20 Minutes With: Baccarat Hotel’s Tea Sommelier Gabrielle Jammal

Tea is in Gabrielle Jammal’s bloodline. “I think I had tea out of the womb,” she says. “I don’t drink coffee, and I didn’t have it until I was .”

Though the -year-old tea sommelier grew up in New Jersey, Jammal’s British mother and grandparents made sure she took part in their daily teatime when she was a little girl. Jammal says of her family ritual, “at o’clock, you sit down, you have tea and sandwiches, and that’s how it is.”

These childhood experiences ignited a passion that took Jammal down a path to becoming New York’s only tea sommelier at the Baccarat Hotel s Grand Salon.

Jammal spoke with Penta about the evolving culture of afternoon tea, her role at the opulent Baccarat Hotel, and what she’s been sipping most recently.

PENTA : I think afternoon tea used to be considered a stuffy, old-fashioned event in New York. How has the concept evolved?

Gabrielle Jammal: I really hope that we’re the ones modernizing it. I wanted to work here to make it more modern and fun and have educational notes. Also, we ve been fortunate enough to be blessed with this really beautiful space.

We do some beautiful fashion prive afternoon teas; for example, we partnered with Ines di Santo—she did her bridal spring fashion show and she had about people come and everyone had afternoon tea. They were all seated enjoying it and we had the models walk down the runway here in the Grand Salon during tea. We try to do one a month and then we do special teas—we did a Royal Wedding-themed “Tale of Two Cities” afternoon tea.

We wanted to add to the story of Baccarat. On the menu, all of Personnages du Thé notable people after whom the afternoon tea services are named, they’re all clients past of Baccarat. They’re all part of the lineage, the story that is of our company that’s years old. The idea is you come in and be royalty for the afternoon. Each service is curated according to who the Personnages were and their lives.

How do restaurants and hotels distinguish themselves in the afternoon tea scene?

For us, we re lucky to have this amazing story. Everything in the hotel is really well thought out, even to the smallest details. The library here has one book for every year of the company, so years starting with , and they’re all white but the year we opened, , is red because red is our trademark color.

They’re all blank because the idea is that you leave your memories with us and come back over and over again and share in our story., I’m lucky to have that to work with and really work closely with the kitchen and curate those experiences for people and really make celebratory events special and beautiful.

When I was a little girl playing tea party—this is like having the most glamorous grownup version, I think, that is possible. I have an amazing supportive team here and my boss lets me be creative. We’re working on the next Personnages du Thé, the emperor of Japan, the fifth and final. He’s from the late s.

How involved are you in the food menu?

I curate the menus with the kitchen along with the teas. The Sultan Abdulaziz, for example, is my favorite. It took us about two years to get that on the menu. It was really special to me because I’m half Middle Eastern, so I was researching him—he was the sultan of the Ottoman Empire—and working on different flavors of the Middle East for everyone to enjoy. It’s not traditional in any way, shape, or form, but he’s become really popular.   

Baccarat Hotel tea sommelier Gabrielle Jammal. Baccarat Hotel

How do you source your teas?

I’m carrying five different tea companies, which is quite unheard of, because normally people only have one. For me, I really wanted to have high-grade, high-quality teas and have it be more like farm-to-table.

For single-origin tea, companies have relationships with farms and estates and they know as much information as possible. I wanted to curate it like a wine list. A lot are single origin and when they’re blended, I have it labeled as blended and they’re naturally flavored or scented. Our raspberry mimosa tea, for example, is a raspberry green tea with freeze-dried raspberry and citrus peel.

I think it’s better to bring in other things that are fresh and not sitting so long and I wanted to be revolving and rotating. I took chamomile off the menu because you can have that anywhere in the world. I spent eight months researching different tisane and herbal teas, so I have about six different tisane blends and pure whole leaf or whole flower teas that are similar. It’s also about education. I want it to be a learning experience for people as well.

How do you get to educate your customers?

I talk to people all day, every day. But we also do a pairing series I started last year. We’ve done Champagne and tea pairing dinners and lunches and whiskey and scotch pairings with tea as well. I want it to be like a masterclass with food and have it be really relatable. With whiskey or Champagne, people can relate more easily and start thinking about tea in the same way.

How did you end up becoming a tea sommelier?

It was kind of by accident. I started working with tea or years ago with Teavana and it opened my eyes to the whole world that is tea. Tea is the second most widely consumed beverage in the world after water. You can never know everything about tea, so I kept researching on my own, so when Baccarat told me they were looking for someone to head their program and this was their story, I think my brain exploded because I thought, “That is the most awesome, amazing thing ever.”

I became a tea sommelier three years ago with the International Tea Masters Association. The certification is great, but I think it’s more about the flexibility and having the humility to continue learning.

What does becoming a tea sommelier entail?

I drank a lot of tea. I was in class the other day where there were teas. It’s knowing processing methods, different teas, blended teas, how teas are made in different countries, different styles and regions. I think it’s also assessing the flavors of them and for me, working with food, how I can work those into the menus or being able to do pairing dinners. We’ve been blessed to do some great tea-infused cocktails as well.

Where has your job taken you?

I was just in London. I’ve also been to Scotland—there’s a woman there growing tea who has a tea factory. I was in Japan last year as well, at Ippodo Tea Co., where we source our matcha. They’re kind of like the Baccarat of matcha. I was there last year for the second matcha harvest in Kyoto.

What’s your favorite tea right now?

That’s such a hard question. I love oolong teas. I think they’re so interesting and complex. I think the range is so varied. They really can range and be a light, floral, green tea-style tea to something roasted over charcoal and really dark, nutty, and a little smoky. There’s a whole rainbow of oolong tea.

Do you have a favorite place of origin for tea?

I want to say Taiwan, because they’re doing a lot of really beautiful oolongs. There’s a really amazing tea called oriental beauty from Taiwan and it’s really special because there’s a little jassid—it’s like a little grasshopper—that bites the leaves when the tea leaves grow and the chemical reaction causes the tea to have almost floral, rosy notes that are very different compared to any other tea. It’s really difficult to find a pure, high-grade oriental beauty. It’s beautiful—they call it five-color tea or Champagne tea. It’s red, purple, green silver—it’s the most exquisite, beautiful tea you’ve ever seen.

The teas coming out of Nepal are just mind-blowing. They’re growing every kind of tea: white, black, green, oolong—they’re just on another level. One of the classes I took was a Nepalese tea class and I was freaking out because they were amazing, so good. I’m trying to figure out how to get a Nepalese tea on our menu.

What’s a common misconception people have about tea?

A big one, I think, is people say they don’t like green tea and I think because green tea is really temperamental depending on the way you brew it—the time, temperature, and the type of water you use—it can go really bitter really fast or almost sour.

People are not educated all the time on it and they don t know that, for example, Chinese and Japanese teas are so different and the taste is so different. I used to have a Japanes green tea on the menu and the style we’re serving—British style—it just wasn’t working and I changed it to a Chinese green tea and people love it. It’s seeing what teas work better for what we’re doing.

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