― Gabrielle Jammal
We, at Mansa, believe in the power of good food and beverage and love to learn more about the people that make it possible. Whether it be the chefs who conjure exciting dishes to scintillate taste buds or the sommeliers who find the perfect wine every single time, a lot of players in the food industry go into creating the perfect experience for diners. We bring to you Tea Time: an interview series with food culture innovators, where we interview managers, chefs, sommeliers, and restaurateurs of Michelin-star restaurants and 5-star hotels in NYC and took a peek into their lives.
Interview with Gabrielle Jammal at The Baccarat Hotel
The Baccarat Hotel, a 5-star hotel located across from the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, lives up to its nickname: the crystal palace. Throughout the premise, it has 17 crystal chandeliers, a LED-light-patterned wall of 1,800 glittering Baccarat wine glasses, and 15,000 crystal pieces. In the Grand Salon, you will see red roses that are specifically “Baccarat red” to match the color of the red Baccarat crystals.
A: Tell us more about your journey before you joined the Baccarat Hotel as a Tea Sommelier. Let’s start with your first memory of tea.
G: My first memories of tea always have my grandma and my mom. Grandmother was British and tea just WAS. We would all sit down for lunch and my grandmother would make a huge pot. It was always nice because everyone was together. We always drank black tea bags: Lipton. That’s all we had and the flavor of Lipton still brings me a sense of nostalgia.
A: So how did you go from Lipton to becoming a tea sommelier at the Baccarat Hotel?
G: I have been working in hospitality/restaurants for about 17 years. I worked at Teavana as a second job for a few years around 2008 and that opened my eyes to the world of tea. I found it fascinating that customers would come into the store to me, a total stranger, tell me an ailment they had such as allergies or stomach pain, and trust me to make tea for them to feel better. The idea that “tea heals all” is ingrained in most people is amazing!
Throughout the years, I continued my own learning of tea as there wasn’t as much information out there. When starting at Baccarat I was able to create my own position; tea sommelier wasn’t coined as a job title yet. I have been able to really specialize in tea and build a solid program there. I continue to take classes/courses yearly, including my two tea sommelier certifications.
Life of a Tea Sommelier
A: The world of tea is so fascinating, and there is always more to learn for sure! What is your day-to-day like as a tea sommelier? Could you walk us through a day in the life of a sommelier? [pre-COVID life]
G: I go in around 7 am and oversee breakfast service, lunch, and then of course afternoon tea. I am a floor manager with tea as my specialty (Reine du The as my title). Then the magic happens! I created the loose tea list with a wine list in mind. The teas are listed with tasting notes and growing regions; I change this seasonally. I work closely with our culinary team to curate the afternoon tea menu. The menu is based on clients in Baccarat’s history; the idea is that you spend the afternoon as royalty would have. Each menu curated for who the person was (for example, The Prince of Wales and Sultan Abdulaziz). We also feature fashion shows during afternoon tea as well as offer pairing classes and dinners.
A: What is the most frequently asked question (related to tea) by the guests at the Baccarat Hotel?
G: The two most common questions I receive are “which tea is best for me?” and “how much caffeine / what about decaf?”
There is no one particular tea that is better than any other. All teas coming from the camellia sinensis plant are healthy as they contain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. The tea would need to be tested in a lab to be exactly sure of the measure of things. First and foremost, I always recommend finding a high-quality loose leaf tea (no additives) that you enjoy the flavor and fits into your lifestyle.
In terms of caffeine, simply put if it’s not from the camellia sinensis plant (chamomile, mint, etc.), it doesn’t contain caffeine. These are all naturally caffeine-free. Decaf is a different process and most high-quality tea companies never decaffeinate their teas. If you think you are sensitive to caffeine, I would suggest only one cup of tea a day to start and see how you feel. After that to stick with herbal infusions/tisanes. There are so many tisanes to choose from!
A: I absolutely love this advice. I am a big believer that you have to enjoy a particular food or beverage product to make it part of your daily routine. Then, health benefits naturally follow as a result.
When curating the afternoon tea menu for the hotel, how do you select and evaluate different teas? What do you look for?
G: Firstly, I would like to say, I do not source the tea myself. I wanted to highlight like-minded local companies that source directly. It’s important to find a company you trust. I feel a responsibility to inform and share with my guests so they can also have access to great tea. I currently work with six companies, and they are all focused on tea quality and tea education.
Also, you start to learn how the specific tea should taste like, smell like, look like, and feel like after drinking a lot of tea!
A: Mansa Tea is honored to work with you and the hotel on your tea program!
About Tea Pairing
A: Let’s talk more about tea pairing. When was your first tea pairing experience, and what did you pair the tea with?
G: The first pairing experience we offered at the hotel was with scotch. We actually featured a tea and scotch pairing dinner served in 3 courses. Tea and food/beverage always go hand and hand. It’s just a matter of finding flavors that balance each other. For example, scotch/whisky might have spicy or firey notes. I have been able to pair teas that really compliment these notes to bring out the subtler flavors and open them up to.
A: So your first pairing experience was with your favorite element to pair with tea: scotch! As tea sommeliers, we all have our ways of evaluating different pairings. How do you go about finding the perfect tea pairing? Let’s use our Aged Tea + Honey pairing set as an example.
G: There’s the basics of how it’s made, style of making and what goes into it. With any pairing, I try to find the story and passion behind it. Asking questions and knowing the artists are so important.
The honey experience was really fun! Something you and I worked on together. Questions about honey IN tea always get asked. Being able to feature them side by side was really exciting because generally single-flower honey isn’t ever highlighted. It was great to see how these flavors and textures came together.
A: I remember that we tried 6 different honey and 3-4 different teas to find the right pairings, and it was such a fun experience creating it. It’s also fascinating that when I tried a different raw pu’er for honey pairing, the pairing didn’t quite work. The specific nuances that are present in tea and the paired element are very important.
G: Also, just because we taste something doesn’t mean others taste it. It’s interesting during the pairings to see what the rest of the class tastes and what their favorites are.
More about Gabrielle and Tea
A: Before we close this interview, I would like to learn more about how you view the world of tea. What kind of change do you want to see in the world of tea?
G: I want people to ask more questions. When we ask more questions the companies behind the product(s) are held even more accountable. Ask for better quality, country/place of origin, how things are grown and made. We can make a positive change/impact.
A: What advice do you have for the tea drinkers who are quite new to single-origin tea, or currently the “coffee drinkers”, to navigate the world of tea?
G: Find someone of a company that you can trust and relate to. These are my concerns, etc…. Can you help me? Find some local hotels or tea shops that you can go in and just try a cup. Or go in and ask questions in person! That’s why I keep the menu seasonal!
A: Yes, definitely ask us questions. We love talking about tea! Lastly, what is your favorite tea from Mansa Tea?
G: [Fuding 2014] Silver Needle. Anyone who hasn’t had Ashley’s Fuding Silver Needle, you need to get it. I am obsessed with it. It’s so good. I am very very slowly working through this because I don’t want to finish it.
A: It is your favorite! You got the 6oz too, which is 3 times the size of our retail size.
G: Maybe the next time I will get the 12oz, the full cake!
A: Thank you so much for your time, Gabrielle. I look forward to seeing you in person soon!