Morning light streams through the dining room’s oversized windows, but you can already feel the anticipation of tonight’s service at Eleven Madison Park, the crown jewel in chef Daniel Humm and Will Guidara's Make It Nice group. Facing its namesake park in Manhattan's Flatiron District, “EMP” is in that rarefied orbit of restaurants in the conversation of The Best—in New York, in America, in the world.
But it's a workplace for wine director Cedric Nicaise, 39. He has just settled in to his “office,” which is actually a laptop on a table in the dining room.
From his air of calmness and grounded nature, you wouldn’t guess that Nicaise works at one of the most infamously intense institutions of hospitality, tasked with maintaining one of the best wine programs in the world. The fine-dining icon is renowned for its luxurious seasonal tasting menus, as well as Nicaise’s Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning list of 4,900 wines. Nicaise is typically in the restaurant five days a week, unless he’s traveling for Make It Nice ventures in London or Aspen, or to Europe to meet winemakers.
First on his to-do list today is checking in on the renovation of the restaurant's massive cellar, which is nearly complete. Nicaise makes a pit stop to grab a container of breakfast rice and beans in the kitchen, where chefs have been prepping since 6 a.m., and continues through to the wine cellar. The yet-to-be-finished cellar is already a showpiece for EMP’s 22,000 bottles. Wines are stacked on floor-to-ceiling wooden racks engraved with the restaurant’s signature four-leaf logo.
Motioning toward a display wall filled with the world’s most coveted Burgundies, he says, “This is definitely the most ostentatious thing we’ve ever done as a company … It’s definitely made me realize we don’t have enough DRC, though.”
Back in the dining room, Nicaise greets Joanna Sherman of local importer and distributor David Bowler Wine and welcomes her to a central table. Joined by assistant wine director Andrew Rastello, they taste through eight wines, starting with a Champagne and ending on a Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Nicaise and Rastello agree on the chosen labels within moments after the meeting: the J-M Sélèque Champagne Partition 2013, Nicolas-Jay Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2016 and two Burgundies. The region is the polestar of EMP's program. “Our wine list is right at 200 pages right now, and like 70 pages are Burgundy,” says Nicaise.
Classic regions like Burgundy, the Rhône and Bordeaux are the heart of the program; Nicaise finds value in those areas by seeking out declassified wines. “I’m not necessarily looking for the next up-and-coming region in, say, Slovakia.”
In addition to maintaining the overall list, Nicaise and Rastello do these tastings with the upcoming spring menu in mind. Dishes are constantly evolving in the kitchen’s pursuit of culinary perfection, sometimes until the day of the menu launch. It’s an obvious challenge for creating the wine pairings, but Nicaise is used to it.
“When I was first doing it, they’d put up a dish and they’d be like, ‘Oh, it’s pretty good,’ and I would work super hard to find the right pairing, and the next week they’d be like, ‘Yeah, that dish is gone,’” he says. “So we try not to get ahead of it too far, and then the last three weeks before the menu changes, it becomes a huge part of our day-to-day.”
Nicaise gets a minute between meetings to work on the wine program for Davies & Brook, the group’s upcoming restaurant in London’s historic Claridge’s hotel. The June opening was just announced last month, but Nicaise already has his eye on another Grand Award. “Claridge’s is luxury by addition, so having a massive wine list is totally in line with what they do,” he says.
Make It Nice will take over the hotel’s existing inventory—“It’s not huge, but there’s some really great stuff”—and add a few hundred labels to start. The list is currently at about 1,000 selections, and Nicaise hopes to reach 2,000 by the end of 2019.
Though many details of the program remain undecided, Nicaise says that, like EMP, Davies & Brook will boast a bounty of wines from Burgundy and California. He also plans to highlight British sparkling wines and embrace the London market’s affinity for aged Champagnes and value bottles.
This weekend, Presidents’ Day weekend, is expected to be among the busiest at EMP Winter House, Make It Nice’s seasonal pop-up at the St. Regis Resort in Aspen, Colo. Because the wine program is temporary, Nicaise and his team are tasked with the balancing act of maintaining inventory without having too much wine left over when the restaurant closes on April 6. It’s a familiar challenge from their East Hampton pop-up, EMP Summer House, which had a two-year run but won’t return this summer; there are too many other projects going on.
Nicaise calls sommelier Joo Lee to discuss any holes in the inventory, making sure he feels empowered to purchase for the upcoming weekend. “Don’t be afraid to buy some cool shit,” he tells him.
