Saturday morning marked Emeril Lagasse’s 12th straight Wine Experience face-off against other kitchen challengers, and he was feeling daring. Tasked with fishing out the perfect match for Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s foie gras with fig and granola, Emeril tossed out the textbook Sauternes and went for rosé Champagne.
“No one would be ballsy enough to do Champagne, let’s face it. It’s ridiculous,” he said. “I thought this had enough Pinot Noir that it would work. And you know what? Today I feel ballsy.”
After a pause: “I’m sitting right next to you, you know?” cracked José Andrés. Wine Spectator executive editor and emcee Thomas Matthews piled on—“You have enough space up there?”—as the audience roared in laughter.
This was just the sort of exchange Wine Experience guests have come to expect at the annual wine and food pairing showdown, in which the culinary world’s finest sit down onstage to trade barbs along with wine recommendations. The rules are simple: Each of four chefs whips up a dish to feed 1,000 hungry guests, while another of the chefs, given the outlines of the recipe, tries to figure out the ideal wine pairing. The competition: Matthews, who comes up with his own challenger picks. A show of hands in the audience determines the better match.
This year, veterans Lagasse and Andrés, a master of Spanish cuisine whose restaurants reach from D.C. to Beverly Hills, were joined by new panelists Vongerichten, with culinary outposts around the world, and Danny Meyer of New York’s Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Maialino and Shake Shack. Looking the restaurateur in his sport jacket, Meyer quipped, “This sort of reminds of when I used to watch Sesame Street with my kids, and they would play that song, ‘One of These Things Is Not Like the Others.’”
Up first, a lobster and cucumber dished over a yogurt sauce, courtesy of Andrés. Meyer proposed a classic dry Vouvray to Matthews’ white Bordeaux; the chefs, and the audience, were nearly split. But as Meyer pointed out, his $32 Loire pick “in real life” might top a $150 Bordeaux.
Lagasse’s gulf shrimp “boudin noir,” a dark sausage, might have eluded the non-Francophones at first, but Andrés was happy to elucidate: “This is blood?” he feigned ignorance for a beat, then bellowed, “What do you think it is, chocolate?!” Andrés' Spanish Mencía from Bierzo dueled with Matthews’ pick of a Monterey Chardonnay. “If I was having this for breakfast, I would order the white. But for dinner, I would order the red!” exclaimed Andrés. It wasn’t yet noon, and the Chardonnay crossed the line ahead.
The next dish proved tricky. Meyer’s mushroom terrine, made by Union Square Cafe chef Carmen Quagliata, drew two Italian choices: a Sicilian white with skin-contact maceration from Vongerichten against a more classic Barolo suggested by Matthews. “The wildness of this wine with the mushrooms would go well together,” reasoned Vongerichten, but the other chefs wouldn’t have it. “I like both wines, but not with the food,” declared Lagasse. Meyer suggested that the Bierzo might illuminate a better path.
The Barolo took the vote over “neither” by a hair, and in the final matchup, Lagasse’s ballsiness couldn’t prevail over a more traditional late-harvest Alsatian Pinot Gris with the foie gras. So Thomas Matthews walked away with a rare 3-out-of-4 triumph, and no one walked out of the seminar hungry.
The Chefs’ Dishes and Their Matches
Poached Lobster with Cucumber, Yogurt and Dill Salad
Meyer’s wine: Domaine Huët Vouvray Sec Clos du Bourg 2012 (89 points, $32)
Matthews’ wine: Château d’Yquem Bordeaux White Y 2011 (94 points, $150)
Gulf Shrimp “Boudin Noir,” Root Vegetable, Apple Remoulade
Andrés’ wine: Bodegas y Viñedos Paixar Mencía Bierzo 2009 (88 points, $100)
Matthews’ wine: Chalone Chardonnay Chalone Estate Bottled 2011 (86 points, $27)
Wild Mushroom and Ricotta Terrine, Rosemary Walnut Oil, Aged Vinegar
Vongerichten’s wine: Destro Etna White Isolanuda 2012 (NYR, $19)
Matthews’ wine: Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco 2009 (90 points, $55)
Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Spiced Fig Granola
Lagasse’s wine: Henri Giraud Brut Rosé Champagne Esprit NV (92 points, $59)
Matthews’ wine: Weinbach Pinot Gris Alsace Altenbourg Vendanges Tardives 2009 (93 points, $108)