I recently returned from the 11th annual Alsace Festival in Northern California and wanted to share my speech about food and wine pairing I gave before a sold out crowd at the technical conference. The following is a slightly revised version.
Good Morning, I’m here to speak about Food and Wine, or more specifically, how food impacts wine and vice versa. Matching food and wine is about marriages and contrasts. We will explore taste to see how food and wine work together from a chef perspective. I am going to begin with a brief history of myself, followed by general food and wine pairing tips, then figuring out what taste is from a chef’s perspective and finally tasting some wines together.
Food shaped my story from the very beginning. While I was in the womb my grandfather Pépé insisted on feeding my pregnant mother a hearty Perigord diet of goose foie gras and black truffles to ensure that, despite growing up in the savage New World thousands of miles from the French motherland, I would become a proper gourmet.The feasting continued on day one when, instead of getting the traditional spank and sip of mother’s milk to herald my arrival, I was handed a flute of bubbles and a serious addiction to the good life. You see, dear old Maman was born in Champagne, France and it is the age-old custom to wet the lips of a newborn with a sparkler. The way she recounts my birth is, I was being hung upside down like a rabbit about to be spanked when she growled at the doctor with a devil-like ferocity that I needed a flute of Champagne immediately. It’s best not to question a woman who just had the equivalent of a melon pass through the most intimate part of her anatomy and survive to tell the tale.
My mother came from an upper middle class family that lived in the south of France. The extent of her food education prior to meeting my father was learned eating in restaurants and having her father’s cook Mémé prepare dinner.Ironically, my mother herself learned to cook by reading Julia Child’s seminal book ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’. Through Julia, she was reunited with her mother culture. My first moments in the kitchen were spent pretending to be a more French version of Julia.
It may be cliché to claim one learned to cook hanging off their mother’s apron strings, but I really did. She was a free spirited natural who cooked like a jazz musician riffs. Edible poetry in constant motion. She had a fearless style that was never daunted by lengthy recipes or even the need to follow them religiously. The same applies to pairing rules. Yes, there are some… but never feel obligated to be stuck in a prison by them. No feat was too daunting or act unworthy of ultimate sacrifice to ensure a proper meal with the correct ambiance at her table. One of the great stories of my childhood was of a Moroccan party my mother threw for a bunch of European expats at the U of C. My mother sawed off all the legs of our dining room table and ringed it with our household cushions to provide the proper mood for a lavish Moroccan feast. I will never forget the mixed look of horror and anger on my father’s face as he arrived home that night.
The pets of our household didn’t fare too well either. I filleted my sister’s goldfish at age two and braised my pet rabbits by age seven. I eventually stopped cooking my pets and went to the New England Culinary Institute where I followed my natural path to becoming a Chef. I cut my teeth on a cornucopia of restaurants across the USA, Canada and even a brief stage for Joel Robuchon in Paris.
For the next 25 or so years, I worked in a variety of restaurants across the United States and even into Canada and France. In 2009 I had the good fortune to meet Bob and Claudia Klindt and work for them at their winery Claudia Springs Winery here in the Anderson Valley.
In 2014, I left the professional ranges for good and moved to the Portland area to spend time with my family. My greatest pleasures now are rediscovering food through the eyes of my five-year-old son, Beau, who has proclaimed himself to be the family saucier. He has helped me rediscover my passion for food, the table, and its importance in the daily motions of life. I just published my first cookbook on the South of France entitled ‘Cuisine of the Sun: A Ray of Sunshine on Your Plate’.
Food and Wine Pairing 101
Food needs wine and wine needs food. Here is the most basic food and wine pairing rule of them all. Actually it is the golden rule. Drink whatever you like. Ultimately life is about pleasure and shouldn’t be taken so seriously. Matching food and wine should not be a scary process. It should be fun and done to please your own palate.
The reality of eating out in restaurants is rarely does everyone at the table eat the exact same thing. So no single wine will ever be the perfect match. Rule number two, equally boring as rule number one; red with meat and white with seafood. It’s a tired, old rule with many exceptions but it’s a starting point. These are the kind of over generalizations you folks didn’t come to Alsace Fest to hear about. So let’s dig in a bit deeper.
One great way to pair wines is called regional pairings. This works in certain countries like France, Spain and Italy. Foods prepared in a given region tend to pair well with wines grown in the same region. If you walk into a restaurant in Paulliac and order a roast lamb, you can be sure they will pair well together.
Birds and Burgs is what my good friend Peter always says. Especially pinot noirs with lower fruit, lower alcohol and bright acidity. Lower alcohol levels seem to be one of the essential factors of pairing wine and food together well. The acidity cuts through the fattiness much like when you are making a vinaigrette and you have to balance oil and vinegar. I make my chicken like they do in Dijon, roasted with a quick mustard sauce. White Burgundies or Chardonnays pair extremely well. The slight acidity and umami present in both the wine and food are naturals.
