Friday, May 10, 2019
8 a.m. Early-Morning Studies
Momofuku is known for its vibrant, energetic restaurants and chef David Chang’s colorful cuisine. Chang’s menus famously include unconventional and exuberant dishes, from shrimp toast to spicy beef ramen to quadruple-fried chicken served cold. But the vibe is quite subdued in the group’s New York City headquarters this morning, illuminated only by the soft glow of sunlight and silent except for the keyboard clicks of the first employee to arrive: corporate beverage director Jake Lewis. Lewis is preparing to take the Master Sommelier exam on July 22, and mornings in the office are rare opportunities for complete focus in his chaotic schedule.
“I’m a crazy person that likes to have constant change and challenges, so a routine day is very boring for me,” he says.
It’s been just six hours since he returned from a visit to the group’s Washington, D.C., restraurant, CCDC, but Lewis is the zone. The intensity is understandable—it’s Lewis’ third attempt at the notoriously difficult exam, and on top of that, he’s overseeing beverage programs for the group, which has 13 diverse concepts across the U.S., Australia and Canada, including six Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners, and three openings on the horizon. But he’s used to the pressure, and he keeps it all in perspective. After all, as Lewis says, “I have the dream job.”
9:45 a.m. Off to the Dream Job
It’s time to get to work, training staff at Momofuku’s newest Korean concept, Kāwi, at Hudson Yards. Lewis hops off the subway and enters through the development’s grand lobby (“There’s more marble here than what’s left in Italy,” he comments) to the fifth-floor restaurant.
At the far end of the warm-toned space, a 10-person mix of front-of-house staff files into the private-dining area, a dark, cozy room with a karaoke machine. The training is voluntary, so, as Lewis puts it, “this is just them wanting to do better.” Everyone takes a seat around a table set with wine glasses, cups and blind-tasting grids for reference.
Wine training is routine at many restaurants, but it becomes clear that this session will be anything but ordinary as Kāwi beverage manager Isabella Fitzgerald strolls in with an ice bucket of quarter-gallon milks.
Lewis calls the buzzing room to order and explains today’s goal: to gain a deeper understanding of wine’s basic components (acid, body, sugar, tannins) and therefore better describe and contextualize wines for guests. “This will be interesting,” he says with a glance toward the milk bucket.
After calibrating their palates with an Austrian Grüner Veltliner, the group begins lesson No. 1: acid. Lewis first instructs everyone to pour a glass of water and taste it as they would a wine (swirl, sniff, swish and all) to establish a “neutral” baseline.
“What we’re gonna do is deliberately put this into a sweet spot, and then we’re gonna really screw it up and go out of balance, and then we’re gonna bring it back into balance with sugar,” Lewis says. “We’re basically making lemonade.”
Together they add lemon juice to the water drop by drop, tasting after each addition. Facial expressions change as the solution goes from pleasantly tart to pucker-inducing. “One more time, feel the pain,” Lewis urges before the last increment.
They empty their glasses into spit cups to make room for what’s next: tasting a range of sugar solutions to gauge that element’s impact, from a rounder textural note to significant sweetness. They then conduct a similar experiment with tannins using tea, tasting it every few minutes as the brew grows stronger. And finally, they get to the milk, tasting a series of glasses that illustrate “body” in a beverage, with the scale of skim milk to heavy cream representing light- to full-bodied.
Lewis ties each point back to its dining-room application. “Part of the exercise is knowing at what point this wine should be applied to the meal and in what context,” he concludes. “That’s the somm’s job, to understand what their palates are experiencing, and then to translate that into something they’re gonna like.”
The tasting group joins the rest of the team in the dining room for a pre-shift meeting with a sampling of LIC Beer Project Higher Burnin’ IPA. When sommelier Anthony Salazar asks for first impressions, Fitzgerald jumps in: “People in the structure class: Take it away!”
She pushes each respondent; if someone senses flowers, she wants to know what kind, and if they sense hops, she wants to know how much. Lewis listens by the bar until the meeting wraps. Then it’s time to roll down his pants cuffs, throw on his blazer and hit the floor for lunch service.
11:30 a.m. In His Element at Hudson Yards
Lewis maneuvers through the dining room as guests stream in, pouring wines and greeting familiar faces while the pace picks up. At 33, he’s smooth and confident from years of experience in restaurants, an industry he was drawn to at an early age. “I was one of those weirdos that has always known that this is what they wanted to do,” he says. “I just like making people happy.”
During his time at Houston’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, Lewis worked his way up at the now-closed Pappas Grill Steakhouse before joining the sommelier team at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse Houston Galleria. The following years were a mishmash of beverage positions, from retail salesman to beer writer. After moving to Toronto, Lewis joined Momofuku as a sommelier at Daishō (which has since been replaced with Kōjin) and eventually became assistant beverage director before taking the lead in 2016.
