Chef Nicholas Harary is dressed to the nines. Designer three-button suit, thickly knotted silk tie, and gleaming polished shoes, he moves with the ease of man who isn't worried about squab jus splattering his crisp, tailored shirt. Expertly uncorking our Champagne, he fills our glasses with a one-handed flourish, nary a bubble lost, and goes on to explain why the wine at hand, Diebolt-Vallois Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, will make a fine complement to the first two courses we are about to be served. Then he scurries back to the kitchen, frantically throwing on his whites and a toque, and proceeds to cook an inspired tasting menu including oysters with crme fraiche, turbot with honshimejii mushrooms, sweetbreads with mango and licorice dust, and suckling pig with quince and cinnamon. In between courses, he rushes out to the dining room (back in his unruffled suit) to pair and pour the wines, as comfortable discussing merits of the six different Condrieu on the wine list he created as he is wielding a saut pan over a dramatically leaping flame.
If you think this scene is the result of a writer's over-eager imagination, well,you'd be right, but only in part. Though I may have stretched a few of the details (Nicholas Harary is no quick-change artist and doesn't wear a toque), the 29-year old is in fact both chef and sommelier at his eponymous Red Bank, New Jersey restaurant. While he may not spend the night literally changing from one set of clothes to another (he keeps the suit on) he still manages to maintain perfect control of both parts of his restaurant. He oversees every detail, from the garnishes used on the daily amuse, to the particular sweet wine he might send out, gratis, with dessert for a regular customer's birthday.
While Harary may be precocious, and possibly out of his mind in his desire to do two full-time jobs at once, he is not alone. Over the past few years, a handful of chefs have crossed the front-of-the-house-back-of-the-house divide, pushing through those swinging kitchen doors into the dining room, where they are able to pursue their interest wine as full-fledged sommeliers - without giving up their toques (so to speak). And more and more chefs are following their lead, narrowing the gap between what has traditionally been two very separate spheres of influence.
Thirty years ago, a restaurant where the chef was also the sommelier would have been all but unthinkable. "Historically," admits Andrew Bell, the President of the American Sommelier Association, "there's always been an adversarial relationship between the back of the house and the front of the house. The chefs took care of the food and the sommelier took care of the wine list. But there was no real dialogue between them."
Mark Davidson, Director of Wine Studies at The Dubrulle International Culinary and Hotel Institute of Canada, in Vancouver, BC, concurs. "Even a few years ago, most chefs weren't that interested in wine or what was on the wine list," he said.
They also weren't necessarily in tune to the fact that the dishes on their tasting menus might eventually be paired with wine. "I'm not convinced that most chefs ever considered anything other than their food when they wrote a menu, and certainly not the wine," Davidson remembers. "When I was working as a sommelier, even in the best restaurants, I would look at these tasting menus and the flow was completely unfriendly to wine pairing. The menu might start with a heavy, wintry appetizer like a game terrine or smoked duck salad, then go to a light creamy seafood dish, and then back to red meat. It may have worked independently, but in terms of wine it was impossible because you'd want to start with a red, go to a white, then back to red. It could drive you mad."
But both Davidson and Bell agree that things have changed for the better. Over the past five years, they have noticed that chefs have been signing up for sommelier diploma/certificate programs in ever-escalating ranks.
"Every year we get a few more in the course," Davidson says of Dubrulle's program, "There's a growing understanding among the better chefs out there that wine education is necessary." And in the ASA class in New York City, the numbers of chefs who earned their certificates jumped by 800 percent in four years (okay, from one to eight, but it's still growing), with cooks enrolling from such New York restaurants as Aureole, Tappo, Babbo, and Il Buco, to name just a few.
"I'd call it a trend," Bell says, "a good one."
Considering that a sommelier certificate or diploma takes several months to a year of rigorous study, it's doubtful that chefs, already some of the busiest professionals in the country, would carve out the time merely to be trendy. For most, learning about wine is an obsession. That's certainly how anyone who met him would describe Colin Alevras, the chef and sommelier of New York City's Tasting Room, a restaurant committed to American wine and food.
Tall, reed-thin, and bursting with a hodgepodge of oenological and culinary expertise, 31-year old Alevras resembles neither the prototypical mysterious chef nor suave sommelier. Instead, his energy is more akin to the class clown, the one whom is always making jokes but everyone knows is actually the smartest kid in the school.
