“Mirko Pastorelli was born with spastic paraplegia. Since the age of 14 he has been in a wheelchair. But this hasnʼt deterred the 27-year-old from pursuing his chosen profession working in wine – despite the fact that most of the restaurants in Emilia Romagna, where he lives, are wheelchair unfriendly.
Determined to change the attitude towards disability in hospitality, Pastorelli has made contacts across the world, from high-profile New York wheelchair sommelier Yannick Benjamin to influential London wine writer Jancis Robinson.
At the beginning of 2020, Pastorelli was offered a stint at leading Melbourne restaurant Vue de Monde. He arrived here on a working visa at the beginning of March – and then the country went into lockdown.”
Except taken from Max Allen’s story “Young sommelier inspired by lockdown” published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 December 2020.
Part 1 – The Employer
Sommeliers Australia’s D&I Working Group spoke to Vue de monde’s Carlos Santos Simoes MS about how the business came to employ Italian wheelchair sommelier, Mirko Pastorelli… and how the situation created positive outcomes for both parties.
Who made the first contact you or the employee?
In fact, it was neither me or Mirko that did the first contact about each other, it was a sommeliers friend of his who asked me months before if we needed a sommelier.
Back then we didn’t need a sommelier in the restaurant, so I didn’t pay much attention. But I knew Mirko from social media, from being very active with in the sommelier world. Months after, we did need a sommelier, and somehow Mirko’s name came up again, and we started chatting. But yes, Mirko was the one to be proactive, and engaging with us. Showing his will all the way!
How was the interview conducted – phone, online, in person? How many interviews or discussions took place before an offer was extended and start date agreed?
Well in fact, it really only takes a few minutes to hire someone, if you see/feel that the person really wants the job and will be committed to do the very best. And we weren’t wrong about Mirko!
One conversation over the phone, was enough… those who know Mirko know his passion, know that he does what it takes.
Thankfully of all sommeliers we have hired, all were incredibly passionate and hard working people. I remember, not having sommeliers to run the restaurant years ago, and had sommeliers coming to interviews late, totally disinterested but with good CVs, I did not offer them the job.
On the other hand, similar to Mirko, we had a Japanese sommelier, that had a background in Michelin star restaurants, but zero wine knowledge, and his English was very poor. But in the phone interview (as he was in Japan) he got the job because of the enthusiasm in his voice, his calmness, how polite he was. He proved himself after all passing Level 2 WSET and passing his Introductory from Court of Master Sommeliers all in 6 months.
What discussion were had around disability and any extra support or considerations required for successful employment?
We have a large and spacious restaurant, in which it is easy to move comfortably around. The lifts from ground floor take you straight into the wine cellar and restaurant. So from that point was all pretty easy. We also have a disabled toilet on the restaurant floor. Our concern was mostly adapting to someone that can’t go in the back of house to pick up glasses from the shelves, or the top bottles from the cellar. But again, if that person was too short rather than in a wheelchair, someone else would still need to help out.
We tried at all costs, not to give more or less to Mirko than the others would get. We did make sure everyone adapted to the new member of the team, as we would do with anyone joining the team. Everyone is better at something than others. Mirko was best at being charming to guests and doing the service.
What if any challenges were there when employment started?
Certainly the speed of service, but let’s be honest, when we start at any job, we are slower than we will be in 6 months. Another challenge was that Mirko required someone constantly passing by to hand him the things from the higher shelves… but again that is all part of having a new team member.
What was the benefit to the team and the business by hiring someone with a disability?
From the team perspective, his is truly an inspirational story. His ambition and strength to never give up. We live in a world of entitlements, in which people forget to show their true soul, to show their true passion and to work very hard to achieve their dreams… it is much easier to be negative, but Mirko, wanted it SO much, was SO eager to leave Italy, to come to Australia to learn wine, work in the restaurant, that I could feel the energy over the phone! How can you not offer the job?
From a business perspective, we filled the sommelier position as required, and had guests completely blown away chatting with Mirko all service long.
Were there any bias or discriminatory issues that needed to be addressed?
No, thankfully not. The whole team was very supportive, interested and eager to make it work. And it did work, but was cut short unfortunately due to the Covid lockdown.