The dish is perfectly balanced in terms of flavours – the saltiness from the soy jelly, the crunch from the wakame salad, the creaminess from the salmon.
Can we ask you to match two wines supplied by Planet Wine to two dishes on your menu?
The seared venison with its chili and chocolate crumble, served with the Kaapzicht 2012 Pinotage from Stellenbosch. The smokiness, peaty aromas, dark chocolate, black fruit, fat spice and silky tannins of the pinotage go extremely well with the venison.
And our fish of the day is a superb match with the Raats Old Vines 2012 Chenin Blanc, also from Stellenbosch, South Africa.
How did your relationship with Martin and Planet Wine begin?
When I started at Hipppopotamus I had a certain vision for the wine list, and really wanted to include some South African wines. My research and recommendations led me to Martin and Planet Wine, and there have been many enjoyable tastings out on the terrace since.
What is it that you appreciate about Planet Wine as a supplier?
I really appreciate Martin’s very good sense of showcasing individual producers – it is similar to my philosophy with wine. He brings in an excellent range of wines – not just from the flashier well-known wineries, but also the boutique producers.
Which wines/regions are currently under-represented in NZ (and could be an opportunity for Planet Wine)?
I may be unpopular for saying this, but there are some really good opportunities with Australian wines.