Brian Kane has Italy to thank for his career. But it wasn’t a transcendent bottle of Barolo or vineyard visits in the hills of Tuscany that inspired him—it was a beautiful woman, who made fun of his cheap wine-swilling habits. The derision ended when she introduced nicer bottles to the college-age Kane, and he in turn started to love good wine.
The study abroad program ended, so did the relationship, but wine stuck. Working as a back waiter as he attended college at Loyola University Chicago, Kane moved to the beverage side of the business at X/O under the tuteledge of Sommelier Amy Lewis. He then moved to Avenues at the Peninsula Hotel, where he expanded his skill set but soon grew weary of the stuffy fine-dining scene. Taking a chance on Philadelphia, Kane signed on to become a server at Michael Solomonov’s Zahav. He soon rose through the front-of-house ranks to become manager and beverage director—a job that would give him the chance to pair wines with James Beard Award-winning food in the relaxed atmosphere he craved.
Kane believes that wine and food that come from the same place make for a glorious match. In keeping Zahav’s Israeli menu, Kane manages one of the largest selections of Middle Eastern wines in the country, and he rounds out his list with more esoteric varietals and killer cocktails. His program at Zahav embodies of the quality and good fun that launched and continue to sustain his career in wine.
Interview with 2013 Philadelphia Rising Star Sommelier Chef Brian Kane
Caroline Hatchett: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Brian Kane: I lived in Rome as a sophomore in college. Wine was cheaper than water, and I started to enjoy wine. I met an Italian woman who made fun of me because I was drinking terrible wine. She shared nicer bottles with me, and I started to appreciate wine.
I had always worked in restaurants. I started washing dishes at 12. I went to college in Chicago, and trying to make money, I got hired as a back waiter. I knew nothing, but I would hustle. I worked under Amy Lewis (who worked at MK and Tru) at XO Chicago—which was cognac, wine, Scotch and small plates. There was a weekly tasting and an eclectic wine program. I thought of it as knowledge that wouldn't expire, free lessons on stuff that I'm always going to eat and drink. I discovered that I had a keen sense of smell, and I like to read. A lot of being a beverage professional is reading about wine. I find it really intriguing. I’m all about the story. I don't think about wine as a glass of red alcohol. It’s a thing of beauty and should be enjoyed as a work of art.
CH: How do you keep learning about wine?
BK: Two days a week, I go to the library to read about wine. I pick a country per month, and drink a shit ton of that country—including beer and brandy. I do tastings with our purveyors once a week to keep things going forward on the list. I keep a notebook of things that are on my radar. I taste once a month with Timmy Kweeder from a.kitchen. We taste as much as possible.
CH: How do you train your staff?
BK: We do a tasting every Friday with the entire staff. Food runners and servers—and cooks sit in every other week with new dishes. I keep updated packs with the stories, science, and all.
CH: What’s your pairing philosophy?
BK: Foods from a certain place and wines from a certain pace are a glorious match. We have the largest selection of Middle Eastern wines in Pennsylvania. If I can get it from Israel or Lebanon, I'll feature it. But if not, I round out the list with more esoteric wines.
CH: Where do you see yourself in five years?
BK: I want to open up a restaurant of my own, and keep learning about food and wine. I want to surround myself with talented people, and have exposure to talented people. I left Philly in 2001, and for seven years I lived in Chicago and Rome, and traveled abroad. The quality of wine, gastropubs, and chefs are bringing it. The talent here is creeping in on New York for some of the best restaurants in the country.
CH: What wine region are you most excited about right now?
BK: The Pacific Northwest is doing some of the coolest stuff. Syrah and Cabs from Washington. Semillon from Washington. It's the new frontier.