New Yorker Thomas Pastuszak developed his first taste for the restaurant world during his early teens, working at his godfather’s Shelter Island bed and breakfast, Peconic Lodge. Years later, while studying neurobiology and classical piano at Cornell University, Pastuszak worked as a bartender at Stella’s in Ithaca, New York, to pay off student loans.
As his ardor for food and wine deepened, he decided to pursue a career in hospitality instead of medicine. Progressing from bartender to bar manager and general manager of Stella’s and sister restaurant Olivia, by 2009, Pastuszak became director of operations of the expanding restaurant group. To build the wine program, Pastuszak established strong relationships with local winemakers in the Finger Lakes and showed his guests the great potential of the region’s wines.
Pastuszak passed the Certified Sommelier exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2010. A few months later, inspired by the work of Chef Tom Colicchio and the team at Colicchio & Sons, Pastuszak applied for a job and was hired as the restaurant’s wine director. In 2011, Pastuszak became wine director at The NoMad, where he leads the wine program of one of the most dynamic restaurants in New York City. Pastuszak is currently working toward a Master Sommelier certification and is committed to sharing his love of great food and wine with everyone he meets. In addition to his 2013 StarChefs.com New York Rising Stars Award, Pastsuzak was named one of Wine & Spirit’s “Top New Sommeliers” in 2012.
Tips for the Sommelier:
Study and taste as much as possible. The more you do, the more comfortable and “yourself” you will be on the floor, when you’re in the spotlight and interacting with your guests.
Listen to your guests. Everyone has a different way of asking for what they want, and the most important thing you can do is learn to translate their words into terms you can work with to recommend the best possible wine for their palate.
Be humble. The more you taste, learn, and interact with others in the industry, the more you realize how much more there is to learn from others and the world of wine.
Work together and lead by example. While as sommeliers we help select and serve wine, we can never feel “above” doing anything the guests or our co-workers need. We have to be able to pitch in and work in any role on the floor of the restaurant at any moment.
Create a hospitality experience. Our guests are looking not just for great wine, but also for a great wine experience. Use your sense of hospitality to connect with your guests as a host and guide their overall dining experience to the highest level of excellence.
Thomas Pastuszak of The NoMad
Dan Catinella: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Thomas Pastuszak: It began when I was working in restaurants, and my focus was mainly with the bar. Then, I was really intrigued by cocktails and mixology. My brother was in San Francisco, and I used to visit him and tour Napa and Sonoma. My background is originally in piano and science. Wine came later.
DC: What sets your wines apart?
TP: I think that breadth and depth is an important thing. I love wine and sharing and being enthusiastic about it. Whether it’s 10 or 100 dollars, it’s exciting to go with an equal vigor. That’s always been my philosophy and I think it encourages people to come drink.
DC: Where have you worked previously?
TP: Colicchio & Sons. I was living upstate in Ithaca, at Stella’s and Olivia.
DC: What courses have you taken? Certifications? Awards won?
TP:I’m mainly self-educated and I make a concerted effort to drink and taste a lot of different wines, attend tastings, read articles, etc. I am the certified level 2 of the Court of Master Sommeliers. And I was awarded "Top New Sommeliers" by Wine & Spiritsin 2012.
DC: What is your philosophy on wine and food?
TP: Firstly, I love the idea of pairing the best possible wines with their respective dishes but I really feel wine is a personal and emotional topic. I love the idea of finding the perfect wine for the right person. I aim to pair wine with the person who is going to be enjoying it.
DC: Do your wines reflect Old World or New World or a mix?
TP: My wines definitely reflect Old World. The New World wines I support are modeled after structural foundation, specifically acidity, tannin and a sense of terroir.
DC: List your favorite wine resource book and author:
TP: Oxford Companion to Wine.
DC: What wines do you favor for your cellar at home?
TP: Grower Champagne. It’s always in my refrigerator. Pier Monceau Blanc de Blancs. It’s affordable, crisp and fresh and from great terroir.
DC: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
TP: I would say in the wine world Robert Bohr. He is probably on the top of my list. He helped me land in New York. Also, Master Sommelier Richard Betts is a mentor.
DC: What languages do you speak?
TP: French and Polish. More fluent in Polish.
DC: What producers are you interested in at the moment?
TP: I’m very passionate about the Finger Lakes region. I lived there for several years and became friendly with a lot of the small producers. It’s an incredible region, very up and coming. It’s the closest climate in the United States that is like the cooler European climates that produce Riesling and Pinot Noir.
I also like Bloomer Creek Vineyard, which is a very small husband and wife operation. He’s been growing and cultivating wine for 30 years. His wife is an artist. They completely embody the romance and struggle and ideas of pursuing purity. Super small production, but excellent wines.
DC: What wine trends are you seeing in California?
TP: I think there is this great transition back to balanced lower alcohol higher acidic wine. In the 90’s and early 2000s, people demanded these huge, big, in your face wines. A wine like this doesn’t do as well with lesser alcohol.
DC: What’s next for you?
TP: It’s really important to recognize that the world of wine and sommelier is changing. I got into the hospitality side first and then the wine side. I’m trying to promote and create a new generation of sommeliers who are both hospitalitarians and hosts. I believe that it’s more about giving people a great experience, rather than simply being absorbed in the wines. Guests should leave feeling completely at home.