Bob Waggoner, 45, is the executive chef of the Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence-winning Charleston Grill at the Charleston Place Hotel in Charleston, S.C., one of the top properties in a city rich in both Civil War history and old-fashioned Southern charm. A native of Los Angeles, Waggoner began cooking as a teenager, and departed for France at the age of 20. He intended to stay for a year, but spent 11 years total in and around Burgundy, learning about the food, wine and traditions of the area while working in an array of Michelin-starred restaurants. Waggoner recently spoke to Wine Spectator about barrel tasting at Romanée-Conti, Venezuela in the 1980s and the pleasures of Bordeaux verticals.
Wine Spectator: How did you first become interested in wine?
Bob Waggoner: I got my first restaurant job at 17, at Trumps in West Hollywood. [The late] Michael Roberts, the chef there, found me a job at Hostellerie de Vieux Moulin, a restaurant in Bouilland, just about 10 kilometers outside of Beaune, in Burgundy. The chef, Jean-Pierre Silva, and his wife just loved wine and did the entire list together. Every chance that we had, we were tasting, and it was an incredible learning experience for me. We were surrounded by the great wines and winemakers of Burgundy, but to me these guys were just farmers, just nice people who enjoyed sharing wine. It was a dream, having known nothing and starting out with barrel tastings at Romanée-Conti.
In the U.S., we put winemakers on giant pedestals, which we should, but in Burgundy they're just the local guy who'll invite you to dinner at his house. The great grandson of [Louis] Jadot, we'd go to his house, maybe 20 people—he would've found out a couple of days before the dinner what everyone's birth year was, and there would be a different bottle for everyone's birth year.
I went to Burgundy to spend a year learning how to cook, and I came back 11 years later with a French wife and a daughter born in Beaune. I stayed because of that atmosphere, and the true love for product. That chef and his wife were my best friends, and they helped me find jobs in other two- and three-star Michelin restaurants. I worked for Jean-Pierre for three months and he brought me to Lameloise for dinner. I said, "I couldn't even imagine working in a kitchen like this," and he said, "I didn't want to say anything, but we're going to spend 5,000 francs here tonight and when the chef comes out we're going to say, 'You have to hire Bob next year, he just wants room and board.'" And he did!
Over a couple of years I'd go back to Jean-Pierre each time and get in the kitchen for a while and it got to the point where he'd say, "Pick where you want to go and I'll call them up, because you're as good as any of these guys in any of these kitchens, and you're free." [Laughing] When the sommelier would catch on that the American guy was really into wine, and if nobody else even cared about it because it was just normal to them, then I'd go to all the tastings. The chef would say, "Bob you're not coming in tonight, you're going with the sommelier to help him pour at an event," and I'd be tasting things that few people have ever had the chance to taste.
WS: And then you took a detour to Venezuela. What was your experience there?
BW: After three years in Burgundy working for room and board, I went back to L.A. in 1986. Wolfgang [Puck] was doing goat cheese pizza at Spago, and after working in three-star Michelin restaurants I knew it was going to be tough to find something I'd be pleased with in California. I had a chance to work in Caracas at a private club. The wine program wasn't very sexy at all. It was at a point in time where, if it wasn't made in Venezuela, wine was very difficult to get. There were huge taxes on wine imports. And in true Venezuelan fashion, we would not do dinner until midnight. Guests would show up at 11:45 p.m., go upstairs and have two Bourbons, then come down and have another Bourbon with their dinner. Wine just wasn't the way of life. We never did a wine dinner, or brought in a winery or a winemaker. … I invited Jean-Pierre Silva to join me in Caracas, and we did two weeks of Burgundian food and had a blast. He told me that a friend had just bought Hotel de la Poste, in Beaune, which was built in 1707. Churchill and Napoleon stayed there, and they needed a chef, so I went back to Burgundy.
My then soon-to-be wife was the bookkeeper there, and we turned the place around. After three years, the owner sold it to a chef and his wife. At that point I opened up my own place in Auxerre. We bought a 1920s home and converted it into an eight-table restaurant. We did that for two-and-a-half years, but winters were just brutal—no tourists, nothing—so we sold it. I was Jean-Pierre's chef de cuisine for three years after that, then my daughter came along, and it was time to return to the States.
WS: How would you describe the wine program at Charleston Grill?
BW: Rick Rubel, our sommelier, has brought in incredible wines from all over the world. Our menu has four categories: "cosmopolitan," "southern," "pure" and "lush," and we have wines to complement each type of dish. I love big Burgundies personally, and even after being back in the States more than 10 years, when I go out to dinner that's what I'll order. But on our cosmopolitan menu, we have a tuna and hamachi sashimi with pomegranate molasses, lemongrass oil and black and orange sea salt, for example, and that's tough to match to Burgundy. [Laughing] So Rick has pulled me into a whole new world of wines that have nothing to do with Burgundy. I'm good buddies with Jim Clendenen [of Au Bon Climat in California], and he's done some personalized wine for us. We open a bottle every night at line-up for the waiters, and they blind taste it to help develop their palates. Most of these guys know a whole lot more about New World wines than I do!
WS: Can you give an example of one of the more inspired or unusual pairings that you and Rubel have come up with?
BW: We do a diver scallop and foie gras dish with a yuzu-Bourbon-maple vinaigrette, and at first Rick said, "What the hell are we going to pour with that?" [Laughing] We tasted through maybe a dozen wines and ended up pairing it with a Schramsberg Crémant.
WS: Have you experienced a "once-in-a-lifetime" wine that you'll never forget?
BW: Before I came to the Charleston Grill, I was at the Wild Boar in Nashville, and the verticals we had there were just so much fun. We'd do a tasting of 40 vintages of Lafite and, three weeks later, 40 vintages of Latour or Haut-Brion. At the end of service, I'd walk out and the owner would have half of his 1870 left for me to try, along with the '45 and '59 and '61 … that was one of those incredible times in my life that I don't think will ever come around again.
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