BLT STEAK & BLT FISH | New York City
Tarr: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Fred Dexheimer: It was
accidental. I was working in a restaurant and the first time
I ever opened a bottle of wine it was with one of those winged
openers – I was breaking the cork and the guest said,
“Here, let me do it for you.” Then the first time
I opened a bottle of Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages, I couldn’t
pronounce the name and I butchered the cork. I was frustrated
because I didn’t understand about wine when I was a
waiter then. You made your own money, so if you could sell
that $40 or $50 bottle of wine, you’d make more money.
The more I knew about wine, I saw it as the real tool to make
more as a waiter. The only way to do it was to educate myself
AT: You accepted your
first sommelier position at Cello in 2002 working with Laurent
Tourondel and now you’re back with him again at BLT
Steak and BLT Fish – plus you worked on the wine pairings
for his cookbook – Go Fish. What appeals to you most
about this chef and his cuisine?
FD: He’s French
and I’m American, so it’s kind of unusual right
there. But we click because we both have extremely high standards
of the dining experience. His food is awesome, some of the
best food I’ve ever worked with, and I feel like his
food is the most accessible to people. He uses great ingredients,
but he doesn’t scare people away. He doesn’t make
food that is intimidating. You look at a menu of his and you
say, “Wow, this looks great.” You don’t
have to ask 25 questions about it. For me, it’s about
making people happy, developing a clientele, and having fun
with these people on a nightly basis. His approach to food
is unbelievable. You can’t be a sommelier without a
AT: Can you talk about
the importance of the wines by the glass program?
FD: I look at wines by
the glass a little bit differently now than I used to. I offer
things now that people are comfortable with. I don’t
offer esoteric wines too far off the path. The people who
want those wines will go to the bottle menu. I offer the pinot
grigio, cabernet, Sancerre. Right now there’s a trend
in “brand name” wines. People just care that you
have a pinot noir. Sancerre is like a brand name - no one
knows a producer of Sancerre, but they know Sancerre. So I
run a glass program that’s profitable but gives clients
what they want. I try to get as best a quality as I can.
AT: When are you taking
your Master Sommelier Exam?
FD: I took it for the
first this year, but I didn’t pass it. I’m going
to take it again next year. However I get there, whatever
my process is, I’m going to do it. People on the MS
side have expressed their desire to help me to beat the best.
That’s been my goal since I was 22 or 23. I want to
push myself to become the best that I can be. It’s the
top level of achievement and knowledge. The test is very,
very hard, there are very defined and stringent criteria.
And you’re with your peers that have all passed the
tests – about 130 over a 25 year period. I never had
a mentor. I did this process alone for the first two courses.
I just got paired up with William Sherer – the sommelier
at Atelier – he’s very involved in getting young
sommeliers together, setting up tasting groups. As soon as
you get it, you have to give back. You want to get more involved
in the program because of the community of it. None of us
would be where we are without someone taking us under their
AT: What wines do you
favor for your cellar at home?
FD: As my palate has
moved from place to place, I’m ending up in Burgundy,
like a lot of sommeliers. Especially on the premier cru and
grand cru level. I’m looking at site-specific places.
Wines that breathe a sense of place each year after year,
where there’s a tremendous hand of the winemaker, year
after year. When I was at BLT Steak, I was looking at a lot
of the great Bordeaux, 10-30 years old and the way they changed
texturally, their flavor profile, and how they developed.
Bordeaux has been very interesting. A lot of sommeliers end
up in Germany, Alsace. Wines with clarity and vision, a sense
of place, wines with balance of acidity and fruit. Most sommeliers
like high acid wines with clean and lean flavors.But l sell
California chardonnay, California Pinot Noir. I may not love
the wines, but for my guests, that’s what they want
and you should appeal to your clientele. A lot of people come
back to my restaurants because I have certain wines. A lot
of sommeliers make that mistake. It’s a symbiotic relationship,
it’s not all about ego. People want a simple dining
experience. When you come into a restaurant, you want to feel
comfortable. People like a sommelier that’s not intimidating.
AT: Pinot Noir seems
to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue with the success
of the movie Sideways. Even our Rising Star Chefs seem to
all want to pair their dishes with Pinot Noir. What’s
your take on this grape and its surging popularity?
FD: To people who know
wine, pinot noir is the best grape for food. It’s new
to people who have just seen the movie. It’s the most
versatile food grape – it goes with everything from
fish to steaks. The New World Pinot Noir is about fruit. A
lot of people have just planted pinot noir in a lot of places.
There are some plantings in California going back but people
didn’t really take it seriously until the ‘70s,
New Zealand in the mid-‘80s and really in California
in the mid-‘80s and ‘0s. It’s going to take
a lot of time to mature. Burgundy is so great because of centuries’
old relationships between the earth and the vine. New World
pinot noir doesn’t reach the level of subtlety and complexity
as it does in France. California is warmer – you’re
going to get more fruit, more alcohol. Still I buy tons of
Californian Pinot. It sells.
AT: What are your ultimate
career goals? Where do you go from here at such a young age?
FD: A lot of people in
this industry are shortsighted. There are many opportunities
to grow. I don’t want to be someone who is 40 years
old, working on a restaurant floor. I want to create my own
entity and facility. It’s a lifestyle thing –
you want to have the most comfort in life. I want to travel,
do all those things. Right now I’m doing the hard work
to have that in the future. I more want to be an educator,
a mentor. I want to give back. I’ve been blessed with
so many people who have given me such great information. The
restaurant is a great business on the surface. But the hours
and amount of time you work – especially opening a new
restaurant, you don’t have time for your personal life.
You work hard now so you can have that later. As the Beverage
Director as a kid, I’m privileged. That opportunity
is unreal. It’s a learning process as well. It’s
not like I have all the answers. I need good people around
me – it’s definitely a team effort.
AT: Anything else you’d
like to share?
FD: I’m not just
a wine geek. For me it’s about the guest having a great
time. Offering people what they want, having fun, getting
closer to my goals, and working with great people. A lot of
people don’t have goals. I want to know there are other
things than running around a restaurant. I’ve made a
decision to get better for the future. Create better revenue
for my restaurant. Create better education for my staff. It
is a business.