‘I have always stayed true to my skill – tasting – which is the practical knowledge. That is my skill, my profession, and I am good at it and I love it’
Being a sommelier, lector in culinary arts and meal science at Örebro University and jury member on Swedish MasterChef, Mischa Billing sure knows the definition of multitasking. We got the chance to grab her between projects to talk about about wine, how to develop a good sense of smell and what it is like to be the “first woman”.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your story?
I started in the business 30 years ago as a waitress in a restaurant in Lund. I worked there for ten years while developing my sense for food and wine. During my time at the restaurant, I took a sommelier class which led me to being in charge of the wine cellar and dining room at the restaurant. Besides working at the restaurant, I also worked on the Swedish TV-show Aspegren mitt i maten for six years. In 1999 I moved to Stockholm and became President of The Swedish Sommelier Association. During the same time, I was asked to be a lecturer at Örebro University in culinary arts and eventually start a bachelor’s program for sommeliers. For four years I was also active as Secretary General for the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI).
How did your interest in wine and food start?
It wasn’t a plan or anything. It developed during my years at the restaurant in Lund. I just thought it was fun working with food and wine, and the guests really liked my work and my recommendations. I think that’s why I liked it, because I was good at it.
You have written an article stating that people should drink less cheap box wine and instead drink more expensive wines, for the sake of the environment. Could you elaborate?
Yes, it was a pretty harsh article aimed towards Systembolaget that was published in a 2011 issue of Svenska Dagbladet. We questioned their assortment politics and what effect Systembolaget’s demand for cheap wines had on both the people producing the wine (awful work conditions), but also for the environment (fertilization and toxic spraying). When the article was published, we got so much hate for it – people called us snobs. Today, sustainability is an everyday question. Just as with fashion, the consumer now knows that cheap wines are probably not as fair to the production workers and to the environment as the more expensive wines are. Today, there is an understanding that someone else has to pay the price, often a very high price, when we buy things that are way to cheap.
What would you consider a “more expensive wine”? Does Eco-wines count?
I would say that a wine that costs around 80 SEK is safe. Then you know that the worker gets paid and that they don’t treat the vineyards too badly. Eco-wine is good, but there are a lot more issues with eco-wines. For example, you have to pay to get an eco-certification on your wine, when instead it should be that the winemaker has to pay a fee every time that they use toxic sprays on the vineyard. I think that would be fairer to everybody.
We have read that you are frustrated by often being the “first woman” in many of your work endeavors, and that you feel like you are not being taken as seriously as a man would be in the same situation. Can you still feel that the wine- and food business is more open for females since you started?
It’s not the fact of being the first woman that is frustrating to me, or actually yes, it’s crazy that it is still a thing during the 21st century. But most of the frustration lays in getting the question “Mischa, as a woman, what do you say?”. It is not a question for me or for my competence; it is a question for anybody. You are more interested to show that you have a woman to ask rather than being interested in what the woman actually knows or can contribute with. The industry is still very dominated by men. Today, more female sommeliers make a name for themselves. More women are also participating in competitions, and I feel that #metoo really had an effect and made it more visible how we treat each other and respond to one another.
Have you had a moment in your career that has made you especially proud of what you have accomplished?
One thing is that I always encouraged and defended that, for me, it is the taste that is important. That I have always stayed true to my skill – tasting – which is the practical knowledge. That is my skill, my profession, and I am good at it and I love it.
You have, amongst other things, the title ‘Nasolog’. Except having a great sense of smell, you must have a great vocabulary, using a lot of adjectives while describing. For example, you wrote a book about how roses smell. How do you come up with new descriptions of every smell?
I have realized that using common words in the description makes people understand better and feel included. People should not feel that they have to go 800 courses to be able to taste wine properly. When I wrote the book Rosens Doft, which is about the fragrance of roses, I actually knew nothing about roses. I just tried to explain the experience I had when I smelled it. I also try to adapt the description to the specific audience. And I think that sometimes it is more interesting to describe the feeling I get from smelling a rose for example, than to explain all of the different aromas I experience.
You helped create the bachelor’s program for sommeliers at Örebro University. What are the most important ground pillars to learn in a sommelier education?
What’s most important is to find and understand yourself, because as a taster, you are your own instrument. The only way to learn is to taste a lot and to discuss your experience with other tastes and be humble to each other’s experiences. This takes time, because it is an art. They say that it takes 10 000 times of practice before you succeed. That is for example how Zlatan knows where to stand on a specific place on the court to score a goal. When you finally learn it, you do it without thinking. It already exists in the core of your body. It’s like riding a bike, or walking.
Since 2015, you have been one of the jury members on the tv-show Swedish MasterChef. Have you ever learned anything new from one of the contestants?
Actually, no haha, but I am very impressed by how they work and how they develop their knowledge. I am so proud to be a part of their development.
Eating a lot of great food, and tasting a lot of great wine, do you ever get tired of it? Do you have any guilty pleasure junk food?
Crispy chips! It is impossible for me to have an open bag of chips at home…
If you could give any advice to your teenage self, what would it be?
If you feel in your heart and gut that something is right for you – do it. Even if other successful people advice you (often they say that it is for your own good) not to do it or to do it in another way. Listen to yourself and not to anybody else. Let it take the time that you need.