The 2nd Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam at the 6th Annual StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress - Day 2
With six somms (and 12 wines) eliminated in Round One, those few, proud, talented somms who made it to Round Two knew what they were up against. The sextet of sommelier champions ranged from Paul Eindbund of Frances in San Francisco and Jill Zimorski of Volt (proud owner of the only correct answer to yesterday’s blind tasting) to Alexander LaPratt of DB Bistro Moderne, who enjoyed a second round of applause for his Best Sommelier Award win. The first part of Round Two involved a blind tasting of a deep, moderately fruity, chewy red. After five minutes—moderated with tongue-in-cheek intensity by giddy rock star emcee Fred Dexheimer, the first glasses were emptied, sipped, or swigged away, to make room for the fast-paced pairing action of the next round.
The next phase of slamming was done by none other than 2006 Rising Star R.J. Cooper of Rogue 24 in DC, who proudly proclaimed that he was, indeed, trying to be difficult. In fact, the pairing round—which involved two complex dishes with some intensely flavorful ingredients—was a reversal of the usual sommelier-chef relationship. Cooper's job was to trip up the sommeliers with unusual, pronounced, or notoriously finicky flavors. Cooper more than succeeded, delivering aggressive flavors in subtle proportion—requiring that much more nuance from the somms. The smoke monster, a classic sommelier arch villain, showed up in a surprisingly dainty package—a one-bite refined powerhouse of quail egg yolk, chicken skin cracklins, corn silk, and duck ham. The majority (including Julian Mayor, Thomas Pastuszak, Jill Zimorski, and Alexander LaPratt) went the way of red—what attendee (and ICC presenter) François Chartier called “the molecular comfort zone” of smoke. Matthew Carroll of Rogue 24 (no favorites were played) and Paul Eindbund (the resident somm slam jokester) went with a Rhone Valley Grenache rosé and an Australian Semillon, respectively—each leaning toward a cleaner pairing that could play with the smoke, fruit, salt, and fat of the dish without overpowering it.
Cooper’s second dish—as he gleefully described—was as complex, refined and potentially troublesome with the wine cabinet (which had shrunk from 50 to 30 or so possible wines, and counting). The dish was all Rogue 24 and a celebration of Virginia bounty: green peanuts (the first crop) and tobacco. They came alongside a surprisingly ethereal liquid cornbread, dusted with a spicy coating of smoky paprika-inflected barbecue spice, as well as sorghum, honey, and maple. Chartier had just finished talking about maple and wine pairings in his previous seminar, which Dexheimer noted regretfully to those somm competitors who hadn’t attended.
This next pairing round saw a majority of whites—and a variety of rationales. Einbund rationalized his Chilean “1865” San Pedro Sauvignon Blanc with the argument that he tried not to “change the course of the dish.” Einbund was correct in pointing the already grassy, fresh, earthy dish even further toward the garden with a clean gooseberry Sauvignon Blanc. Carroll went the opposite route, with a “do no harm” mentality to challenge palates (in this case, with an “intellectual choice” of Chateau Beauchene Cotes du Rhone). Zimorski, for her part, amended the “do no harm” concept with “please the diner,” with a 2008 Chilean Bindi Chardonnay that fed deliciously into the “like with like” pairing mentality—and inspired Zimorski to shout “vive Chile!” Like the other competitors, wunderkind (emphasis on both wunder and kind) Thomas Pastuszak saw the sunshine in the dish, and followed it to the wine, pairing a Sensation Cotes du Rhone Blanc 2009, which he described as summer in a glass.
Round 2 Somm Slam finalist Alexander LaPratt and Jill Zimorski
Pairings aside—or in spittoons, and more likely mouths—Dexheimer didn’t let his somms away without a few conceptual questions. After all, as he noted, “pairings should be based on theory.” LaPratt and Carroll pulled ahead on the question section, pulling in 6 and 7 out of a possible total 10 percent. All of the competitors had high pairing scores—LaPratt actually strutted away with a perfect score. But only two could advance to Round Three (where, we hope with Zimorski, the “full body contact” portion of the Somm Slam will commence). The (almost) winners are: Jill Zimorski and Alexander LaPratt.