Robert Stemalchuk wants you to stop pairing Chinese food only with Riesling.
“Riesling is good, sure,” Stelmachuk says. “But I want my guests to experience more.”
Stelmachuk runs the wine program for the Vancouver outpost of Mott 32, a group of fine-dining and dim sum restaurants with locations in Hong Kong, Singapore, Las Vegas, Bangkok and beyond. Mott 32, named after the first Chinese convenience store in New York’s Chinatown, brings traditional Cantonese cuisine, mixed with Szechuan and Beijing influences, into the top tier of global dining experiences by incorporating inventive twists and contemporary cooking techniques.
The menu features more than 100 à la carte options, including hot and sour soup dumplings packed with Iberico pork, savory Maine lobster Ma Po tofu in a pool of Szechuan peppercorn–spiked sauce sauce, and chewy jellyfish marinated in aged balsamic vinegar and laced with umami-rich black fungus. The glistening crown jewel on the menu is the 42-day, applewood-smoked Peking duck, with mirror-like, crackling skin and supple meat. The young duck is roasted for over 48 hours, sliced table-side and meant to be rolled into delicate steamed pancakes and topped with brown palm sugar, hoisin sauce and sliced cucumbers and scallions.
With all of these tantalizing dishes, it’s easy to see why Stelmachuk takes joy in being able to source wines to enhance each bite. Stelmachuk, a native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, moved to Vancouver 30 years ago and has served as wine director for some of the best restaurants in the Rain City, including Market by Jean-Georges, and Best of Award of Excellence winners CinCin and Blue Water Cafe. Upon accepting his position at Mott 32 in 2016, Stelmachuk was required to spend time working the floor at the flagship location in Hong Kong to better understand the scale of the menu and complexity of the food with which he would be working.
Stelmachuk chatted with Wine Spectator editorial assistant Julia Larson about his strategies for serving a table ordering diverse dishes, the evolution of Vancouver’s dining scene and underrated pairings for Peking duck.
Wine Spectator: What was it like for you to move in a new direction, going from traditional European dining to pairing wine with Cantonese and Szechuan food?
It's the new frontier. How many people go to Chinese restaurants? But how many are ever offered fine wine? Certainly, not every place has a wine director and a sommelier working on a team. The food is so diverse, so complex, that I have so many opportunities to create different guest experiences and new sensations than ever before in my career. I get to show off versatility in wine.
When I am working with a communal table where guests can be eating something cold, something warm, something spicy, something with a lot of umami—all at once—there's a big range that will be on the table that I need to cover. You have to search for wines that have the versatility to land on all the dishes and all the palates of the table. I don't just use wine; I use incredibly rare sake, cocktails, beer, everything in my arsenal to take the guest experience to the next level.
What was your strategy with creating this wine list? What notes did you really want to hit?
I have a culinary background too, and as much as I thought I knew how to cook, I didn't understand where the textures, the flavors and the layers were coming from. I got the chance to work in Mott 32 Hong Kong and really understand that food, then when I came back to Vancouver, it was a matter of building a list that had the principles of other lists I’ve curated, like Jean-Georges, which is comfort and value. If a guest wants to come and spend 45 bucks on a bottle of wine, they're getting a good bottle of wine. If a guest comes tonight and says they want to spend $100 on a bottle, that's easy, and if I pick something that they don't like, then something is seriously wrong. I want all the styles represented to first of all complement our food, but I want people to feel comfortable with it.
What are some of your favorite pairings right now?
One of our most popular dishes is xiao long bao, soup dumplings, but we like to dial it up a little bit so we do a hot-and-sour soup dumpling—it has a little elevated spice to it. And I have two off-the-wall pairings: one is Medici Ermete Quercioli Reggiano Lambrusco NV. It's a dry Lambrusco, super easy with its fruit, but it also has a little tannin structure in the background. I'm using it for two dinners I'm doing tonight actually, for that exact reason!
The other is, oddly enough, an extremely rare dessert wine. Now, I wouldn't normally pair with it. These are wines that you normally think of as sickly sweet, but it’s from northeastern Italy, made by Abbazia di Novacella, it's a Moscato and it's red! Moscato will naturally mutate in the vineyard after eight or 10 years or something. And what's unique about this is it is 13 percent alcohol. Normally, these wines are going to be 5 percent, right? And because of that higher alcohol [which balances out the sweetness], it's ultra-refreshing; it just cools and quells that spice in the dumpling. It's really off the wall.
Why was it important to visit Hong Kong and learn more about the cuisine at source?
Mott 32 Hong Kong was relatively new at the time. It was important for our team to go. Even though our chefs have been cooking Chinese food for 40 years, they had to learn the brand standards of Mott 32, understanding that ethos and how the service goes—the style of Western service in a Chinese restaurant—but then really understanding the food. We wanted to approach Vancouver's wine program with an arsenal to really show people what wine can do at a Chinese restaurant.
What do you think are some of the big misconceptions remaining about pairing wine with Chinese food?
People still will bring Riesling and Pinot Noir, and that's fine if you want it, but we can expand. If guests tell me they’re having Peking duck tonight, we can have great examples from around the world, including British Columbia here, which makes world-class Pinot Noir. But what about Cinsault from South Africa? What about unoaked Syrah in the northern Rhône? Or California or Grenache? … But I do a lot with dry Rieslings for sure, because they're just so incredible with our food!
What is it like as a sommelier to work with a restaurant menu that has a centerpiece dish, the signature Peking duck, that you have to pair around? Is that ever a hindrance?
Every time we taste wine, whether it will go with the duck or not is in the back of my mind. But not every table will have the duck. There are a lot more vegans in this market. Besides, there are 134 items on our menu—it’s a huge menu. One of the strengths of Mott is that food is proportioned so two people can dine and share everything. … But, if two people come and they want to try a lot of things, a duck isn't always what they’re going to get because it takes up so much of your appetite. I’ve paired white Châteauneuf-de-Pape, which really surprises people. I also work a lot with a Cinsault from South Africa from a winery called Natte Valleij that people really have some fun with.
How has the Vancouver dining scene developed over the course of your career?
In the 30 years that I've been doing this in Vancouver, it's been a great development: A lot more people are curious. People want to have an adventure. And a lot more people are trusting in taking recommendations from sommeliers. I'm fortunate to work in a community of sommeliers that really inspires me. There's so much diversity, from casual, small, 20-seat dining rooms to the best fine-dining rooms. There's a lot of talent here, and I'm so glad that a lot of Vancouver is taking their advice and listening to them. People aren't worrying so much anymore about asking questions because they don't want to sound stupid; they want to learn, and we’re here to help. I'm very lucky over the years to have regulars that have probably never seen my wine list. I come over, and they literally just tell me to choose.