The Chef & Sommelier’s Guide To Memorable Wine-Food Pairings

The Chef & Sommelier’s Guide To Memorable  Wine-Food Pairings

White with fish, red with meat.  These were the simple canons of Pairings 101: useful advice for straightforward cooking, perhaps, but less enlightening when dining on the complex cuisine of today’s inventive young chefs. For example: what wine pairs with a Trio (three distinct treatments of an ingredient in a single course)? Where do we go with a cheese course after sipping that big Napa Cab? What works with trendy vegetal ingredients like artichoke? Or with roast chicken printed on edible paper?

For insight into this new age of food and wine pairing, we’ve gathered five groundbreaking chefs and their intrepid sommeliers for something akin to an Advanced Seminar. But don’t anticipate easy answers; don’t even expect our participants to agree. After all, this is graduate school.


Wine Enthusiast: How do you think food and wine pairing has changed in the last few years?

Rajat Parr, Mina Group: The rules of the past were very basic; too basic. There are more ingredients to play with today, more beverages to play with. We’re pairing with beer, saké, cocktails, even nonalcoholic beverages. We’ve reached a whole different level because food has gotten more creative than it was even 20 years ago.

WE: In pairing with today’s complex dishes and presentations, how do you begin?

André Compeyre, Adour: We respect the food’s identity by pinpointing individual flavors. You have three elements in a dish: the product by itself, the garnish and the sauce or the spice, and it’s the mix of all three that matches with the wine. In any pairing there should never be a shock or a fight between the wine and the expression of the food.
Didier Elena, Adour: At the end, you should have one flavor in your mouth.
Homaro Cantu, Moto: Our sommelier does have a very challenging job: I mean how do you pair wine with a printed chicken? [Cantu employs an inkjet printer that creates edible surfaces. —eds]
Matthew Gundlach, Moto: In fact, when we print roast chicken on edible paper the texture changes but the flavors are the same, so it’s not as intimidating as many people think. But don’t tell anybody; that’s my secret.

WE: What are some new concepts in pairing?

Alain Ducasse, Adour: It’s often said that pairing wine with vegetable-based dishes like artichokes, lentils and roquette salad is almost impossible. I disagree: some very exciting pairings can be found. For my signature vegetable “Cookpot,” I strongly recommend an opulent New World red, as the natural sugars from the vegetables make it difficult to pair with a white. I would also suggest a red wine with a rich fish like red mullet; Châteauneuf-du-Pape works very nicely. Conversely, white wine instead of red matches very well with many cheese varieties. Try Vin Jaune with Comté or even Champagne with Camembert.
Olivier Flosse, A Voce: Red wine and cheese is not the best pairing. If you’ve been drinking red wine and try to have another red with cheese, your palate will become very tired. So to relax your palate and really enjoy the structure and finesse of the cheese, a dry white wine will work perfectly.
Gundlach: I like to say: “If you can drink Champagne with it, you can drink beer.” Right now we’re pairing a Rauchbier Schlenkerla with pork belly glazed in the smoky Vietnamese fish sauce nuóc mám. 

WE: How do you deal with trios, a course with three variations on an ingredient?

Parr: Michael does a trio of scallops—one with Meyer lemon and caviar, one with beets and one with corn and truffles—and with that we can only pair one wine. So because all three dishes have an acid component we picked an older Austrian Riesling. With age it has just a touch of sweetness and high acidity, which goes with everything from the high salt component of the caviar to the high sweet component of the beets.

Rom Toulon, Meadowood: Christopher does a suckling pig four ways: loin wrapped in bacon, chop marinated in char siu, boudin blanc of shoulder and pressed confit of leg, served with salted cherries, Mendocino seaweed, sorghum and fennel. So it’s very challenging to find the right wine. We could have gone with anything from a light Gamay to a heavier Zin or Cab, but it’s also about trying to find something that makes sense at that point in the meal, especially when it comes after a course paired with a much heavier wine. We chose an Outpost Zinfandel 2007 for several reasons: we wanted to introduce our guests to a food-friendly Zin with a silky finish that’s not too high in alcohol, and also ‘location, location, location’. Zinfandel is such a characteristic Napa Valley product.

WE: Are today’s diners ordering by the bottle or by the glass?