Nicaise reminds Lee of some incoming high-profile customers he knows, noting the wines they might be interested in—perhaps early-2000s Burgundies from Roumier and Dujac—and even anticipating the exact selection of a guest he ran into last week: a ’91 DRC Richebourg. Lee confirms it’s showing beautifully.
“I’m not a good salesperson, but I believe that the most effective way to sell things is to make sure that people who can afford them and have interest in them know that they’re available,” Nicaise says. “With that sort of level of wine drinker, you know what the trigger words are and what they’re going to want.
"You could offend someone who wants to spend $5,000 on a bottle of wine by recommending an $80 bottle of wine to them just as much as you can offend someone who wants to drink an $80 bottle of wine by recommending a $5,000 bottle of wine."
For Nicaise and EMP, service is not confined within the walls of the dining room. It’s an all-encompassing experience, from bringing in special bottles to booking tables for guests at restaurants in other cities, and sometimes other countries.
As Nicaise often says, “I don’t serve wine, I serve people.”
Dinner service is less than two hours away, so Nicaise must vacate his dining-room desk. He relocates to the managers’ back office, where a meeting on tonight’s guests is about to begin.
Achieving EMP's standard of service takes a staggering amount of planning behind the scenes. It all starts with the reservationists, who Google every single guest, adding relevant notes that are closely studied by the staff and reviewed in these meetings. Nicaise wheels a chair into the circle of staff as the lead host runs down her list of noteworthy details, such as which guests will likely request kitchen tours and which groups are celebrating special occasions.
Nicaise will hold an additional sommelier meeting if they’re expecting any particularly prominent wine drinkers. "This place breeds intensity, so I know for a fact all the sommeliers here go through the reservations every day." Of course, it’s impossible to predict the interests of every guest; last Friday, an unknown customer splurged for a $8,500 Leflaive Montrachet.
After an afternoon family meal of chicken thighs and mashed potatoes, the front-of-the-house staff gathers in the dining room for the 5 p.m. pre-shift lineup. Nicaise announces any changes to the pairings and dishes, then introduces a new server with a riff on "20 Questions": Each team member asks him something personal, from “What’s the last song you listened to?” to “What’s your favorite shape of French fry?” (His response: “McDonald’s-shaped.”)
Nicaise started on his own sommelier path at Best of Award of Excellence winner Aureole. At the time, he had just a few bartending stints under his belt and limited wine experience. "My résumé, I wish I still had it, said ‘expert-level wine knowledge,’ which in hindsight is so embarrassing because I wouldn’t write that on my résumé now.”
But he did have a hunger to learn, and read voraciously. “When I started here someone asked me what the last book I read was, and I was like, 'Other than wine? Couldn’t tell you.’"
For the first few hours of service, Nicaise usually works on any ongoing projects, like planning wine dinners or moving bottles back into the cellar. But this evening he starts in the dining room, positioning himself by a corner ice bucket to steer clear of the servers and sommeliers who hurry through the dining room with the elegant precision of a choreographed dance.
EMP has an impressive minimum of five sommeliers working each night, so Nicaise can take a backseat during service and let his team shine. "Part of growing people is giving them exposure to great wines and great guests. You get facetime with Will and Daniel by impressing people in the dining room."
The energy swells as more guests slide into the jewel-toned banquettes. Nicaise scans the dining room and swoops in to help in any way he can, from topping off water glasses to pulling wines.
After more than 20 years in the industry, Nicaise says he doesn’t feel pressure in service. "We’re allowed to be ourselves here,” he says. “So when I go to your table, you’re getting me as a person, you’re not getting some overformalized waitron character.”
There’s also no dress code (as Nicaise points out, you can eat there in sweatpants, and people have), and the wine list is surprisingly accessible. “I know the stats, because it’s something I’m really proud of: We have, on any given day, between 300 and 400 wines under $100 on the list,” he says. He wants bottles diners can engage with, and for anyone to be able to chat wine with the somms. “If we only have five wines under 100 bucks, then we’re not really talking about wine."
Each EMP wine director has put a personal touch on the program, and Nicaise wants this foundation for value to be his legacy. That, and a well-organized storage system. “I don’t need the sommeliers cursing me for the next 20 years for building a shitty cellar.”
Once the dinner rush starts to slow, Nicaise heads home, unwinding as he usually does, by walking his dog and then watching some thoughtless television. He says it clears his mind, which will soon be filled to the brim with another day’s worth of wine facts, guest demands and details of running one of the city’s most celebrated wine programs.
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