Although Alevras graduated from culinary school and worked in a few New York restaurants, his wine education didn't really begin until he traveled to Paris in 1996 and apprenticed at the three-star Arpege restaurant.
"As a cook in the United States you don't really get exposed to wine because they keep it locked up," he tells me over dinner one wintry night at the Tasting Room, "and the managers want young drinkers who work nights as far away from the booze as possible. It's very rare for wine to get sent back into the kitchen for anyone to taste."
In France, the tastes were a little more liberal since wine is considered an important and natural part of the dining experience. And Alevras was also eating out more, which propelled his interest.
"I started noticing that while the menu was maybe one or two pages, the wine list was like this," he says, positioning his thumb and pointer finger to show a Guinness Book of World Records-sized thickness.
His epiphany came at the end of a four-month Parisian sojourn. He was celebrating his birthday at Arpege, of course. In the middle of the six-hour meal, the sommelier decided to end with a surprise. He brought a wrapped up bottle of wine to the table and asked Alevras to identify it.
"At that point," Alevras remembers, "I didn't really know enough about wine to have fun with it. But I'm like, hell, let me make a rational guess. So I look at the wine and remember from my wine class at culinary school that the lighter the color the older the vintage. So I realize it's pretty old. The sommelier knows it's my birthday and how old I am, so I figure it's got to be a 1971 otherwise why would they do this to me? I know it's Bordeaux because it's in Bordeaux glasses and we're in a three-star French restaurant. So it's a '71 Bordeaux. And I'm stuck there. So I start thinking about the five big Bordeaux communes. It's going to be from one of them because again, we're in a three-star French restaurant and they're not going to pour me an obscure little wine. And I've been flipping through the wine list so I'm familiar with what's available. I taste the wine and, okay, it's not St. Julien because it's harder than merlot, it must be cab-based. I'm thinking, what's less expensive, what would they pour for me? What's the one without any premier cru or cru classe wines? And I'm like what's that Grateful Dead song? St. Stephan. '71 St. Estephe! The sommelier walks over to me and says 'you cheated, you looked at the bottle!' It was a Cos d'Estournel. And that's the moment when I realized, I can play this game."
On his return from France, Alevras continues after pausing to greet some regular customers, he furthered his wine education by taking a job as the cellar master at Daniel, and earning his ASA sommelier certificate. At the same time, he and his wife Renee were writing the business plan for what eventually became the Tasting Room.
Back at our table, the waiter serves a plate of earthy chicken liver ravioli with thyme, brown butter and balsamic, and Alevras shifts seamlessly from his personal story to the matter at hand: Why he chose to pair it with this particular wine, an Andrew Rich 2000 Chenin Blanc Vin de Tabula Rasa. "The chicken liver has a slightly bitter minerality that can work with red wines, but the tannins usually exacerbate the bitterness. The chenin blanc has both brightness and weight to it, and also a minerality that really works with the gamy liver and all the aromatics in the sauce."
n fact, the pairing works so well that it's hard to imagine savoring either the wine or ravioli by itself. Tasted on its own, the ravioli is a competent if slightly unctuous dish. With the chenin blanc, however, it's transformed. The acid in the wine brings out the nuttiness in the brown butter, and that compelling minerality really does make the thyme flavor pop. For its part, the richness of the ravioli sauce tempers and rounds out the tang of the wine.
The opportunity to put together pairings like this one, and to do so from both sides of the coin, as it were, underscores the reason Alevras and others chose their dual path in the first place.
"The whole philosophy behind what we're doing here," he says of the Tasting Room, "is to have the food build a platform that's going to make the wine look good, and to offer wines that are going to make the food look good, too "When it all comes together it can be pretty amazing."
Alevras will, on occasion, even adjust his cooking to match the wine choice of a table. "If someone is going to order a monster red the minute they sit down, it's going to obliterate whatever they eat. But I can modify my cooking a little bit, like bringing down the acid and salt in the salad. Or if a table is still finishing their pinot noir when they order a cheese plate, I will leave off the washed rind cheese because it will taste really metallic."
While the idea that the wine a dish is paired with can be as integral a part of the recipe as the salt, vinegar or herbs may smack of wine geekdom, all of the chef-sommeliers I've spoken with agree their wine knowledge has informed their cooking to some degree.
