Emeril Lagasse is perhaps the most recognizable living chef in America and the face of Cajun and Creole cuisine to many; the pressure to maintain the highest caliber of food and wine at his crown jewel and namesake restaurant, Emeril's New Orleans, is heavy indeed. But for Ray Gumpert, it's just part of the job.
Gumpert is a Louisiana native and Emeril lifer, joining Lagasse's Nola restaurant, a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner in New Orleans' French Quarter, as a busboy in 2000. Rising through the ranks of Lagasse's restaurant group, Gumpert now holds the keys to the wine cellar at Emeril's New Orleans, the original and flagship Lagasse restaurant and a Grand Award winner with a deep list of classics from California, France, Italy, Spain and beyond.
How does Gumpert do his job? Associate editor Ben O'Donnell spoke to him about his morning routine, what it's like working with Lagasse to create wine-and-food harmony, and what to do when things go awry with a six-figure dinner on the line.
How do you start your workday?
"Usually the first thing when I show up at the restaurant is I stop at the front door and check the books. I actually double as a floor manager, so what I'll do is look at what [food and drink supplies] are coming in and what's to be expected. Then I'll usually attack any wine that needs to be put away as far as what's been ordered and check what needs to be ordered. Then I'll get on my computer to update the wine list. That's all if it's not inventory time. We count everything every month, and having about 20,000 bottles, it takes a little while."
What's it like at Emeril's?
"I very much work the floor. I think that it's a complete advantage, because if it's a guest where I already have a rapport with them, it makes it even more simple to have a conversation because they already have that trust.
"Obviously it's more white wine for lunch, more rosé for lunch, and dinner might be more red-heavy, but for the most part everybody wants to drink what they want to drink at the time they want to drink it. That's one of the beauties of New Orleans [laughs]."
How do you work with Emeril on wine pairings?
"[Lagasse's] involvement is pretty huge, and his palate is pretty special, actually. He loves to drink good Chardonnay, he loves to drink Pinot Noir. He actually has a Pinot Noir from Sonoma that his wife [Alden] and Alli Kosta, Dan Kosta's wife, are doing called AldenAlli. That's what he'll drink if he's in the restaurant: a Chardonnay like Nickel & Nickel or Far Niente or Ramey, and also the AldenAlli Pinot. But beyond that, he'll do a lot of different tastings and then try to maneuver the menu in any sort of direction with those.
"We had a party a couple days ago. We had already had our homework and had our dialogue about the menu for that, which ended up being a Golden Ossetra caviar course with burrata and a Franciacorta Satèn, which is a blanc de blancs from northern Italy basically. And because I've been on a J.J. Prüm kick, we did a J.J. Prüm Riesling with a steamed bun course with New Orleans–style barbecue sauce and king crab. Then we did a beef duo with short ribs and mushrooms, and filet, with Cinq Cepages, Chateau St Jean.
"The way that that worked was [Lagasse] came in, we tasted different dishes, we tasted different wines, and those were the wines we came to a conclusion with. But it's not reinventing the wheel, it's really not. It's just a lot of tasting, a lot of conversation. What the predominant flavors of the dish are [is] basically which direction we're going to go, but if something definitely contrasts, then chef is open to having a conversation about maybe tweaking [the dish] a little bit.
"Me and him had a little debate last year [at the New York Wine Experience Chefs' Challenge], because he didn't agree with that Zind, but then it worked out [and we won]. So that was a fun event.
"We still keep our lights on with California Cabernet. But if you're really pairing with our food, then you need to be open to [less familiar] wines."
How do you keep your staff savvy about the wine list?
"The staff is pretty regularly updated and trained on what we do. The wine list is 70 pages; if they weren't, they'd be in a little bit of a pickle.
"Yesterday what we did was a white wines by-the-glass class, which is basically, everybody tastes every wine, and it's an open format as far as question and answer, and it's also me explaining the different wines with my descriptions. Obviously we have some servers who are not great at it, but we have all these other servers who are incredible at it. Who have their passion wines as well."
A big part of the job is thinking on your feet. Have you ever had a situation go awry, and how did you recover?
This happened in Florida. So we had a guy, his name's John Staluppi, and he's a big auto executive. He bought a package with chef Emeril for like $200,000 for Emeril's charity, the Lagasse Foundation. I think I was 22 years old; I had no idea what I was actually getting into. There was an octopus salad [course], and we used an Albariño called Nora Albariño from Rias Baixas for it. But we were also pouring that by the glass at Emeril's restaurant at the time. So what happened was a bartender saw this case of Nora Albariño, and as opposed to putting it in the truck, they put it behind the bar.
"So we get to the event and chef Emeril's plating up octopus salad, and he's like, 'Ray Ray, you got the wine ready?' And I'm looking around like, where's the Nora Albariño, it's not here. I said, 'Chef, I don't know where the wine is. I know I had it, I know I checked it off. But it's not here.' And he was pretty calm, but I could tell by the look on his face he was starting to get a little short on patience. And [another employee] said, 'Hey Ray, you remember Mr. Staluppi said we could use whatever we want for this meal? Well, why don't you go run over to his wine cellar and see if you can't find something that pairs with octopus salad.'
"I found some Joseph Drouhin Clos des Mouches, which is not, you know, the optimal pairing, but I grabbed it, and I spieled it, and I told the people that it paired well with octopus salad and everything worked out just fine. They still enjoyed it.
"It was one of the most intense moments of my life. These days I could roll with that punch a little bit more. But at the time I was petrified."
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