"When I was a kid, I dreaded the kitchen," says Anna-Christina Cabrales, sommelier at Morrell Wine Bar at New York's Rockefeller Center. "But coming from a Filipino family where everything revolves around food, I really had no choice, and at the age of eight I started cooking with my grandmother."
But Cabrales was a natural, and as a teenager even dreamed of going to culinary school. She abandoned her "sensible" career in finance and decided to follow her heart to the International Culinary Center, earning a classic culinary diploma and completing the intensive sommelier program.
"Lola, my grandmother, is an inspiration to me. She was a chemist by occupation, so it was cool to watch her cook, to see her mise en place always lined up around the pot," Cabrales says. "My uncle was with us at the same time, and he was part of one of the first classes at the French Culinary Institute [now the International Culinary Center], so he was coming up with a lot of different creations, and he was a huge inspiration for me as well."
Before the pandemic, she worked six days a week at Morrell, pulling double duty as sommelier and assistant manager. Because of that, Sunday dinners with friends became a ritual for Cabrales, who thrives on entertaining both at work and at home.
I joined her one Sunday to prepare dinner for six—a mix of passionate wine lovers and friends just looking to have a great meal with some good wines and conversation.
When it comes to cooking for a party, Cabrales lives by a few basic mantras: Be mindful of your guests, clean as you go, and in the words of Lola, "No matter what, make sure [the food] is really colorful and looks good to the eye."
"I like to be considerate of my guests, and I ask them beforehand if they have any allergies or they prefer X, Y or Z," Cabrales says. "If they're not happy, I'm not happy."
She gets her guests excited by creating a menu and circulating it via e-mail. It's a great way to build anticipation, a subtle reminder not to have the same thing for dinner on Saturday night, and an opportunity for invitees to pipe up that they're allergic to mushrooms, or hate cilantro.
For our meal, Cabrales chose one of her standbys: whole roast chicken. "It's a reliable go-to that never fails," Cabrales says. "It's a staple that everyone seems to be OK with … it's one of those easy proteins, kind of like salmon, that's so forgiving that you can use so many different wines across the board. It's hard to go wrong."
Cabrales pairs simplicity with sophistication in the roasting pan. "I make a compound butter with whatever herbs I have in front of me—I don't let anything go to waste—and a splash of lemon, and rub it all under the chicken skin, because adding fat around a protein adds moisture and flavor."
She sears the chicken before roasting it. "Browned meat tastes better! It crisps up the skin and you won't get that same color if you just roasted it," Cabrales says, channeling Lola. "It's a dish that you can just set in the oven and forget about it. I don't have that much time," Cabrales says. "I need those easy dishes where I can throw it in the oven, take a shower real quick, get ready and, next thing you know, ding, it's done!"
She starts her guests off with charcuterie and a selection of cheeses—crowd-pleasers that require almost no prep time—along with a sparkling wine. Bubbly at the beginning is another of Cabrales' nonnegotiable rules of entertaining. "A little sparkling wine puts everyone in the right mood!" she laughs.
To pair with the main course, Cabrales opened a wide range of wines, to stimulate the palate and some conversation. "I love making the wine a highlight of the night," Cabrales says, "but I try not to make the food too much of an ordeal, because it's all about the friends and they make the night spectacular."
For a sweet finale, she served an orchard fruit parfait, layering store-bought cake with a seasonal fruit compote, cranberry-orange syrup, Frangelico whipped cream and a sweet hazelnut and cinnamon crumble. Also, of course, paired with wine.
As happy guests often do, these lingered well past dessert, with the conversation winding from pop culture to politics, and ultimately back to wine. The night ended in a spirited debate over the best wines to pair with pizza. It's the best kind of dispute: one that only another dinner with friends can resolve.
Former Wine Spectator staffer Nicole Ruiz Hudson is a freelance food-and-drinks writer and educator.