The return of the New York Wine Experience wouldn’t be complete without a rematch of a longtime fan-favorite seminar, the Chefs’ Challenge. In this beloved battle, four culinary leaders each create a dish that’s paired with two wines: One chosen by another panelist and one by Wine Spectator editorial advisor Thomas Matthews. The pairings go head-to-head in audience votes to determine which match reigns supreme.
Facing off this year were chef Eric Ripert of Wine Spectator Grand Award winner Le Bernardin, legendary New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse, chef Michael Lomonaco of Porter House Bar and Grill and New York-based restaurateur Danny Meyer.
While briefing the audience, Matthews, who retired as executive editor last year, revealed that his strategy was a bit different this year. “The wines that I chose really represent people and regions that mean a lot to me personally.” Even with emotion-filled picks, Matthews acknowledged that he expected tough competition.
Before it was time to dig in, a video message appeared from someone noticeably absent, chef José Andrés. The Chefs’ Challenge veteran was in Spain receiving an honor for the work of his charitable organization, World Central Kitchen. “It’s the panel that I have the most fun on, it’s the thing that I never want to lose,” Andrés said, promising that he’ll be back next year.
Then the battle began with Ripert’s dish: Hiramasa crudo with grated yuzu, lemon and extra-virgin olive oil. Matthews selected a rich, juicy white, Bodegas Pazo de Barrantes Albariño Rias Baixas La Comtesse 2017 (91 points, $59), as an ode to the family behind it and to Spain itself. “Also because I think Albariño from Rias Baixas is an extraordinary food wine, and this is an extraordinary Albariño,” he said.
Lagasse went with Tasca d’Almerita Malvasia Salina Tenuta Capofaro Didyme 2020, a clean and straightforward Sicilian white “because Eric’s style is just that, it’s about highlighting the fish.” Ripert, Lomonaco and Meyer sided with Lagasse, but the crowd was more split, and round one was deemed a tie.
Next was Emeril’s squash custard with satsuma-truffle vinaigrette and crab salad. Lomonaco selected Delamotte Brut Champagne NV (91 points, $66), which he assured the crowd was not a cop-out. “It’s a classic Champagne with a good mineral content that I think works with the truffle.” Matthews chose Domaine Serene Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Reserve 2014 (95 points, $55, No. 2 Wine of 2016), a tribute to owner Grace Evenstad—who selected the vintage—and her late husband, Ken Evenstad.
Lagasse opted for Matthews’ wine. “Do I really have to choose?” Ripert asked before siding with the Domaine Serene. But Meyer preferred the Champagne for its high acid content that cut the richness of the custard, calling it “a great example of opposites attract.”
Matthews turned it over to the crowd, and Lagasse called another tie. “I think you all are voting with both hands!” Matthews joked.
Meyer’s dish, created by chef Hillary Sterling, came from his newly opened Ci Siamo: pork Milanese with Pecorino, caraway seeds and aioli uniting Italian and Eastern European influences. “We wanted to throw Tom on a wild goose chase.” Sure enough, these wine picks provided the biggest contrast of the day, with Ripert's wine director, Aldo Sohm, picking an Austrian white, Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Kamptal Ried Lamm 2019, and Matthews going with an Argentine red, Bodega Catena Zapata Nicolás Catena Zapata Mendoza 2009 (94 points, $140).
Meyer confidently voted for the Malbec. “I love tannin and fat together. Think about coffee and milk; it’s almost the exact same thing. This is really working beautifully for me.” As someone who grew up eating Milanese with red wine, Lomonaco was pleasantly surprised by Ripert’s pick. “The Grüner Veltliner kind of made my head explode,” he said. The crowd cheered in agreement before another tie was called.
The final dish was Lomonaco’s rillettes of short rib and oxtail with spiced apples and baguette. “Tom, I’m going to take a page from your book,” Meyer said before presenting his pairing of Fontodi Chianti Classico Filetta di Lamole 2016 (92 points, $38), his personal nod to owner Giovanni Manetti. Though he admitted the wine could benefit from even more age, he pointed out its appealing accessibility, teasing that “It’s very easy to be Tom Matthews and call Château Lynch Bages and say, you know, ‘Can you please provide us with a wine that none of us can afford just so I can win?’”
Matthews again left the vintage up to the winery; Bordeaux’s Lynch Bages provided their Pauillac 2009 (96 points, $150 on release, No. 93 in the Top 100 Wines of 2012).
Lomonaco voted for the Lynch Bages, as did Lagasse and Ripert. As Ripert, a known lover of Bordeaux, put it simply, “It’s Lynch Bages!” When the crowd had their say, the verdict was clearly pro-Bordeaux. “I don’t think we can close this with a tie,” Matthews said. “Sorry, Danny!”
Even on the heels of his loss, Meyer joined in on the cheers from the crowd, who felt like winners themselves after four impressive dishes with eight incredible wines.
“Wine is not only about flavor, wine is about emotion; we’ve all picked wines that give us a certain emotion, and we hope that that emotion translates to you,” Matthews concluded. “That’s really what the Wine Experience is about.”