Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand, executive chef and pastry chef, respectively, of Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning restaurant Tru, have been cooking together for more than 20 years. Gand is a Chicago native who learned to apply her fine arts training to the world of pastry, while Tramonto has known his passion for cooking since his high school years. After working together in New York and Europe, the culinary partners settled in Chicago, where they opened (and later sold their interest in) Trio before teaming up with restaurateur Richard Melman to open Tru. They coauthored Tru: A Cookbook From the Legendary Chicago Restaurant (Random House) in 2004, and Gand has hosted a program, "Sweet Dreams," on television's Food Network since 2000. This fall, the pair has debuted four new concepts: Osteria di Tramonto, Tramonto's Steak & Seafood, RT Lounge and Gale's Coffee Bar, all of them within Wheeling, Ill.'s new Westin Chicago North Hotel. Gand and Tramonto recently spoke to Wine Spectator about wine, food, hospitality and the little things that bug them about the business.
Wine Spectator: Tell us how you became interested in wine.
Gale Gand: I started—can you print this?—drinking wine when I was about 14. [laughing] I have relatives in New York, and when I would go stay with them they would bring out these killer Bordeaux. That was my initial exposure.
Rick Tramonto: As a kid growing up in an Italian household, it was just Italian jug wine on the table, you know? So I really didn't have the opportunity to drink "real" wine until probably my late 20s or early 30s. It's really only been the last 10 or 15 years that I've really started to have the means and surroundings to drink real wine.
WS: You worked together in Europe. What were your wine experiences there?
RT: We got invited to a lot of great places while we were cooking there. Chapoutier would have us up to his vineyard for a weekend …When you get invited [to a winery] it comes alive for you, when you're walking the vineyards with the makers and the growers and the owners of the estates. It's a big difference from just opening up a bottle in downtown Chicago and swirling it in a glass.
WS: How does the wine list at Tru work with and relate to the food that you're
RT: It's a global list. Scott Tyree, our sommelier, opened the restaurant and has built the list over the past seven years from about $150,000 to close to a million dollars. Tru is such a focused restaurant when it comes to multicourse dining—you're having eight, 10, 12, 15 courses—so Scott has a lot of depth to reach from, to take the guest from cold course to hot course to foie gras course—well, not anymore—to fish course to meat course to main course to dessert.
WS: Gale, do you have a say in how wines are paired with desserts and cheeses?
GG: It's more of a conversation with our wine directors and sommeliers. I'll say, "Do you like reds with chocolate? Because sometimes I think they work." It's less about me saying, "Put this specific wine on the list." They know that I love pink bubbles, so we have a really large Champagne selection at Tru, and usually something pink by the glass.
WS: Is there a "dream wine" that you'd love to have for your list or for your own
GG: A few years ago I bought a half-case of pink Cristal at an auction … I'd like some more of that. But I just tasted the 1996 Dom Pérignon rosé and it was quite delicious.
WS: What it is about sparkling rosé in particular that appeals to you?
GG: I like how girly it is! [laughing] Pink wine is so versatile … it just seems to go with the food I like—high herbs and some spices, but not hot spicy, with pork, chicken, rabbit … but it goes with salami and eggs, too, because of the little bit of extra juice that's being mixed in, or because it hung out with the skins a little longer, or hung out with the skins at all. I just like that little bit of edge on there. It makes food better.
WS: Tell us about the wine programs at Osteria di Tramonto and Tramonto's Steak &
GG: They're fun! Belinda Chang designed an interesting, fun program for us.
RT: She plays a game called "Wine Jeopardy" with our staff, to teach them about our wines. The list is all-Italian in the Osteria, but in the steak house it'll be more of a global list. Guests will be able to order from both lists, because the wine cellar is centrally located.
GG: It's a two-story glass wine cellar between the two restaurants.
WS: What are some of the defining trends in Chicago dining right now?
RT: The biggest thing in Chicago right now is all the "scientific" cuisine that's going on at Moto and Alinea and Avenues at the Peninsula. That's been pretty much front-page news here, the "agar-agar cuisine."
WS: Do you ever work within the "scientific" idiom?
RT: I do it in little spurts. I like learning the techniques and understanding them, just to keep up with the times, but for me, that's not where my soul and my cooking comes from. But I'll implement it in certain dishes. It's like having extra toys in the sandbox.
WS: What about you, Gale?
GG: I do some light mousses at Tru that are actually foams. José Andrés showed me a rice pudding that he does out of a nitrous oxide dispenser, and I actually did that on my show.
WS: As professionals, what would you like to see more or less of in dining rooms
or on menus?
RT: For me, it's about, "Let's bring hospitality back to the hospitality business." And as far as menus and food go, it's balance. I think everybody's jumping on bandwagons, whether it's foie gras or foam, and they tend to wrap their whole menu around that one news media-friendly item.
GG: When I eat in restaurants, I sometimes get the feeling that no one ever tasted the food to see if it was delicious. I [recently] went to a little place that I won't name and I said, "What dessert should I have?" And the waitress said, "Oh definitely the macaroons." So I order this thing … and you can't even get your spoon through it because it's so hard! This is the one they're recommending as their best dessert? Those kinds of things drive me crazy, that no one took the time to make sure it was delicious in your mouth. People say to me, "Your desserts are so delicious, how do you do it?" It's not that hard. You just have to eat one and be honest with yourself.
RT: Being in this business, it's a constant education and a constant journey.
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