It's a most welcomed philosophical shift, says Vancouver's Mark Davidson. "Once a chef start thinking about the wine it enlarges their perspective," he asserts, "they might think harder about their sauces, or their use of vinegar. Their cooking takes on another level of thought, which by nature can make it better."
Chef Dino Renaerts, one of Davidson's first students in the diploma course, says the changes in his cooking are palpable since he took the course. "It's altered the way I approach cooking," says Renaerts, currently the chef of the Vancouver Golf Club and formerly of Vancouver's Pastis restaurant, "I don't use vinegar as much, maybe using verjus instead. The plates are cleaner; I don't mix together as many ingredients. I try to let the actual flavors of the main ingredients speak for themselves, which I think is your best bet for showing off wine."
Not all chef-sommeliers, however, follow this tact. When Thomas Henkelmann, chef of the Homestead Inn in Greenwich, Connecticut, decided to take his knowledge of wine to the next level by completing the ASA certificate course, he didn't do it to transform his cooking. He did it as a "personal exercise." He insists it hasn't actually affected his cuisine. But it has changed his perception of his cuisine.
"Tasting wine makes you more focused on tasting other things," Henkelmann asserts, "You are more analytical when you taste wine and it heightens your awareness of food as well. So I think in general I taste better now than I did before. And maybe that's made my cuisine more balanced. But I don't think the wine knowledge itself has changed my cooking."
Although Henkelmann buys all the wines for the restaurant, he does not appear on the floor to serve it. "For me I'm still first a chef," he says by way of explanation.
But this does raise the question: how do these chef-sommeliers manage to fulfill the sommelier-side of their duties, and make wine suggestions when they are back in the kitchen cooking dinner?
Every chef has a different solution. For Henkelmann, creating a tasting menu with the wine pairings included is his way of guiding his customers. Renaerts goes one step further, and will write his entire menu with wine suggestions for every dish. But for Alevras and Harary, who are more dependent on their sous-chefs to do the night-to-night cooking, remaining on the floor to help every table select their wine is part of what they enjoy about being chef-sommeliers. It's as much about the dialogue and interaction as it is about the cooking.
"We purposely don't give pairing advice on the menu," says Alevras, "because we leave that open as a way for me or the staff to begin interacting with the table. It's a deliberate omission to get people to ask questions, and it allows us to help them out. It makes the table feel like they are being taken care of."
This kind of personalized attention certainly can enhance the customer's experience. It also allows the chef to keep a tighter reign over the entire meal, not just the food.
"It is a way to control the table more," Henkelmann says of his decision to become a sommelier, "I know that the wine people will be drinking will work with my food, and that they will enjoy it all the more."
Clearly, understanding both the menu and the wine list inside and out also gives these chef-sommeliers an advantage when it comes to making pairing recommendations, especially if, like Alevras and Harary, they are working in the dining room during dinner.
Of the chef-sommeliers I've spoken with, Nicholas Harary is perhaps the most comfortable on the floor during service - probably because he's the only one to have held a professional, full-time sommelier position, at Jean-Georges in New York. (He also concurrently cooked there, spending his days in the kitchen and his nights on the floor.) And his pairing philosophy is slightly different. Unlike the industry standard of matching a different wine with each dish, Harary prefers half bottles, matching one wine with two courses.
"I don't believe that food and wine should always be in perfect harmony," he explains, "I think that you should be able to have a wine with two courses so you can really see how the wine interacts with different kinds of food, and develops in the glass, and how the palate changes and adjusts to the wine. That's why I don't think there's a perfect wine to go with every dish. I think there are a lot of wines that can go with a dish."
Harary's comment strikes at the heart of the matter. Given that each person's palate and taste is delightfully and bewilderingly unique, striving for one perfect match is impossible. It may even be beside the point. Exploring the infinite possibilities and pleasures of wine and food pairing is definitely most of the fun. As that old chestnut goes, the great joy of life is in the journey, certainly not in the conclusion. And, less morbidly, who wouldn't say the same of an excellent meal?
Or, as Harary puts it: "I'm not out here saying I'm some kind of genius, but I know good food and good wines, and I know how to put them together "That's all I'm trying to do.""