I recently drank a Paul Hobbs 2003 Richard Dinner Vineyard Chardonnay with a roast chicken and thought I died and went to heaven. Talk about a fantastic match. The same rule applies to Alsace, enjoy a rich, salty choucroute subtly spiced with juniper then sip a Gewurztraminer. A match made in heaven. Regional rules do not apply here in America. While we have excellent wines and great foods we really haven’t had time to develop our national palate as deeply. So we need some guidance beyond the red and white choice.
There are a million infographics online to help guide us. Some are humorous and others offer an elaborate array of symbols and charts that are both confusing to look at and oversimplify pairings. The best pairings can be explained in terms of marriages and contrasts. Flavors that pull together are marriages, like pairing a buttery lobster dish with a Chardonnay. Or a grilled rib eye steak with a big Cabernet Sauvignon. Contrasts are pairings that are seemingly opposite, like matching acidic wines with fatty dishes. Or slightly sweet wines with spicy dishes, like an off dry gewürztraminer paired with a spicy Moroccan tagine.
What is taste and how is it experienced?
This is the basic process of how we perceive what we eat and drink. We take a bite. Taste it. Than we swallow and reflect on the experience.
Brillat Savarin, the famous French gastronome described in his book Physiology of Taste the three stages as:
- Direct, on the tongue
- Complete, when food/wine passes over tongue and is swallowed
- Reflection, judgement passed by the soul on the impressions that have been transmitted to it by the tongue.
So what are the basic elements of taste?
Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Salty, Umami and I would probably go as far as add Fatty as a sixth element. These are all basic terms and do not need explaining beyond saying umami would be described as savory or meaty.
Approaching taste is different for a chef than a wine expert. Perhaps it is a more complicated relationship since the cook is creating food whereas a wine lover is usually just opening a bottle.
Taste from the Perspective of a Chef
Matching components on a plate requires a bit of thought. Some of the best wine dinners I’ve done have been the direct result of close collaboration with a sommelier. I prepare the dish I want to feature and the sommelier opens the wine he wants to share. We taste everything together, adjusting flavors as we go. Perhaps it’s adding very minute amounts of baking spices that bring out another layer in the wine.
Creating a dish is about weaving seemingly imperceptible layers of flavor and textures together. Adding a few drops of acid in the form of verjus, vinegar or lemon to a cream sauce makes the dish seem less one dimensional and more interesting to the palate. You do not taste the acid it simply highlights the other flavors and pushes them forward in your mouth. That is not much different than pairing a slightly acidic wine with a rich dish.
To understand how a brilliant chef breaks down taste in the culinary sense I turn to Grey Kunz. When I knew him, he was chef of New York City’s famed Lespinasse Restaurant. I used to cook for him when he stayed at his second home outside the city. He wrote a fantastic book called “The Elements of Taste”. I am going to paraphrase quite a bit over the next section because very few of us master taste and understand it as well as he does.
Gray breaks food down into three main categories filled with 14 basic elements of taste.
Tastes that Push are salty, sweet and picante. Piquant being spicy hot not spicy like cinnamon. Gray describes this “Like a wave approaching the shore or a wind blowing across the Plains, they push everything forward.” Remove any one of these and the dish becomes flat and boring. These are the basic characteristics chefs play with when creating dishes. They heighten all other tastes in a dish.
Salt is number one by a long shot. Our reaction to it may have come from the fact life evolved from the sea. Sweet is important because it can hit you up front in your palate but more importantly it rounds off the sharp edges of pungent spices like cloves, or tangy flavors like citrus and mellows salinity.
Piquant flavors hit you differently. They react with your pain sensors rather than your taste buds. Pain and pleasure are linked. These are the contrasts I spoke of earlier. The correct amount of heat can push flavors forward. Think of a perfect zinfandel with a charred peppercorn crusted steak.
Tastes that Pull are tangy, vinted, bulby, floral and herby, aromatic and funky. These are tastes that bring every flavor forward with them. Tangy or sour tastes like vinegar and lemon juice make you pucker. Instead of rounding out flavors, tangy makes things brighter. Think of lemon with shellfish. You pop open an oyster, squeeze a bit of lemon and it brightens the briny flavors.
Brillat Savarin said: “smell and taste form a single sense, of which the mouth is the laboratory and the nose is the chimney; or to speak more exactly, of which one serves for the tasting of the actual body; the other for savoring of their gases.” What Brillat is saying is without the nose there is no taste. We need the sense of smell in order to appreciate what’s in our glass. Most tastes are anchored in the nose and smell, though some are anchored in the mouth or palate. Wine has two pulling characteristics. The bitterness cuts through rich dishes and cleans the palate while fruit brings with it sweetness that compliments salt.
