The Women Behind the Wine at New York’s Jungsik

Meet sommeliers Debbie Jones and Jamie Schlicht, the powerhouse duo pairing benchmark classics with multifaceted Korean cuisine

The Women Behind the Wine at New York’s Jungsik
Sommeliers Debbie Jones (left) and Jamie Schlicht enjoy finding unexpected pairing options among Jungsik's growing list of nearly 1,000 wine selections. (Dan Ahn)
Feb 15, 2022

Located in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood with a sibling location in Seoul, Jungsik restaurant—the brainchild of chef-proprietor Jungsik Yim—serves a multicourse Korean tasting menu infused with modern and avant-garde influences, guided by executive chef Daeik Kim.

Menu items are listed very simply, with names like “scallop” and “black cod,” but the dishes themselves are far from mundane. Seasonal produce and carefully sourced seafood and meats unite with Korean ingredients such as dashima (an edible kelp), gochujang (fermented chili paste) and bokbunja (a traditional fruit wine). The results are plated with an artistic intention that’s on par with the highest tier of Manhattan fine dining.

Sound like a challenge to pair with wines? For lead sommelier Debbie Jones and sommelier Jamie Schlicht, it’s just another day in the life.

Jones started her restaurant career working jobs like “line cook, dishwasher and everything in between” from the time she was a teenager. She then studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where she took an intensive wine class. Despite having “absolutely zero wine knowledge whatsoever,” the class sparked her interest, and she shifted her focus. After graduating, Jones moved to Manhattan and worked at top wine destinations like Gramercy Tavern, the Modern and the now-closed Del Posto, before starting at Jungsik in August 2020.

Schlicht entered the restaurant industry at a similar age. “I wrote a restaurant review for my high school newspaper and ended up getting hired by this little mom-and-pop spot on Long Island,” she recalls. “And so began my career as a hospitalitarian.”

Inspired by subsequent stints at wine-centric restaurants, Schlicht earned her certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers. She went on to work wine positions at spots such as Aldo Sohm Wine Bar and Blanca, and spent a portion of the pandemic shutdowns working at Red Newt Cellars in the Finger Lakes. As New York City was gradually reopening, Schlicht heard about the position at Jungsik and jumped on the opportunity. “I was really excited to work with the beautiful, intricately prepared cuisine,” she says.

She and Jones now manage a growing wine program of nearly 1,000 selections, filled with coveted gems from France, Italy, Germany and beyond, maintaining the restaurant’s Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence.

The duo spoke with Wine Spectator associate editor Julie Harans about changes in the industry, their wine-service styles and the unexpected joy of pairing a robust red with octopus.

Wine Spectator: Debbie, you started a new restaurant position in New York City in August 2020—what was that like?
Debbie Jones: It was stressful. It was weird. We were using our indoor tables outdoors. So every single shift, we had to physically bring out the tables and chairs and everything. We joked around that it was Jungsik CrossFit because it was very labor-intensive. But we did what we had to do to get through that time period. And every single time that a guest would come in during 2020, they were just so happy that we were around that we had so many regulars coming back to us on a weekly and on a monthly basis. But we also offered to-go service at the time, which was absolutely amazing to see this two-Michelin-star restaurant adapt to and overcome the situation.

WS: What’s your overall approach to this wine program?
DJ: The wine program is very classic. We have a little bit of fun stuff in a few areas of the world, but for the majority, it is very classic. We have a very large international clientele who really want to drink Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux. So there are a lot of big names on our wine list and some very recognized, very sought-after names as well, and I will keep on expanding that section of the wine list.

The things that I would like to bring on in the future are more of those New World wines. We have very minimal Australia, we have minimal Argentinian wines, as well. And a small selection of even the United States wines—California, Oregon and also Washington. So I would like to expand on all of those areas.

WS: What’s it been like to pair wines with Jungsik’s Korean cuisine? Do you get into more playful picks when it comes to the set wine pairings?
DJ: We do like to have a little bit of fun. There's actually one dish in particular that is very difficult to pair with, which is our octopus. It's been on the menu for a very long time, it's one of our signature dishes, and this octopus is probably one of the best octopus preparations that I've ever had. There is a gochujang aioli, and then the octopus itself is braised in dashima and also seared. So it's a little crispy and it's really tender on the inside. And all of those flavors and textures combined are slightly difficult to pair with. So every time that I think about bringing in a new pairing, I always ask chef to prepare us an octopus so we can make sure that the pairings really work. There are other preparations that are a little bit easier to pair with, like right now one of our main courses is lamb from Colorado and it’s served with black truffles. But there are some individual dishes that we have to keep on tasting and going back to the drawing board.

 Jungsik's dashima-braised octopus with gochujang aioli
With its contrasting textures and flavors, Jungsik's dashima-braised octopus with gochujang aioli calls for creative, offbeat wine pairings. (Dan Ahn)

Jamie Schlicht: As Debbie had mentioned, it can certainly be challenging, especially because there are so many layers of flavor in the dishes. You have spice components, you have acidity, and with the octopus, which she referenced before, you have this texture, so you need a wine with enough verve to stand up to that crispy texture. But you also don't want anything too astringent that's going to clash with the spiciness of the gochujang. So [currently] we ended up doing an offbeat Pedro Ximénez that's vinified in a dry, unfortified style from the south of Spain, which is always a really delightful pour for guests, because it's certainly an example of a wine that tastes better with the food, and vice versa.

And from our end, it's part of what makes this job so fun and enjoyable and gratifying, leaning into these more playful pairings and having unexpected results.

