James Boyce, 45, is the executive chef at Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence-winning Studio Restaurant at Montage Resort and Spa in Laguna Beach, Calif. Born and raised in upstate New York, he now finds himself sandwiching rounds in the kitchen between beach runs, ocean kayaking and biking up and down the coast. Boyce began his culinary career more than 20 years ago, "freelancing" in New York at Le Cirque under the tutelage of Daniel Boulud, where he was inspired to get serious and enroll in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. After six years with Boulud, Boyce headed to Phoenix, working under Alex Stratta at Mary Elaine's at the Phoenician, then on to San Diego where he served as executive chef at Loews Coronado Bay Resort before moving back to Phoenix to take the helm at Mary Elaine's. In 2003, Boyce returned to California to open Studio. He recently spoke with Wine Spectator about his surprising wine loves, his most memorable food-and-wine pairing and how to find a great match.
Wine Spectator: How did you first become interested in wine?
James Boyce: In college, I became very interested in cooking, and that led me to work for Villa Banfi, on Long Island. I would do the company's luncheons and became very interested in their wines, wine in general, and food-and-wine pairing. It threw me into the mix and I realized it was a big thing for them to have food that brought out the best characteristics of their wines.
WS: Are there any particular wines or regions that you love?
JB: I'm a huge fan of using Alsatian and Provençal wines with my food. If you ask me to recommend a wine in the restaurant, I would probably choose an Alsatian Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc or Gewürztraminer, or a red from Bandol. Those wines were on the first tasting menu I ever put together, and they bring back good memories.
WS: Do you devote much space on Studio's wine list to Alsatian and Provençal wines?
JB: We're in California, so we have to go heavy on California wines, but we're really global. We've got Burgundies and Rhônes and at least 10 pages of Cabs and Chardonnays. It's almost absurd. But we still have those Alsatian and Provençal wines on the list.
WS: What about the wine program at Montage as a whole?
JB: When I came to Montage in 2003, I brought a gang of people over with me from Mary Elaine's. Chris Coon put the wine list together, and Troy Smith revamped it when Chris left. Our list at Studio is the master list for the hotel. The Loft [Montage's other restaurant] list is a bit different. It's smaller and specializes in domestic North American wines. Mosaic [poolside dining] specializes in sparkling wine, whites and rosés, but all guests have the option to choose from the master list.
Our wine program is unique in that we have two people who work full-time in the cellar. They're on radio with each of the restaurants and room service, so if you're dining in the Loft and you want 1982 Château Mouton-Rothschild, the sommelier calls down to the cellar and they bring it up.
At least three sommeliers are on staff in the restaurant every night. All of our sommeliers, and many of our waitstaff, even at the Loft and Mosaic, are certified in a 40-week wine education program we hold here on property each year. We have more than 80 people certified in our hotel.
WS: Can you talk a bit about how your food and your wine program work together?
JB: My background and training are French and my techniques over the past 20 years have never changed, but I'd say that my style is American with French nuances, rather than classic French cooking. Cooking on the coast of California, my philosophy is simple—I use what's available within a 20-mile radius for the majority of my dishes. And then, I enhance with nuances sourced from throughout the world. Just as the majority of our food comes from California, at least half of our wine list comes from California.
WS: Has there been a single wine-and-food pairing that stands out in your mind?
JB: I would say a warm chocolate soufflé with a glass of Dr. Parcé Banyuls. I was served it at Mary Elaine's when I went to dinner there in 1988. And there's another one, at Jean-Louis at the Watergate in 1988. Jean-Louis [Palladin] was still alive then. He served a cheese course at the end of the meal with a 1963 Port, my birth year. 1963 Dow Port with a French blue cheese, Bleu de Gex. It still stands out in my mind. I finished that meal with a 1946 Bas Armagnac. Twenty years later, I still remember it clearly.
WS: Do you follow any particular rules for wine-and-food pairing?
JB: I have always surrounded myself with people who know my food and people who know wine, and I'm not afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Most people don't do that. That's how they make mistakes.
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