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Formation of a Chef Sommelier

by Andre Compeyre, as told to Allison Parker

Some things about being a sommelier in New York have gotten easier. More restaurateurs realize that a sommelier is a profitable investment, and today you’ll see one in most fine dining establishments. Clients have also become accustomed to us: they are no longer suspicious but rather trusting of the sommelier as a professional whose purpose it is to double their pleasure. The word “sommelier” has finally entered the vocabulary of most diners, and when I say what I do for a living, these days I find I have less explaining and justifying to do. It is more pleasant now to answer the questions of how I became a sommelier, who influenced me, and what I have learned on the journey to what some would call the top of the field.

I should say that since age ten, I remember first wanting to be a chef, and I attribute this to the culinary talent of my mother and of my grandmothers on both sides. What they cooked was unfussy “everyday” food, yet they made each meal a joyful reunion rich in flavor and diversity, inspired by the seasons and what was available in the garden. I have fond memories, too, of hunting wild asparagus with my father, and the omelets made with them revealed how tasty the simplest preparations can be. Even so, my family history lacks involvement in the restaurant trade. I was the first to take this path when, twenty years ago, I entered the Toulouse Hotelier School.

For the first year, I rotated among the various departments: kitchen, pastry, front of house. Then I was required to declare my focus for the rest of the program. The adolescent boy who entered that school was perhaps not the most obvious candidate for a sommelier. Reserved to the point of shy, the idea of approaching tables was painful—though not as painful as the burns and cuts sustained in the kitchen. If my decision was quickly made, it was in large part because of the communicative passion of my teacher, Alain Landolt, who gave me confidence by convincing me I could interact with customers by just being myself, and who emphasized that restaurant work is a respectable profession. Most importantly, though, he initiated me into the world of wine. With his encouragement, after graduation I went on to join the Sommelier Formation in Toulouse. This intense program focused on the science of wine (grape to bottle), the laws of alcoholic beverages, and the finer points of wine service (bottle to glass).

Here I learned the practice of tasting with Guy Blandin (Best Sommelier in France, 1964). For me, he gave wine its language, taught me to decode the layers of meaning in each glass. He taught analysis and description, but he also uncorked a greater enthusiasm and a sense of community involvement that has stayed with me. At the time, he was president of the Sommelier Association of Midi-Pyrénées, and in 1989 he sent me to represent this local chapter as an escort during the World’s Best Sommelier competition, where I helped take guest sommeliers from forty countries on a week-long trip through the French vineyards. Since then, I have looked for ways to stay connected to fellow sommeliers and to give back to the community that nurtured me. I think this is an important thing for those of us in the profession to do.

The years in school gave me the basics. My first “on the job” mentor, Daniel Pestre, gave me my first “real world” kick in the rear. Daniel took me fresh from school and plunged me into the trial-by-fire of a restaurant opening. He left me in charge of the cellar, the list, and then being on the floor, taking orders and handling the wine service. He showed me the difference between theory and practice. I learned how to be organized, to work with greater efficiency. I learned how not to see my family for weeks at a time. But we enjoyed ourselves, too. The restaurant was in the middle of Gaillac, and we actively promoted the appellation; we would take a couple hours between lunch and dinner to visit producers and tour their vineyards.

And that was it. My first taste of working as a sommelier, and I was just salivating, thirsty to learn as much as possible. In the early 1990s, the best way to do this was to seek out the most prestigious restaurants.

Daniel sent me for a year to Le Gavroche in London, which then had three Michelin stars. I went for more formal training and also to learn some respectable English, and in many ways it felt like starting from zero. The thing that had become most natural for me—the ability to select wines I enjoyed and pass along that experience to clients—was suddenly the most difficult thing in the face of a different culture and language barrier. But this was my first real exposure to wines from around the world, and that was thrilling.

Returning to my roots in Southwest France, I obtained the position of assistant to Patrick Guiral, then chef sommelier at Les Jardins de l’Opéra in Toulouse. To him I owe my first understanding of financial precision. We kept inventory accounts by hand and to the penny. Apprenticeship with Patrick, working under his combination of rigorous methodology and affable personality, certainly gave the leg up I needed to qualify for my first top-tier position. Meanwhile, I also deepened my experience with rare vintages and the magic of the right accord between wine and cuisine: together with a couple of the talented chefs, we created for ourselves a series of “theme dinners” around grand cru wines. I can still taste the spectacular combination of foie gras-stuffed quail paired with a 1947 bottle of La Tâche.