Toulon: With a wine list of something like 1,100 references, we sell about 70% as pairings. Most people go with one of the longer menus like the Chef’s Tasting and it’s just impossible to pick one or two wines to go with the entire menu.
Cantu: I don’t believe in bottle service. If we’ve put all this thought into food architecture, innovation and design, it warrants the attention to detail of pairing a glass with each course. We actually make more money with bottles but it’s not about the money, it’s about the experience.

WE: What was your most memorable pairing and why did it work so well?

Compeyre: My magic experience was the first bottle of vintage Burgundy I purchased at auction, a grand cru La Tâche 1947. After doing some research, the chef where I was working came up with squab, a very delicate meat, stuffed with foie gras, which added unctuousness, and Port sauce, which added a layer of complexity. The key was that the dish had the same level of complexity as the wine. That was 20 years ago and we’re still salivating over it.
Toulon and Michael Mina: (A team that tends to finish one another’s sentences.) At Michael Mina, we had a miso-glazed sea bass with shiitake mushroom consommé and shrimp dumplings, which has both Asian and earthy components. The best wine turned out to be a Muscat from Austria. It wasn’t meant to be a perfect pairing but it went beyond everything else because the Muscat was bone dry and the dish was earthy and slightly sweet.
Missy Robbins, A Voce: At a Pio Cesare wine dinner we served the Funghi al Forno—very rich roasted trumpet mushrooms, hazelnuts, preserved black truffles and a fontina cheese ‘fonduta’ (similar to fondue)—about as close to a meat dish as you can get without having meat.
Flosse: We paired it with the Barbera d’ Alba 2006 served a little bit chilled—not cold—because you have to look at the temperature of the wine as well as the structure. The wine was very smooth, like the fonduta, with the same touch of earthiness as the mushrooms. The balance of elegance and earthiness created an incredible symphony.

WE: Can you think of a dish that is flexible enough to pair with many red or many white wines?

Gundlach: We had a seared wagyu with sauerkraut and kielbasa sausage purée that paired with just about every red wine you could think of. With the intense meat flavors you could use a Cab or even a Syrah, and the acid in the sauerkraut also made it very pleasant with higher acid reds like Pinot. For whites, our soft shell crab with coconut milk powder, buttered popcorn purée and passion fruit noodle paired with a Sauvignon Blanc, which brought out the tart passion fruit, and also worked with a restrained new world Chardonnay from Carneros, which had enough acid to deal with the crab but enough richness and oak to make it pretty tasty with the buttered popcorn and coconut milk powder.
Christopher Kostow, Meadowood: Our cod poached in nori with oyster juice, clam juice and foam seems to work with just about everything. You could focus on the cream element of the foam with a Chardonnay or run with something a little dryer, which would bring out the minerality.

WE: What was your biggest disaster, something you thought would work and then didn’t?

Gundlach: Trying to create some red wine-friendly courses we came up with a caramel apple stuffed with bacon, our thought being: “Hey, with bacon we can throw anything at it from a Syrah to a northern Rhône.” But after we hollowed out the green apple and filled it with pork belly, then added caramel sauce and peanut, red wine was horrible. The dish defeated every one we tried because it accentuated the acid and the wines tasted sour. The answer was a Gewürztraminer, which had a rich body and off-dry character that brought out the richness and saltiness of the bacon as well as the sweetness of the caramel.
Kostow: We’ve never had tragedy in the dining room, although I present Rom with the opportunity for it pretty much every day since our food tends to be very difficult to pair. I do surf and turfs like lobster and sweetbread, or veal breast and hamachi collar, and my food also tends to be very vegetal, which presents inherent difficulties.
Toulon: I do remember one time, but it wasn’t necessarily about the taste. I paired cold smoked toro and caviar with a junmai taru saké aged in cedar barrels, and when I came to the table with Japanese saké the guests looked at me like, “We’re in Napa!” So even if the taste made sense, it set up the wrong tone for the entire evening.
Parr: Sometimes it happens when a guest wants to change the dish. We have an opulent halibut with pancetta, which is supposed to pair with a rich Chardonnay. But if a guest asks us to take out the bacon, this rich dish becomes very simple and light and the Chardonnay just overwhelms it.
Flosse: Once I tried to pair the Chef’s lamb with black olive and artichokes with a 2006 Barolo.
Robbins: Olivier really hates when I make dishes with artichokes because as you know it’s very difficult to pair with wine. But I use artichoke in about ten percent of my dishes and I figure after twenty five years in the business, he needs a little challenge.
Flosse: When we took the first sip we looked at each other and said: “Wow, that’s really a disaster.” No wine would match with the artichoke.
Robbins: So we decided to go with an artisanal beer, a Baladin from Italy, which is very aromatic with full enough flavor to stand up to the artichoke.
Flosse: It was amazing that from a disaster we went to heaven.