Bulby tastes are those that come from various members of the onion family. When cooked they transform from sharp tastes to nutty sugary tastes. They hit your palate first and pull flavors forward. Floral and herby flavors help focus specific tastes. Think of herbs like basil and tarragon that have a licorice flavor and help pull sweet flavors out of a dish. Rosemary and thyme accentuate salty components and help bring out umami in meat and seafood.
Aromatic flavors are things like saffron, cloves, cinnamon. Gray writes “When experienced as pure taste on the tongue, these ingredients are often bitter, but their function is not so much mouth taste as it is the aroma that pulls taste.” So think of the way a pinch of cinnamon in cookies elevates the sweetness without being cloyingly so. Curry brings out ocean flavors of seafood and cloves round out pork.
Funky tastes is a broad category that does not necessarily have a common thread other than everything in it is funky or stinky. Think of great cheeses like Epoisses, Vacherin, or Munster; think of black truffles or even aged hams. I used to serve a six-year-old Spanish ham with an incredible funky taste. Funky flavors are like great aged wines that compliment food far better than simple grape juice does. Think of beef and truffles. Funky flavors ground food. They bring us back to our origins. “It’s the same primal tension between base matter and lofty spirituality that makes us human.”
Taste that Punctuate are sharp and bitter flavors. Gray’s taste experience is defined by a three-part process: aroma, mouth taste and finally texture. Texture acts as a culinary punctuation. Crunch is a stop signal, one taste ends and another begins. Fat acts as commas disseminating tastes by spreading it across your palate and carrying the aromas to your nose. Texture and fat are not flavor components, only punctuations.
Bitter foods act like punctuations by bringing tastes to a full stop. A taste may be highly enjoyable and something we want to never end. But to fully understand a dish, we need to stop the sensation in our mouth and give us a pause to contemplate it. Bitter flavors are watercress, cranberries even red wine and beer.
Picture in your mind a beautiful prime rib served with freshly grated horseradish. Obviously horseradish is both sharp and bitter. It stops taste dead on the tongue. The punctuation provided adds a great contrast to the meat. A sip of red wine acts similarly.
The Taste Stages
Each of these elements plays on four basic taste stages or platforms that chefs build upon. They are garden, meaty, oceanic and starchy. All platform ingredients have textual elements to them. If something is crunchy you will notice that first, it punctuates between one set of tastes and another. If something is creamy or smooth it rounds out flavors and mellows taste. The four platforms are fairly straight forward.
Garden tastes are obviously vegetables and fruits. Raw they can be crunchy and refreshing, maybe even tangy. Once cooked, the sugars can sweeten and smooth. Meat is the foundation upon which greatness is built. It never quite loses it meatiness but acts as a base that supports a multitude of other flavors. Oceanic flavors are similar in a sense, but they have a bouquet more refined and focused than meats. Depending on the richness or oil content they can range from subtle to strong flavors. Think of sole compared to mackerel.
Starchy foods have twin personalities. They can be soft and mushy as in mashed potatoes or gnocchi. They can be crispy and crunchy as in French fries. The primary function is texture. Smooth starches like mashed potatoes round out sharper flavors. They clean the palate and get you ready for the next taste. That’s a very important component of a complex dish. You need punctuations to fully appreciate food or even wine.
Gray brings this back to the wine world by saying: “as you sip, swirl and shpritz through 20 or 30 wines, you could be served a Romanee Conti that fetches a thousand dollars a bottle and your tongue would respond with the energy of an overfed uncle snoozing in front of the television.”
Ok, now that I have bored you for the last 15 minutes let’s drink some wine and finally eat the food on the plates in front of you. Wait till I tell you to taste anything. Save three sips of every wine so we can go slowly. There will be plenty of wine to drink later on at the Grand Tasting so let’s pace ourselves.
I am approaching the four wines we are tasting today strictly from an educational point of view. Typically, you build menus and wine pairings starting with lighter wines and foods then progressing towards bigger more substantial wines and foods. Today we are going our own direction.
There are some basic pairing rules to follow. Remember these are general rules and rules are meant to be broken. But we have to start somewhere, right?
We all know about classic combinations. Birds and Burgundies, Paulliac with roasted lamb; Barolos with truffles. Those are the time honored combinations that we all know are fantastic.Acidic wine and acidic food pair well together. Try Champagne with smoked salmon and a squeeze of lemon. Champagne is good with anything. The lemon bridges the acids and forms a marriage with the wine.
Match intensities of food and wine. One wine writer online wrote: “mismatched in intensity, the result is like a fight between a featherweight and a heavyweight boxer; the biggest, strongest contender holds an unfair advantage.” Heavier food goes great with heavier wines. Pay attention to every component of the dish, including the sauce. Simple roast chicken goes great with a Chardonnay but spicy curried chicken does not.