To reach my first chef sommelier post in 1993, I climbed to the eagle’s nest of Eze Village and Château Eza, high in the cliffs between Nice and Monaco. There I discovered the Côte d’Azur, its wines and graciousness. And I bore for the first time the full weight of accountability, the pressure to deliver a return on the restaurant owner’s sizeable financial investment. In Eze, I also met Theresa Henkelmann, a restaurateur from the United States who invited me to realize the American Dream. The welcome I received from her family only increased my desire to cross the Atlantic.

In New York at that time, there were not as many options to work in a pure sommelier capacity, so I developed a new set of management skills at Trois Jean, a popular bistro on the Upper East Side. In addition to wine-related duties, I learned how to solve problems of personnel, scheduling, reservations; how to seat two hundred on a Saturday night in a restaurant with a capacity of eighty. I also encountered such traditions as pre-theater dining and Sunday brunch. It was another culture shock, but Trois Jean, with its balance of fine traditional cuisine and casual ambiance, made me feel at home in a city notoriously tough on newcomers. It was also the frequent meeting place of French restaurateurs, so a wonderful way to gauge the New York scene—which I was, however, destined to leave for a time.

When Theresa and Thomas Henkelmann bought the Homestead Inn in Greenwich, Connecticut, they offered me the chance to develop and run the wine program with them, and I accepted. The experience was unique for several reasons. For one, although ownership changed, the restaurant never closed; the re-opening posed an interesting study in marketing. For another, this was the first time working for people who may as well be family, and I thank Theresa and Thomas for a sense of partnership that, while never official, was very real. They also raised the bar by example through their intense focus and sheer number of hours worked. Looking back, I believe their clientele—cosmopolitan, discerning, sometimes quite demanding—also prepared me for the expectations of diners who would eventually come to Alain Ducasse at the Essex House.

I think few openings created as much sensation as the arrival in June 2000 of Alain Ducasse in New York. Everyone had an opinion. Mine was that I did not want to miss the opportunity of working for someone of his standing, and once again in a pure sommelier role. Restaurant insiders will not be surprised if I describe the past five years at ADNY as an endurance test, but my time there so far has been much more than that, largely thanks to the wine program’s mastermind, Gérard Margeon, Chef Sommelier of the Alain Ducasse Group overall. He, like Chef Ducasse, is a perfectionist. To a sommelier’s work there is a “backstage” aspect—the art of tasting, of managing the ever-evolving list, of mise en place—and an “onstage” aspect, with every night a new performance. On no night is there room for error on either side. Here more than most anywhere else, clients expect us to deliver the moon, and we have to be prepared to do it. But—and this is one lesson America offers to classically trained sommeliers—we must deliver four-star service with the right combination of formality and sociability. As wine experts, we have great knowledge to share, but we must remember that our purpose is to gratify clients not give the impression of lecturing them.

Of course they come for the food first, and truly, for a sommelier to shine, you need an outstanding chef. I feel fortunate to have worked with so many who shared their expertise and whose creativity really pushed my own boundaries in the best way. Tony Esnault, the current Executive Chef at ADNY, excels at this. Quinoa prepared risotto style, sunchoke foam to accompany foie gras ravioli . . . What do you pair with that? It’s a fabulous test.

And this is what I’ve come to believe and enjoy: that the sommelier, as ambassador of the vineyards, can never assume that he or she has “mastered” the field, there is too much to learn; we are always in training. We learn constantly from three people—vintner, chef, and client—without any one of whom there is no reason for us to exist. We must continue to expand our awareness of wines from around the world and how to manage them in the cellar, be receptive to new preparations and combinations of ingredients, and strive relentlessly to please our clientele. More broadly, the profession obliges a sommelier to take an interest in geography, history, and culture as well. Doing all these things with openness of spirit is, finally, the true secret.

André Compeyre is Chef Sommelier at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. He also teaches periodically for the American Sommelier Association and the Open Wine School.

Allison Parker is a writer whose culinary credits include Pastry Art and Design, the Missouri Beverage Journal, and the Chicago Tribune. She has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and also serves as Contributing Editor to Other Voices magazine and its literary imprint, OV Books.

Mr. Compeyre and Ms. Parker met in 1997 at the Homestead Inn, in Greenwich, Connecticut, and were married there in early 2002.

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