At the Wine Experience’s annual Chefs' Challenge pairing seminar, the only thing bigger and more fully formed than the flavors on the plate and in the glass are the characters on stage.
The three returning veterans—Emeril Lagasse, José Andrés and Danny Meyer, each of whom has venues that have earned a Wine Spectator Restaurant Award for their wine lists—were all practiced at the outrageous ribbing that is part of the game. This year’s new kid was Mario Carbone. As executive editor Thomas Matthews explained, “Every year, we include one rookie. That gives the other chefs someone to pick on.”
While accomplished in his own right, especially with the recent opening of three restaurants in Manhattan's vaunted former Four Seasons space (the subject of Wine Spectator's upcoming Dec. 15 issue cover story), Carbone recognized the challenge. His first words were: “What am I doing up here? This is a setup job. This is like Dinner for Schmucks. Joke’s on me, right?”
Fortunately for Carbone, the tasting is an equal-opportunity stage. The game is simple: Four great chefs each propose a dish; for each dish, one of the other chefs and Matthews each choose a matching wine. The audience of 1,000 gets to taste each pairing and votes on the most successful.
Meyer—who made his name as restaurateur in New York with the recently re-located Union Square Cafe and now has an empire extending from fine dining to Shake Shack—brought a dish prepared by chef Suzanne Cupps of Untitled at the Whitney. The creamy roasted honeynut squash dressed with ricotta and pumpkin seeds drew Chardonnay-based wines from both Lagasse and Matthews.
New Orleans–based chef Lagasse, who has restaurants across the country, said that his team made a version of the dish based on Meyer’s description to help him choose his match—a blend of Chardonnay and Auxerrois from Alsatian producer Zind Humbrecht. But when he tasted the real thing he was surprised: “I thought there was gonna be a little more smoke in this. Was there going to be bacon?” Meyer retorted, “There is bacon in there, Emeril. Come on, put on your glasses.”
Meyer explained his reaction to the wines best: “It’s gonna be a tough morning because I’m already voting against Tom,” who picked a Chardonnay-Grechetto blend made by Antinori in Umbria. “I gotta say, every time I got a bite of bacon, every time I got a bite of pepper, I just kept going back to the Zind.” The crowd agreed by a wide margin.
Carbone’s dish was up next, raw bigeye tuna with a ravigote sauce and soft-boiled egg, served over shingled cucumbers. “If José was making this, there’d be a foam of cucumber. I actually use the cucumber,” he quipped. Over the groans that followed, he said, “Shots fired.” (Andrés retaliated by claiming Carbone’s tattoos are fake.)
Explaining his selection of a minerally white wine from Sicily’s Mt. Etna, Meyer said it was based as much on the feelings it evoked as the flavors: “We were thinking about the saltiness that should be in ravigote, but also picture yourself in Sicily eating Mario’s dish; I don’t know what other wine you’d want to drink.”
Matthews liked the understatedness of the Etna white, but chose his California Sauvignon Blanc, from renowned producer Peter Michael, because he thought the dish would want company that had “a little oomph.”
For all their ribbing, the chefs do give props. “Mario, your dish is really solid,” said Lagasse. “Your ravigote—you nailed it.”
Explaining his wine preference, Carbone said with a conspiratorial smile: “So I was having a cigar late last night with Marvin [Shanken, Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher]. He sorta leaned in and said, ‘If you ever want to see a Grand Award, you vote for Tom tomorrow.’ Tom, I think your wine’s exceptional.” The crowd agreed.
Emeril brought his usual full-flavored and inventive cooking in the form of a Louisiana Reuben, made with cured wagyu beef, fennel sauerkraut and a dollop of “Cajun caviar” (from the bowfin fish, known locally as choupique.)
