What does it take to weather the restaurant industry's biggest crisis in memory? Three Grand Award winners recently offered a glimpse at how they're adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic while maintaining world-class wine programs. Chef Marcello Fiorentino of Marcello's La Sirena, Aviram Turgeman, wine director at Nice Matin, and chef Charlie Palmer recently joined Straight Talk with Wine Spectator on Instagram Live, in a trifecta of episodes that discussed their early days in the business, redefining quality takeout and advice for young members of the restaurant industry.
Taking over the family business
Marcello Fiorentino was born into the business. The veteran chef spoke with executive editor Thomas Matthews last week about joining La Sirena in West Palm Beach, Fla., out of necessity, to help out his mother. Fiorentino's father passed away when he was young, and he learned to take on restaurant roles quickly to fill the void. After his first night on the job, he became chef.
At the time, Fiorentino said, the wine list was limited to a mere 12 reds and 12 whites. "We really needed to create something special in order to drum up some business, because we were suffering a little bit."
Working with his wife and general manager, Diane, the chef-turned-wine director started to expand the menu with California wines. In 1999, La Sirena won its first Wine Spectator Restaurant Award. Three years later, they leveled up to a Best of Award of Excellence, and in 2015, La Sirena earned a Grand Award. Fiorentino now has more than 1,500 wine selections, including prestigious names from Italy, France and California.
From Israel to the Upper West Side
Aviram Turgeman immigrated from Israel and took to the New York bar scene in 2001. He started taking wine seriously two years later, when he enrolled in sommelier classes, and later continued training under mentor Guy Goldstein. The seasoned sommelier and wine director at Chef Driven Restaurant Group, which holds eight Restaurant Awards, spoke with senior editor James Molesworth last week about Nice Matin's Grand Award–winning list of 2,500 selections.
Turgeman waits for "readiness," or maturity, before listing each wine, and focuses on accessible prices. The list spans from Provence rosé to aged Bordeaux. It has "everything for everyone," Turgeman says. Nice Matin recently purchased a private cellar which has proven fruitful during the pandemic, as wine-buying has dried up for many restaurants. The cellar boosted vintage depth, a key pillar of Nice Matin's list.
So how do you become a top sommelier in the big city? Hint: It's not all about the wine. "Without hospitality, no matter how booksmart you are, you are not a good sommelier to me," Tuergeman said. "You either have it or you don't have it."
Wine is essential
Renowned chef Charlie Palmer recalls having more of an interest in wine than most chefs when he was starting out, often trying to scrape up enough cash to try coveted Burgundies. Growing up in a farming community, he always dreamed of being able to make wine. "There isn't food without wine and vice-versa," he says. "It's very tied together." Palmer joined Matthews last night on Instagram Live from his Sonoma home.
Palmer made his mark in the wine world when his Aureole Las Vegas won the Grand Award in 2000. With nearly 3,000 wines tucked away in a four-story glass tower, wine lovers found it hard not to make the pilgrimage to Vegas for the sight.
"The Grand Award at Aureole Las Vegas gives us an identity because people come there for the depth of the wine program," Palmer said. "It's something we hang our hat on."
The chef has also taken on the vintner role and accomplished his winemaking dream with the Charlie Clay Pinot Noir label, a collaboration with longtime friend and third-generation Sonoma grapegrower Clay Mauritson. The label is in its 15th vintage and produces 400 cases a year, most of which are sold at Aureole.
Hospitality in a pandemic
The pandemic has required restaurants to make difficult adjustments. Fiorentino's La Sirena normally closes for the summer, but this year the restaurant closed in March. In order to keep his employees protected and business running, Fiorentino created a "dinner box" concept for four, featuring two bottles of wine, an appetizer, pasta dish, entrée, dessert, water and bread, all to-go.
Palmer has done something similar with Aureole at Home, delivering quality dishes to customers' doorsteps, nicknaming it "white-glove delivery." It isn't a new concept for Palmer, who partners with Meals on Wheels to bring dishes to homebound elderly in New York and Sonoma.
Both chefs are feeling optimistic about the future. Fiorentino plans to reopen his doors Sept. 9, for La Sirena's 35th season, at 50 percent capacity, and Palmer has already started to welcome back patrons to some of his restaurants.
Fiorentino advises young restaurant owners to stay vigilant, though. "Take every precaution you can for your staff and customers," he said. "Do the right thing and don't get overly casual about this." Palmer expressed a similar sentiment, and urged the younger generation to use social media's power to reach people.
"It's about calculating the risk that you want to take to come back," Palmer said. "In this day and age it's about getting out there and telling people what you're doing and why it's special."
Watch the full episodes with Fiorentino, Turgeman and Palmer on Wine Spectator's IGTV channel, and tune in to catch Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m. ET.
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