Food

768 1024 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

Wine & Warmth

These days, when you tell someone that you’re a wine sommelier, they inevitably register a look of awe: eyebrows raised, eyes wide, mouth gaping…

“You must be really smart,” is the opening line that invariably follows.

Thank you “Somm,” the 2013 documentary that follows four wine captains in their quest for the Master Sommelier certification.

And whilst a good sommelier indeed should know his/her wines, varietals, flavour profiles, terroirs, geology and geography, I believe the job of a good sommelier requires a few other qualifications: namely a hospitable nature, of which warmth is the most important ingredient; good instincts and some psychological insight that gives him/her the ability to read the table.

I am one who admittedly goes out to eat at restaurants a lot, and have worked in my fair share of them and therefore have come across many a sommelier…and the ones who remain indelibly etched in my mind are the ones who smiled when they greeted me, the ones that made me feel good about the wine I had chosen and gently waltzed around a few suggestions of their own, explaining in simple words why their choices might be more appealing. Sometimes I agreed and sometimes I didn’t, but either way, we both ended up extremely pleased with the choice.

Years later, I may not remember much else, but I shall not easily forget Luis Garcia de la Navarra, the owner and Master Sommelier at his restaurant that carries his name on the Calle Montalban in Madrid.

Luis is tall for a Spaniard and handsome to boot. The first time I ate there, I had picked a simple Verdejo for lunch. It was a hot summer day and he applauded my choice and came back with:

“Perhaps the Senora would like to try a wine that just arrived in my cellar?”

Of course, I agreed.

That lunch, my friend Maria Jose and I ended up drinking the most delicious Godello…it was ‘As Sortes’ from Rafael Palacios, a honey-coloured liquid made from grapes that came from Palacios’ seven oldest plots. It wasn’t even that much more expensive than what we had originally picked, but it was so much more interesting than the Verdejo, and way more complex and layered.

And Luis suggested a simple plate of Pata Negra Jamon to start out with and rounds of juicy tomatoes drenched in a spicy green olive oil and warm bread to go with.

I must say it was probably one of the best lunches I’ve ever had.

And Luis…well, he won my confidence with his smile and twinkling eyes.

Then of course, there are the sommeliers who take themselves far too seriously and when they approach a table, they live up to their reputation of being unapproachable and borderline arrogant. Why? I’ve often wondered. Why be in the hospitality world if you’re not hospitable? Why can’t they smile. Why so stiff? In fact, I recently bumped into one who came off as quite rude. After all, it’s about the wine, not about them; and isn’t it all about the guest and helping their experience to be an unforgettable one?

Somm Time in New York City is a wine bar where a warm smile and hospitality go hand in hand with a spectacular wine list…the kind of list that wine aficionados might put up with a dour, dull sommelier, just for the pleasure of drinking the bottles curated so thoughtfully by Maria Rust. But in fact, you get it all at Somm Time: the warmth and the wine.

And with that combination, you just can’t lose.

768 1024 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

The Art of Hospitality

This summer got me thinking seriously about restaurant hospitality.

I spent a grueling four months as the wine director, sommelier and special events guru at the Hamptons outpost of a New York City restaurant that has been around for three decades and I noticed that the time-honoured tradition of hospitality isn’t quite… ‘hospitable’ … but then again, it’s like most everything else these days: a watered-down version of what it really is supposed to be.

Hospitality has become a business and restaurants are now ruled by accountants and their spread sheets rather than the convivial hosts who made you feel like the king or queen of the world.

A quarter of a decade ago, there used to be a small restaurant on the upper east side called Café Trevi. Charming and brick-walled, it sat no more than 40 people. It wasn’t particularly chic or posh or even sexy, tucked away as it was on First Avenue…not Madison, nor even on a tree-lined street between Park and Lexington…no, it was on the Avenue with a nondescript entrance.

I stumbled upon the restaurant completely by accident. It was late September and the skies suddenly opened and a monsoon-like downpour began. With no umbrella, not a cab in sight and several very long blocks from the subway, I took refuge under a yellow awning. Minutes ticked by and I was slowly getting drenched, my Jimmy Choos destroyed. I turned around and realized I was standing by a restaurant and looked curiously at the menu. A drink? I thought…and at the very least, a chance to dry off.

I walked in and was taking off my raincoat when,

“Signora!” a male voice with a lilting Italian accent said behind me.

I turned and saw a very dapper man in his late 50s, dressed in a grey suit with a blush-pink shirt and a purple tie and matching silk pocket square peeking out of his breast pocket, smiling at me as though I were his long-lost daughter.

I grinned.

“Allow me please,” he said helping me with my wet bag, my raincoat, handing it to the bored coat-check girl with too much makeup.

“Now…” he said, rubbing his hands together, “how about a nice plate of pasta and a glass of wine?”

And despite the fact that I was on my way to meet my husband for dinner, his suggestion sounded so perfect that I found myself nodding, thinking that I ought to just call Duncan and have him meet me here instead of the overpriced French bistro where we had reservations.

And that was my introduction to Primo Laurenti, the owner and maître d’ of Café Trevi where I ended up about three times a week until it closed.

I went to the restaurant not for the ambiance or the “scene,” because admittedly, there wasn’t much. I went, because Primo looked after me from the moment I walked in: he honestly made me feel like I was, in that moment, the most important person in the world to him…his words and gestures warm and comforting, never cloying or overbearing. He knew when to speak and when to melt away. And every single time, he seemed to know exactly what I wanted, when it came to food and wine, always suggesting delicious dishes that he would have the cook whip up.

I watched him with his other clients. He glided through the room, danced elegantly around tables, courting them, talking about food, wine or anything else. When the meat arrived, he would be there to debone it, or the fish, to filet it, or the sauce that he spooned.

I took everyone there. At the time, I was working for CBS News and one by one, Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Mike Wallace, Bob Simon and Ed Bradley…all went to Café Trevi.

Primo had a gift…a very special one…he was the consummate host. It was a gift that cannot be bought or taught. You either have it or you don’t.

A few years ago, after leaving CBS News, I decided to study wine and became a wine writer and sommelier. Now, in the hospitality game myself, I often think about Primo and how he made me feel and I try to do the same when I talk to people about wine: warm and humble without an ounce of pretension. I don’t want to scare people about wine, I want them to enjoy it as much as I do. My greatest satisfaction comes from the enjoyment people get from trying a wine I have suggested.

Good hospitality creates memories and at the of the day, isn’t that what makes us all richer?