Thomas Pastuszak wasn't always such an early riser, but when he and his wife, Jessica Brown, welcomed their son, Walter Gibson, into the world in 2016, that all changed. Now, Pastuszak, 33, starts service as soon as his 2-year-old son is awake, making toast for the little one and coffee for himself and Brown. And though he's already in hospitality mode at the crack of dawn, he tries to hold off on work during these early hours.
"Between waking up and daycare at 8:30 is my time with Walter; that's precious family time," he says. "I try to stay off my phone and my computer and get that time with him, because then the rest of the day is just off to the races."
And so it is.
The trek from Pastuszak's home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to work in Manhattan takes about half an hour by subway, but today, he's making some stops along the way, popping by a few wine shops around the city to drop off sample bottles from his two Finger Lakes winemaking projects: Terrassen, which focuses on old-vine reds and rosé, and Empire Estate, for dry Riesling. Having begun his restaurant career in Ithaca, N.Y., while studying neurobiology and classical piano at Cornell University, Pastuszak has long sought to bring more attention to the Finger Lakes wine region.
"Winemaking communities can be insular," he says. "From a restaurant standpoint, what we have is great access to people; we have their ears and can get them excited about things. So by trying to promote the Finger Lakes, with a voice that's very much about the other producers as well as our own, our production is very unique."
Next up will be a canned sparkling wine from the Finger Lakes called Vinny, a mash-up of the French word for wine (vin) and the state where the bubbly is made (New York). "We're pumped for it. I think it'll turn a lot of heads," Pastuszak says of the wine, which is slated to be released July 1.
It's noon when Pastuszak makes it to the NoMad—the grand, 168-room, European-style hotel that houses its eponymous Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence–winning restaurant—and despite the heat and humidity that's plaguing the city, his tailored navy suit is still crisp and his curly hair is perfectly mussed. He's just in time to put on his "wine director" cap for back-to-back phone calls regarding the cross-country expansion of Make It Nice, Will Guidara and Daniel Humm's restaurant group that owns the NoMad and Grand Award winner Eleven Madison Park. He checks in with the team at the recently opened NoMad Los Angeles to review financials and discuss the menu and wine selections for the new hotel and restaurant's rooftop pool area. Then it's a call to Las Vegas, where another NoMad will open in the Park MGM Hotel this fall, to go over that restaurant's glassware and china selections.
"I try to maximize my day and I schedule things pretty tightly," he explains as he tucks into two more calls and a round of emails.
After surrendering his morning and early afternoon to administrative work, Pastuszak is excited to spend some time with his wine team. Every Tuesday, the group gets together to blind-taste wines from the NoMad's 1,900-selection list. "I let the sommeliers pick wine from the cellar, you know, under a certain price point. They like to scare me every now and then, like, 'Wow this DRC tastes great!'"
Today, Pastuszak is joined by four of the six sommeliers on his team. Each has picked a wine for everyone to taste, and each takes a turn conducting the blind tasting in a Court of Master Sommeliers–style mock test.
"The wine is a clear white wine; it's almost kind of like a gold-ish, I would say, leading up to a water-white rim," begins sommelier Kayla Young as the rest of the group tastes in silence. She ventures her guess: "Possible grape varieties: Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc. Old World. I'm going to keep my Chenin Blanc call. Loire. Relatively young, probably '14-'15."
"I like your Chenin call," Pastuszak chimes in. "I wouldn't have gone with Sauvignon; there's way too much acid … It's golden in color, and there's a little honey character. It's just like ripping acid. Also it's not very aromatically expressive, so I'd think even younger, like '16."
The answer? Thibaud Boudignon Les Fougerais Savennières 2016, a Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley. But Pastuszak isn't always spot-on, and that's OK. On his turn to taste a ruby red wine with aromas of sour cherry, raspberry, plum skin and red apple, he guesses it's a young Burgundy, but it's actually a red wine from his beloved Finger Lakes region, the 2015 Forge Pinot Noir Les Alliés.
"There are some wines that should be textbook and should be tasting a certain way, but sometimes it's all over the place," Pastuszak says. "It's cool to correct ourselves. It's a chance to kind of dispose of preconceived notions, and also just a chance to be like 'Oh, I have not sold this yet, what does it taste like?'"
Dinner service begins in half an hour, which means it's time for the whole restaurant staff to gather in the dining room for lineup. Pastuszak's job here is to explain wine-list changes and drop some wine wisdom on the group. Today, he's bringing in two new bottles, Domaine Costal Chablis Les Truffières 2016 and Domaine de Marquiliani Île de Beauté Rouge 2015 from Corsica. The staff practices the pronunciation of each wine while they taste. The sommelier team then convenes to go over any notable guests (a few) and big parties (many) to prepare for that evening.
Pastuszak runs (literally—it's raining) next door to the NoMad's counter-service sister restaurant, Made Nice, for a bite and a breather, digging into his order of peas and asparagus, roasted chicken thigh and a side of cauliflower. A long night of service awaits.
The NoMad's main dining room, private dining room, two bars and lounge are all buzzing with hungry and thirsty guests by the time Pastuszak returns. "The NoMad is supposed to feel like you're going to your awesome, rich uncle's home, who lives out in like the French countryside and collects all the awesome shit from all of his worldly travels," Pastuszak explains as Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" plays, following Led Zeppelin's psychedelic "What Is and What Should Never Be." The sommelier team bustles about, opening wines, celebrating sales of rare bottles, and even helping run food and cocktail orders to tables.
"I'm trying to breed a generation of sommeliers who are hospitalitarians," Pastuszak says. "A sommelier is like a maître d'. A traditional maître d' was the person who knew your name, knew your wife's name, knew where your kids went to school. They could tell you the best place to get a beer and a burger around the corner from the restaurant at 2 a.m., but also, if you're going to Paris, they can write you a list of restaurants that they would recommend for you. I want to bring more people like that into our restaurant."
A hospitalitarian himself, Pastuszak comfortably works the floor, folding an errant napkin left behind by a bathroom-bound diner, checking on the sommelier station and greeting guests with an easy smile. He catches sight of a regular and hustles over to greet him with a hug. "This guy's here enough that he may as well work here … He drinks more Empire Estate on his own than the entire state of Oklahoma in a year!" Pastuszak jokes.
Once service is over, Pastuszak usually calls it a day. "I don't actually go and crush it late-night that much; it's more of an occasional thing." Those occasions might take him to after-hours spots like Please Don't Tell in the East Village, the Dutch in SoHo or a karaoke bar in Koreatown.
Or he might just find a cozy corner in the NoMad's own library lounge and sip on a beer—or better yet, the Walter Gibson, a cocktail the NoMad's bar team created in honor of the birth of Pastuszak's son, who, he says, "is a real bon vivant. He eats a lot of food, and he's very engaged and very excitable. He loves music too. He's a total badass." (Pastuszak and Brown are expecting their second child, a girl, in September.)
Tonight, though, it's straight home for Pastuszak, where he's happy with his own late-night ritual: the shower beer. "After finishing up service here, and especially in this weather, when I've worked up a little bit of a sweat, I get home, [take a] cold shower [while drinking] a beer … I want a combination of volume and refreshment, and a cheap Mexican lager often fits that really well."
Sometimes, he'll get the urge to play some Chopin or Beethoven on his keyboard before turning in for the night—a throwback to his younger years as a classical pianist. But tonight, after the shower and a last, late-night round of checking emails, it's 1 a.m., and he's only got a few hours of rest before he gets up to do it all again.
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