Cast of Characters

Chef Missy Robbins, Sommelier Olivier Flosse. A Voce Madison, A Voce Columbus, New York. 
As a novice, Missy Robbins talked her way into Charlie Trotter’s kitchen before taking off to apprentice in Italy. Marseilles-born Wine Director Olivier Flosse started his career like most Europeans, with twelve-hour days wiping down glasses and polishing buckets, on his road to a Diploma-Universitaire d’Aptitude à la Degustation à Bordeaux, the most prestigious wine diploma in Europe. 

Chef Homaro Cantu, Sommelier Matthew Gundlach. Moto Restaurant, Chicago.
Homaro Cantu, the molecular chef, having installed a chemistry lab in his restaurant’s basement, developed Moto’s unique edible menu to help reduce waste. The ardent environmentalist also stars in the TV show “Green Planet” and founded Cantu Designs to create futuristic food products, kitchenware and food delivery systems. Wine Director Matthew Gundlach matches Chef Cantu both in stamina, creating wine progressions for Moto’s 10- and 20-course tasting menus, and creativity, in his cocktail menu.

Chef Christopher Kostow, Sommelier Rom Toulon. Meadowood Napa Valley, St. Helena, CA.
The two-Michelin star experience at Meadowood Napa Valley is “farm to table but more technical and distilled,” maintains 33-year-old Chef Christopher Kostow, who came to the culinary arts armed with a degree in philosophy. Meadowood’s 31-year-old sommelier, Rom Toulon, a Loire Valley native, received his sommelier diploma at age 17. Among other distinctions, in 2004 he was named the Bay Area’s “least snooty sommelier” by the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Chef Michael Mina, Sommelier Rajat Parr, Mina Group. 16 restaurants and one bar/lounge, across the U.S.
Cairo-born Michael Mina’s restaurant empire includes two Michelin-starred restaurants: Michael Mina San Francisco and Michael Mina
Bellagio, Las Vegas. The restaurateur started as a 15-year-old garde manger at a simple French restaurant in Ellensburg, WA, where he was raised. Rajat Parr, wine director for the Mina Group restaurants, was born in Calcutta, India, trained as a chef at the C.I.A. Hyde Park, and credits an uncle in London with sparking his love for wine.  

Chef Alain Ducasse, Chef Didier Elena, Sommelier André Compeyre.Adour Alain Ducasse at The St. Regis New York.
Master Chef Alain Ducasse, whose 27 restaurants have earned a total of 19 Michelin stars, was raised on a farm in southwestern France. Chef Didier Elena, who comes to Adour after helming the Michelin two-star restaurant at Hotel Le Château des Crayères in Champagne, grew up surrounded by the sea. His father was a fisherman on the French Riviera; growing up around boats made him sensitive to the nuances of all kinds of fish. Toulouse-born Sommelier André Compeyre previously worked with Elena at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House.

We have an opulent halibut with pancetta, which is supposed to pair with a rich Chardonnay. But if a guest asks us to take out the bacon, this rich dish becomes very simple and light, and the Chardonnay just overwhelms it. —Rajat Parr

I paired cold smoked toro and caviar with a junmai taru saké aged in cedar barrels, and when I came to the table with Japanese saké, the guests looked at me like, “We’re in Napa!” —Rom Toulon

Red wine and cheese is not the best pairing. If you’ve been drinking red wine and try to have another red with cheese, your palate will become very tired.     —Olivier Flosse

You have three elements in a dish: the product by itself, the garnish and the sauce or the spice, and it’s the mix of all three that matches with the wine. In any pairing there should never be a shock or a fight between the wine and the expression of the food. —André Compeyre

For recipes by the chefs in this article, click here. 

Published on September 7, 2010

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