WS: Do any pairings come to mind that were totally unexpected but wound up surprising you?
JS: Pairing a Rioja with a tuna kimbap course. I think you wouldn't anticipate that a super savory red would go along with this picnic food. However, right now we're pouring R. López de Heredia Reserva Rioja from ’09, and the savoriness of the wine harmonizes beautifully with all the umami flavors in the tuna kimbap. And then you have this dill note from the new American oak that also plays wonderfully off of the seaweed. It’s really wonderful the way that the tannins from the oak tenderize the tuna, and there's this core freshness also that's food friendly.

DJ: Yes, I think that that one is the pairing that surprises people the most … We also tried this particular course with different white wines, but we decided as a group that it would go better with red wine.

WS: What’s your philosophy on wine service? Do you take any steps to make the fine-dining experience more comfortable or approachable?
JS: One thing that I appreciate about working at Jungsik is that we are allowed to showcase our personalities. Debbie and I both have our own personal styles, and I love connecting with people, and wine is certainly a vehicle for that. First and foremost, I want guests to be happy and enjoy their experience, and [I want] to execute wine service in a way that's unobtrusive. I'm not an overly obsequious sort of server, but you also want to do things with a little bit of polish and finesse. I think there's that balance that I always try to maintain.

DJ: The physical service that we do is very classic; it resembles certain steps that you would see in the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) service. However, what Jamie is referring to, which I completely agree with her, is that we try to connect to the guest as much as possible to make sure that they're having a wonderful time so that they come back … .

WS: Are there any particular selections on the list right now that you’re especially excited about?
JS: We have a couple of Nikolaihof selections on our list, and I feel like Austria is often quite under-represented on a lot of bigger wine lists. But the Vinothek, in particular, I'm really excited about. You have this stunning fresh Riesling that's seen 16 years of barrel age—it’s an '02 vintage—but it's still so fresh and balanced.

DJ: I love Champagne, and I think our Champagne list is amazing. However, one of the producers that I particularly love would be Gaja from Barbaresco. We have several different vintages of theirs, and we also currently use the Sperss 2011 for our pairing with truffles and lamb.

 The elegant, light-filled dining room at Jungsik restaurant in New York, with a subdued light color palette contrasting with dark wood panels
Though Jungsik takes an artistic approach to its food and an elegant, modern approach to its décor, the restaurant was still able to adapt to the pandemic with outdoor dining and take-out dishes. (Dan Ahn)

WS: At this point during the pandemic, what kind of challenges are you facing?
DJ: A huge issue right now is the staff shortages. We've been continuously hiring since Jamie was hired, and hopefully we will get really great co-workers in the future. But it's very difficult. I know a lot of people have unfortunately left the industry or have moved out of New York City. So getting really amazing restaurant professionals is a big, big challenge both front of house and also back of house.

Some other issues that we are facing are with the shipping containers. There is a lack of staff for loading and unloading the shipping containers, and the shipping containers hold the wine, hold the sea urchin, hold the glassware, hold anything that you're getting from Europe and Asia. So the kitchen has had some issues, along with myself, getting some amazing products that we normally get pretty regularly and pretty easily. It's a stressful situation … So it's just trying to figure out which products we can use in the meantime, and which products we might already have in the restaurant in order to fill in those supply issues. We still have standards to uphold, and no matter the issues, we will still perform at a high level as a staff, as a restaurant.

WS: Have either of you experienced any kind of roadblocks or discrimination associated with being a woman in this male-dominated field?
JS: I've been in the hospitality industry for a very long time. In the wine business in particular, I think up until more recently, women just didn’t have as much visibility. And I do think that's changing. I have been very fortunate to have amazing mentors in both women and men over the years.

DJ: Right now, we [as an industry] have acknowledged that there's an issue. And we are taking steps to change how women in the industry are viewed and how the industry will be moving forward. I do think that there has been change. However, there is more change to come.

I myself have also been discriminated against, not because I was a woman, but because of my age, in 2015. I was very frustrated where I was working, which [had] one Michelin star at the time. I was getting passed over for promotions, and eventually I got so frazzled that I asked the manager to sit down with me and discuss what I could improve on and why I wasn't getting promoted. The manager sat down with me and he said, “Debbie, you look too young. No one's going to take you seriously.” Was that the correct way for a manager to respond? Probably not. I put in my two weeks’ notice, and that gave me, if you will, a kick. Because after that, I thought, “Let me look at my resume. Let me see what I can do to improve to make sure that this issue never happens.” I enrolled in several different courses in the WSET. I eventually got my diploma when I was still relatively young, and also certified through the CMS along with working in several different Michelin-starred restaurants.

So even though I was technically discriminated against because of my age and the way that I looked, it did give me a very honest way of thinking about what I can do to make sure that this issue never happens again.

WS: After making it through these past couple of years in the restaurant industry, what keeps you motivated to continue your careers in hospitality, despite all the challenges?
JS: For me, connecting with people. I’ve made lifelong friends in co-workers and also in guests. Some of my regular guests from when I worked at the Lake House on Long Island, who I've been in a wine club with, came to my wedding. Utilizing wine as a connector and a way to share experiences, seeing people celebrating life and enjoying themselves, that makes me happy.

DJ: It’s that gratification that you can see on a person's face when they are eating and drinking something that they really enjoy. The way that people dine, and their reactions to our cuisine and to the wine that we serve them, is what keeps me going and loving my job. But also the interactions, and to have somebody say, “That was the best experience that I've had in New York City,” or “That was the best main course,” or “That was a great bottle of Champagne that you recommended.” All those little things keep me in the restaurant industry.

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