Heidi Turzyn may not have followed her childhood dream, but some might argue that she found a better one. The wine director for Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner and longtime New York dining scene staple Gotham Bar & Grill originally moved to the city to pursue a degree in dance. Like many aspiring performers, she worked in restaurants to make ends meet—nothing new for the Long Island native, who got her first job scooping ice cream at 15. But while perfecting her technique in the ballet studio, she found herself making even greater strides in the dining world.
In 2008, Turzyn got her first big break in wine as a part-time sommelier at David Burke Townhouse. Within two years, she was promoted to wine director, and soon after became the beverage director for Burke's entire restaurant group. In 2013, she joined the team at Gotham.
Turzyn, 36, still dances three days a week, and overseeing Gotham's 700-selection wine program keeps her on her toes plenty. She recently met assistant editor Lexi Williams at the restaurant to talk about her favorite wine memories and how her dance training helps her wine service shine.
Wine Spectator: Do you see any parallels between dance and working in restaurants?
Heidi Turzyn: It's funny, because dancers are so spatially aware. Working in such busy restaurants, I'm very aware with that peripheral vision that I've always been taught. It's important, being aware of your space, being aware of the energy of your employees. I constantly scan the room for someone who might need help or if they're looking for me. I can feel it from across the room.
Also, body language with my guests. If they're celebrating, if they're nervous, if they're intimidated by the list—I definitely use body language as a signal to see how they're feeling. If it's a group of dudes and they're looking to spend some money, then you have to be confident. And of course, the tough skin, letting things roll off. The dance world has made me stronger and tougher and able to survive in this industry.
WS: Was there a moment when you realized you wanted to have a career in wine?
HT: When I was working [as a bartender] at Café d'Alsace, I tried some older Rieslings. There was a Clos Ste.-Hune in the mix, and I was stunned and shocked. I didn't know a wine could taste like that. Wine wasn't on my table growing up. That was an "aha" moment. I remember another moment, when I was working at David Burke and I opened a Rousseau—I want to say it was an '01. It was my first big red Burgundy and I was like, "What is this?" It really opened my eyes.
I think you have those wine "aha" moments, but there's also the hospitality side. My best friend once invited me to go home to Japan with her. I actually got sick while there, and her father made a big pot of stew and offered me some wine—he was a big wine lover. But he couldn't speak English, so we just had to [gesture]. He brought down a Latour '82, and he was so excited to have someone to share it with. And even though we couldn't communicate with words, the gesture of the food and taking care of me and opening a beautiful bottle was a very nice moment of hospitality that I'll always remember and want to give someone else.
WS: You've been working in New York restaurants for more than half your life. What's special about working in this city?
HT: It's tough—there's so much turnover, there's so much volume. The New York City industry people get it. When you meet people in this industry, you build a strong bond because you have a passion for something and it pushes you to do better.
I actually met [my husband, sommelier and Wheeling Forward charity founder Yannick Benjamin] at a wine event. We both had been in the industry for a long time and never crossed paths. I wasn't going to date in the industry, but Yannick was very different.
WS: What do you like to drink when you're not at the restaurant?
HT: Depending on what day it is, I could create a new cocktail at home, because I always have a catalogue of my cocktails. And then, in my fridge, Austrian Rieslings. I love German Rieslings as well. White Burgundies—I'm a sucker for white Burgundies. My husband and I totally share a love for Rhône reds. He's more disciplined about not drinking than I am, so if I ever want to lure him into drinking, I get a nice red Rhône. He can't turn it away.
WS: Gotham is a fixture in New York fine dining. How do you balance upholding tradition with keeping up with changing dining trends?
HT: You know, it's a hot topic right now, because there are huge changes happening in the city. This restaurant is very similar to my personality; I'm very traditional, but I have some modern parts as well. We have to watch the trends—the right natural wines that work with the program, the right cocktail ingredients that people are interested in. Keeping up with that, going to other restaurants to see what they're having, tasting what I think is cool and interesting that I want to put a spin on, getting inspired by other people. [But] we will always be fine dining. The rest of the world can change and we will evolve with them, but we have to make sure that we are still that special-occasion place.