2009 International Chefs Congress Wrap-Up: Tasting and Mixology Day Three

Bart Vandaele of Belga Café in Washington, DC started the tasting series on day three of the Congress with a series of beer pairings. Accompanied by sommelier Mollie Battenhouse, Vandaele explained how the shapes of the beer glasses contributed to the experience of drinking the beers. First up, Hoegaarden paired with a grey shrimp and endive salad with citrus and balsamic gelee. "These shrimp are the caviar of Belgium!" Vandaele exclaimed before delving into the reasons behind glass shapes (a wide tulip to better nose the beer, a tumbler to keep it chilled). And Mollie paired a wine and a blond Leffe with a soft Belgian cheese to prove her point: beers make versatile pairings for everything from savory to cheese and dessert.

In the afternoon's first mixology workshop, Julie Reiner of Clover Club (Brooklyn, NY) won participants over with her carefully prepared tiki cocktails. Participants were greeted with a cold Mai Tai topped with Coruba rum and watched as Reiner used a long, much coveted wooden swizzler to make a Bermuda Swizzle. Mixology guru Tony Abou-Ganim led a tasting through the wide range of rums used in tiki drinks and a couple of other rum styles including Brazilian cacha├ža and rhum agricole.

Lisa Granik, a Master of Wine and Director of Fine Wine Initiatives for Empire Merchants, talked about how to craft a sensible wine list. "So much of wine sales," she said, "are about incremental value and getting people excited." Granik explained how the ideal wine list benefits the sommelier, the chef, and of course, the wine program. "Most wine pairings" said Granik, "are more luck than science." Granik, not a supporter of a descriptive wine lists, explained how graduated wine lists often lead to more work.

Audrey Saunders, Johnny Iuzzini, Julie Reiner, Jordan Kahn and Sam Mason sat front and center at mixologist Tony Conigliaro's workshop to hear the London veteran discuss the state of modern mixology and the direction of trends. Conigliaro passed around some "flavored eggs" that had absorbed a particular flavor and would transfer those flavors, along with texture, when beaten into a drink. He concluded with an ever-relevant question for innovation-driven modern mixologists: is it okay to give a guest a boring old Cosmopolitan? According to Conigliaro, yes, because any drink can be made really, really well.

In his tasting workshop "Breaking the Boundaries of Food and Wine Pairing," Stephen Asprinio's unusual wine pairings included a Junmai Ginjo sake with a slice of fromage de tete with pickled melon and pickled mustard seeds and an Amontillado sherry with beef tartare. "Your customers are coming for an experience," said Asprinio, "and as far as the rules for wine pairings that are left, there are none. In one way that's what makes it fun." When industry professionals asked about how to connect the wine program with the kitchen, Asprinio's advice was this: include the sommelier from step one when creating a tasting menu.

John Deragon of PDT greeted participants in his bitters workshop with a classic cocktail: 50% gin and 50% vermouth. He instructed his class to taste the drink, then add a few drops of orange bitters and a spritz of lemon rind oil around the rim of the glass. It was a lesson in how much a cocktail can be changed by bitters. Using 10 tinctures, each person created their own blend to finish a Manhattan. It was a lesson in how hard it is to create well balanced bitters. Everyone walked away with a deeper understanding of the complex nature of the well-known elixir.

by Tejal Rao and Hugh Merwin