Andrés started reading his sommelier’s explanation of their wine match, having flown in hours before the event from Puerto Rico, where he and a team of World Central Kitchen volunteers had been feeding people as part of hurricane relief efforts and had just served their millionth meal. But his inimitable exuberant character won out over his fatigue as he explained his choice of a Vermentino made by Italians in Virginia, near where he’s based. “When you have an amazing winemaker move from a town in Italy to a place in Virginia also called Piedmont, you know he’s a smart guy. I endorse the wine I chose. I am Jose Andrés, and I endorse my message!”
Matthews pointed out that his wine was also made by an expat, albeit a scion of Rhône wine working in Alsace. Matthews recalls touring Alsace with his wife, Sara, and enjoying a different choucroute garni (sauerkraut and sausages) every day, for which the classic match is a local Riesling. “Emeril’s dish is essentially choucroute in sandwich form so I thought Riesling would do well.”
The chefs were all over the place. Lagasse said he’d let the audience decide; it was just too close. Carbone said, with a winking tone, “I still think Tom’s got this one.” Andrés made a plug for voting for an American wine, and Virginia won the close recount, as called by Matthews.
The last dish, by Andrés, was a sort of parfait of foie gras custard with coconut cream, pineapple and rum. “Guys, that’s a piña colada,” said Andrés. “What else do I have to tell you?”
Carbone, claiming that Matthews frowned on his original pairing of a margarita, brought a full, ripe but dry Riesling from Alsace, while Matthews went hard with a sweet, rich Malaga, saying, “I thought a sweeter wine would go better with the foie gras.”
Though stark contrasts, both wines successfully brought out different elements in the dish. Andrés asked: “Is this the kind of dish that will benefit by serving two wines? Is there no right or wrong, but different ways to enjoy life?! We are all American.”
“I can’t tell if it’s an app or a dessert. It’s absolutely remarkable,” Meyer weighed in. “I was shocked how much I liked it with the drier wine. It felt like a hug. Then I drank it with this thing that was like a hammer of sweetness cloaking a hedonistic wine. Let’s not play games guys: That’s what you want.”
Matthews’ Malaga won the crowd in the end, but then Shanken took the stage to request an unprecedented vote on the food. “I don’t know if the chefs like the idea, but it doesn’t matter. If you don’t want to vote, don’t. I want to know what you think. If you have an opinion, share it. This is America.”
Some of the chefs and audience members groaned in protest at having to pick one favorite from the stellar lineup, but after everyone raised their hands and Shanken surveyed the crowd, he called out with satisfaction, “It’s very clear: It’s a tie!”
Danny Meyer / Suzanne Cupps, executive chef, Untitled at the Whitney, New York
Roasted Honeynut Squash with Ricotta, Bacon and Pickled Peppers
Emeril's wine: Zind-Humbrecht Vin de Table de France Zind 2012 (88 points, $35)
Tom's wine: Antinori Umbria White Cervaro della Sala 2014 (91, $50)
Mario Carbone, The Grill, New York
Tuna Ravigote: Bigeye Tuna with Ravigote Sauce, Sliced Cucumber and Soft-Boiled Egg
Danny's wine: Benanti Etna White Superiore Pietra Marina 2013 (NYR)
Tom's wine: Peter Michael Sauvignon Blanc Knights Valley L'Après-Midi 2013 (94, $52)
Emeril Lagasse, Emeril's, New Orleans
Pressed Louisiana Wagyu Reuben with Fennel Sauerkraut, Apple Hittisau and Cajun Caviar
José's wine: Barboursville Vermentino Virginia Reserve 2015 (87, $23)
Tom's wine: M. Chapoutier Riesling Alsace Lieu-Dit Buehl Schieferkopf 2012 (92, $60)
José Andrés, Minibar by José Andrés, Washington, D.C.
Foie Gras Piña Colada: Foie gras custard with pineapple-rum gelatin, coconut cream, fresh pineapple and lime zest
Mario's wine: Domaines Schlumberger Riesling Alsace Grand Cru Saering 2014 (91, $29)
Tom's wine: Jorge Ordoñez & Co. Malaga Victoria 2015 (91, $26/375ml)