The first wine we are trying is a beautiful Riesling from Emile Beyer. Taste the wine by itself, without any food. For me, I get apricots, tangerine, kiwi, passion fruit, green tea, slate and a bit of geranium. It’s a beautiful Riesling. Now take a bite of the Steelhead sashimi. Make sure to get all the components of the dish and really taste the bite.
What you are tasting is beautiful clean ocean flavors married with hints of raw garlic, ginger, soy and a combination of olive and sesame oils. Now taste the wine again. The wine becomes much rounder in your mouth; it softens. The astringency of raw garlic and ginger disappears and fades.
Take a piece of raw ginger and chew it. Really get that sharp ginger flavor. This is a punctuation, like the horseradish in my example. Now take your final sip of wine. Notice how the wine rounds the edges off the raw ginger.
So in this dish we had an oceanic platform with lots of great flavors that marry well with a Riesling and a couple flavors that punctuate. For me this is a beautiful marriage and edible proof that two great things can make an even better one.
Now let’s talk about contrasts.
- Rich, fatty foods pair well with acidic wines
- Sweet foods pair well with acidic wines
- Sweet foods pair with tannic (bitter) wines
- Bitter and fat work great together
- Alcohol and fat work well
- Alcohol and sweet work well
- Sweet and Salty pairings work together
- BUT acidic and Salty do not pair well alone, they need a third partner to make a ménage a trois.
Now we will move onto the pork and foie gras rillettes with the cremant. This time, taste the food first. Notice the strong clove flavor with lots of salt and rich fattiness. It almost tastes unbalanced if it weren’t so damned delicious. Now smell the cremant. In the nose I get citrus, grapefruit, pineapple and red berries. Almost that fake red berry flavoring found in soft drinks and the candy we grew up eating.
Years ago a sommelier from the Bellagio spoke about Flintstone chewable vitamins. I totally get that in this wine. Take another bite of rillettes. Now take a big sip of wine. Notice how the acidity cuts through the fat, rounds off the sharp edges of clove and mellows the salinity. The tasting experience becomes three dimensional. Notice how the wine changed. All of this makes the wine seem a bit sharper than it would on its own merits.
Many love affairs start out passionately and end up in divorce. I didn’t want to mention this till you guys got some wine into yourselves. It’s a depressing topic. So let’s hurry through this one.
- Bitter and bitter do not work well together
- High alcohol and spicy do not work
Now we are on to the 2008 Grand Cru Gewürztraminer. Take a sip of wine. I am not a fan of this wine. I love Gewürztraminers but not this one, at least not by itself. It’s too flabby. It’s too sweet with not enough of the flavor we look for in Gewürztraminers to stand alone. This wine truly needs some food.
Take a bite of our salty, funky, stinky Epoisse cheese. Eat it with the rind. We want all the funk we can get. While the funkiness of the cheese is still in your mouth take another sip of wine. The cheese brings out more depth and pronounced apricot flavors. For me this wine really needs food with it.
Now let’s try a crazy experiment. In front of you is a cherry tomato with anchovy and olive oil. I’m going to show you what a divorce looks like. Eat the tomato and anchovy and really coat your mouth with the flavors. Before you completely swallow your food take your last sip of wine. For me it makes the wine very one dimensional and over emphasizes the sweetness. We talked earlier about regional pairings. This shows you why Alsace and Provence are many miles apart. I love Louis Sipp as a producer and mean no disrespect. This is a wine I would want a real Alsatian choucroute with.
Lastly we return to the land of blissful marriages and end on a high note, riding hand in hand into the sunset on a platinum coated unicorn. Today we are going to taste a phenomenal late harvest Gewurztraminer from Husch Vineyards. Smell the wine. This aromatic wine is so delicious with its honey, apricot, orange marmalade and clove flavors it almost is a crime to serve anything with it. It’s that good. In fact, every time I think of this wine, angels start to sing.
This is a complex wine I would have no trouble pairing with a variety of food from a foie gras torchon to salty cheeses like a Roquefort to homey desserts like an apple crisp or a crème brûlée. (For the recipe and more on Husch click here) And that got me thinking. Why not marry the apple crisp and the crème brûlée in the form of an apple tart?
It’s hard to do so many small apple tarts for this quantity of people so please excuse the appearance. It does have all the flavors we need. I want you to take a big sip and hold it in your mouth. Do not swallow. Close your eyes and think of your first childhood love. It starts sweet and finished dry. Just a lovely wine. I am curious, anyone hear the angels singing? Now take a bite of the apple crème brûlée tart.
To bridge the flavors better I put a bit of cloves and cinnamon along with a big spoonful of honey and orange zest into the custard. Now taste the wine again. I get an explosion of apricots with faint tastes of passion fruit, kumquat and melon. It truly is a fantastic wine.