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Chef Talk: Thomas Henkelmann

This Connecticut-based, Germany-born chef and restaurateur doesn't just cook — he's a trained sommelier

Laurie Woolever
Posted: January 17, 2008

Thomas Henkelmann, 45, is a native of Germany's Black Forest who has been working with food and wine his whole life, beginning with his family's restaurant, Zum Zacher, near Braünlingen. He cooked at Michelin three-star restaurants in Alsace (Auberge de l'Ill) and Munich (Aubergine) before coming to the United States in 1989, intending to stay in New York for only 18 months, as executive chef at Maurice restaurant in Le Parker Meridien hotel. That plan changed, however, when Henkelmann was named executive chef at La Panetière in Rye, N.Y., in 1992. Together with his wife Theresa, Henkelmann established his eponymous, Best of Award of Excellence-winning restaurant and the adjoining Homestead Inn in Greenwich, Conn., in September 1997. An avowed traditionalist working in the French idiom, Henkelmann eschews the current vogue for culinary innovation and has an abiding love for the classic wines of France. Henkelmann recently spoke to WineSpectator.com about the importance of wine education and the harmony of the table.

Wine Spectator: How did you first become interested in wine?
Thomas Henkelmann: Through culinary training [I was] exposed to wine a little bit. … Six or seven years into being a chef, I was working at Auberge de l'Ill in Alsace, a three-star Michelin restaurant, and there I was exposed to cooking with Riesling, and how flavors can be extracted if you give a few drops of wine to food. … Later I went to Aubergine, in Munich. A customer had his own wine cellar at the restaurant. His parties always had a 12- to 14-course tasting menu and six or seven different bottles of wine. He'd say to the waiter, "Here's a half bottle of this, half bottle of that, please take it to the kitchen and let them taste." And it was always good wine! [Laughing] Then I came to New York, and I didn't have too much exposure to wine, because I was focused on my food, which I know now was wrong.

WS: And as your career progressed?
TH: Eventually I was exposed to Cheval-Blanc '49, when I was chef de cuisine at La Panetière. They had a wonderful wine cellar, and I began to learn and read more about wine. At my own restaurant, where I have to pay for the wine, it was even more urgent for me to learn. During the first three years of business, I worked seven days a week, but after three years I went to ASA--the American Sommelier Association--for a six-month course, to fortify the basic knowledge that I had. Now, I read about wine on a daily basis. I care so much for wine and French cuisine, and making sure there's always harmony on the table. I'm never going to cook spicy or exotic food. It's a pleasure to sit down knowing you have a certain kind of food, and a wonderful wine that's going to match perfectly.

WS: Do you have a personal wine collection?
TH: I've been given some very special bottles, like Lafite 1990 or a nice Dominus '91, which was a perfect year. We'll share those with friends at home. But my focus is toward the restaurant, so I don't have a separate wine cellar for myself.

WS: As a traditionalist, what are your thoughts about some of the new technologies, ingredients and techniques that are showing up in restaurants?
TH: I don't really follow the trends too much, I just try to get the best product into my hands, and try not to change its texture or flavor. If you can get the best, why are you going to try and make it exotic-tasting? … There are always good things in new trends that can be used, even in my kind of cooking, but I don't feel like I want to spend my time in a laboratory. … As far as my own dining experience, if I have time to go to a fine restaurant, I would rather go to Jean-Georges or Le Bernardin or Daniel.

WS: Do you do much travel to wine-producing regions?
TH: The last time was six or seven years ago, Napa and Sonoma, which was a wonderful experience, to drive down that main road and see all those vineyards left and right. At meetings [of high-end hospitality professionals] we are always exposed to good wine. There was a meeting in Cannes, at a two-star Michelin restaurant, La Bastide Saint Antoine. [Chef] Jacques Chibois invited maybe 20 different producers of wine from that region so we could all taste those wines. Other times it's been great Champagnes or the newest vintage of grands crus from Bordeaux.

WS: Do you have a personal favorite wine or wine region?
TH: My choice would be French wines--Burgundy and Bordeaux. In the Rhône and Loire, that's where I still feel it's changing now. Money-wise, you can have a fair deal with Rhône and Loire, whereas with many Bordeaux and certain Burgundies, the whole world wants it, and it's very difficult for a basic consumer to buy it or be able to afford it. I care very much for Côtes du Rhône, big Hermitage, Côte-Rôties and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. For Châteauneuf-du-Pape I'm fond of Château de Beaucastel. On the Hermitage side, Chapoutier, and Guigal for Côte-Rôtie.

WS: What advice would you give to a young person starting a culinary or wine career?
TH: As I mentioned, as a young chef, I went to the Sommelier Association. I always tell my chefs how important it is to learn about and be exposed to wine, because down the road it will change how you feel about food, and what kind of style you develop. … We'll taste a little bit together. I'll say "OK, La Mission-Haut-Brion '95, I charge my customers maybe $500 for it, and there is a little bit left, so why don't you taste it? And what do you think regarding the preparation of a certain dish?" We'll talk about how, to make a good match, you don't want to have smoke on the plate, you need to have some texture, and you don't want it too spicy or too sour. I use that framework to put them in the direction of learning about wine. …For me, wine is part of the art of the table. It's part of the culture, and if somebody has the means and is around people who come from all over the world, it's almost a necessity to know about wine.

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