Lewis visits the restaurants as much as he can. He tries to hit the New York concepts one or two times a week, and the D.C. and Toronto restaurants quarterly. But since Kāwi just opened in March, he’s here more often lately, overseeing the company’s newest wine program.
Kāwi’s 280-selection list went through about four versions before launching, and it’ll continue to evolve. That’s typical in the Momofuku wine list–writing process, which begins with a “thesis” for each program.
Kāwi’s thesis, as Lewis paraphrases, is “to highlight New World producers as parallels to their European counterparts at affordable price points.” Several grape-specific sections are divided into “French” and “not French,” and in Momofuku’s signature playful fashion, you’ll find subheads like “All the Colors!” for rosés and orange wines, and “Rock Paper Scissors!” for lesser-known selections. Lewis often slips in cheeky features like these to encourage sommelier-guest interactions, and to help ease people out of their comfort zones.
“It’s very easy to put together a wine list that has a bunch of names that everybody knows, but what’s the point of having a sommelier if they’re just going to point at the same wine over and over again?" he asks.
“We kinda joke, it’s like ‘beverage programs for humans,’” he says. No matter your budget or preferences, when you’re at a Momofuku restaurant, “there’s something for you here.”
3 p.m. A Long-Awaited Tasting of Something a Little Different …
After a lunchtime meeting about training for Bar Wayō, the South Street Seaport concept opening in Manhattan this summer, Lewis heads to the Italian-leaning Nishi for a first taste of Momofuku’s Shacksbury Cider collaboration.
Each year, a different Momofuku restaurant beverage manager oversees the blending of a signature cider to feature in the restaurants, and Nishi’s beverage manager, Andy Wedge, was in charge this time. “It’s an exciting day at Nishi,” Wedge says, bringing a handful of cans to a sunny corner table where Lewis awaits.
It’s their first canned version and their first rosé cider, thanks to some Carignan grape skins. Lewis and Wedge each crack one open, pour it into a wine glass to check out the hue, and take a swig.
“Nice and pale,” Lewis notes with approval.
“Yeah, the color’s great,” Wedge agrees. “It starts off pretty fruity and fun, and finishes with some of that funk … I’m really happy with it.”
Lewis slides another can into his backpack and chats about upcoming list changes with Wedge. With cider tasted and business addressed, he takes off to Ssäm Bar for a tasting with importer Stephen Bitterolf of Vom Boden.
4:45 p.m. Ko Time and a Beverage Manager Meet-Up
Finally, Lewis gets to Chang's much-fêted tasting-menu spot, Momofuku Ko. He enters the restaurant through the back and swaps out his sneakers for dressier shoes behind a fortress of wine boxes. Chefs and servers call out greetings as he makes his way to the private-dining room to check in with beverage manager Arthur Hon.
They chat about the basics, like how busy the restaurant has been, what rarities they’re pouring at the bar and any upcoming happenings. They don’t dive into too many details since they just spoke yesterday, and Lewis is generally a hands-off manager.
“If you own that program, you’re gonna sell it,” he says. “You find the right people, put them in place, build them up and encourage them, and support them. That’s the best way forward.”
Chang takes a similar approach in empowering Lewis, though the chef makes his personal preferences known. “He likes white Burgundy and shitty beer. It’s a fun dichotomy,” Lewis says. “[We] always have at least one shitty beer—or rather, at least one crusher-style lager. Sometimes it’s the best pairing.”
5:15 p.m. An Ideal Ending
Lewis especially loves working at Ko, in part because of the 1,085-selection wine program, the largest of the group’s Restaurant Award winners. The dining room’s Japanese-rooted tasting menu and the bar’s experimental, ever-changing à la carte options mean plenty of opportunities for intriguing wine pairings. Certain aspects of Chang’s culinary style make things particularly interesting, like the complexity of textures, the element of sourness and numbing ingredients like Szechuan peppercorns.
“Our food is strange, so the idea of wine with a lot of our cuisine seems challenging, but in reality it’s not,” Lewis says. “It’s much more exciting.”
With plenty of people on the floor, Lewis heads home around 8 p.m. for a home-cooked meal with his wife, knocking out any time-sensitive emails on the way. The next few days will be just as hectic, as he starts building the beverage program for Bar Wayō while keeping in mind the upcoming openings of Majordōmo Meat & Fish in Las Vegas and Noodle Bar Los Angeles, plus the ongoing demands of all the existing restaurants.
“We’re moving very fast, so that’s very challenging,” he says. “But I’m not afraid of working. It’s just more toys to play with.”
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