Interview with Chef Nelson Daquip of Canlis - Seattle

March, 2009

Heather Sperling: How did you get into the industry and into wine?
Nelson Daquip: I wanted to be a chef and I went to culinary school, like people wanting to become chefs tend to do. I was in the travel and hospitality program at the University of Hawaii and I felt like I belonged in the kitchen. I worked as a prep cook at Alan Wong's, but I had night classes so I couldn't work in the kitchen. They put me in front of the house as a busser and as I got better in the kitchen I got a bit of an ego. I asked my chef "how do I become a better chef?" And he said, "learn to be a cook first. Learn everything at the table."

HS: Why were you drawn to wine and the front of the house?
ND: Wine felt like a challenge, and I wanted to understand it more so I could cook better. The more I learned, the more I realized I wanted to focus on it. I started taking classes, learning, and decided to move to Washington State. I never went back to the kitchen. I get energized by new people and in the BOH it's more introverted.

HS: How did you end up at Canlis?
ND: When I moved to Washington State, I already knew Mr. Canlis, because he would dine at Alan Wong’s and I had been his server. Sommelier Shane Bjornholm was here and was on his way to getting his Master Sommelier, and he put me out in the community. He sent me to harvest, to winemakers, and refined my skills on the floor. He's been my biggest mentor.

HS: Where are you in the certification process?
ND: I'm working towards my Master Sommelier degree. I take the test in February—my first try!

HS: What drew you to the certification process, and what does it mean to you?
ND: I think it's the professional standard for a sommelier on the floor. We can get too complacent in what we do here. There also needs to be an internal personal drive to be better and do the best that you can. Not that getting the pin is the be-all, end-all, but it's an honor and a standard to uphold. The biggest obligation is returning that to the community. Sharing that passion, educating others, and pushing dining into the hands of the guests.

HS: What’s your wine-food pairing philosophy?
ND: There needs to be some sort of relationship between the wine and food, but beyond that you should find some regional influence as well. Find the heart of the dish and what it's saying. There needs to be a direction for the dish, and a region or wine style that matches it. Once you find the soul of the dish, find where that comes from geographically then look to that region for wine. That's the relationship that I'm looking for when I pair wine.

HS: What’s your wine service philosophy?
ND: We have what we call "the classic wine pairing," and also a "sommelier wine flight." We start the night by starting a dialog. We ask them what they want to do, and we take it from there. We take their information, mixed with our own experience with the food, and try to create a great experience. It's focused on the guest and what they want. If they want an all-red flight, we'll find the best all-red flight we can do. We end up doing pairings for about half the guests on an average night, either the wine flights or pairing by the glass.

HS: How many people do you have on your wine team?
ND: I have two other full-time sommeliers and one part-time.

HS: How big is your list and cellar here at Canlis?
ND: List is 96 pages, 2,200 selections, and the cellar is 15,000-plus.

HS: How has the list changed since you’ve been wine director?
ND: Mr. Canlis and the family have made it a priority to support my decisions on the list. We've continued to invest in Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, but one big change is our huge investment in Krug. We have a ton of bottles from their cellars. Our German Riesling collection has grown significantly, and our smaller-producer bottled champagnes have grown. We're looking at making more private label wines for the restaurants. We have private label Champagne from France and the Syrah, and are looking to do more.

HS: What’s one of your favorite pairings?
ND: Muscovy duck and Old World Syrah. It's the gaminess to the Syrah—the spice, leather, licorice. The fatty, salty, savory duck skin is one of the greatest elements of the dish. Chef was doing persimmons on the dish this fall, and it brought out an earthy character in the wine.

HS: What are you collecting in your wine cellar?
ND: I started out with a big cellar, thinking I could collect every bottle that I thought was good—a note to people starting their cellars: it doesn't matter how big it is, but what quality it is. There are a lot I’ve given away. I'm really looking for wines from the late great Didier. I tried some wines with him when he came to Seattle, and he told me that my wines should age 15 years before you taste them. I'm also collecting Rhone.

HS: What trends are you seeing in wine in Seattle?
ND: Pockets are growing a bit bigger, as far as what we can pull from for pairing. Beer, sake, cocktails—we’ve got a great mixologist here. Now that spirits are coming back into the program, we can work with them a bit more. We're leaning towards incorporating other things to enhance the experience. In our New Year’s Eve flight our first pairing was a cocktail of shisho bitters, ume syrup, and Champagne with a bit of lime. It's just another element to the dining experience.

HS: Where’s one of your favorite places to go drink wine in Seattle?
ND: Wild Ginger has a wine cellar that's always been overlooked. They have a collection of German Rieslings that I'm jealous of.

HS: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
ND: I want to work my way back home to Hawaii. Hawaii has two master sommeliers, and for 20 some-odd years they only had one. I want to make wine service a big part of dining culture in Hawaii. I want to be part of the education there. I think I could help them branch out a little more. We're so removed from European culture there because we're so far away...I think we could polish up our approach. I want to have big events that would bring in great sommeliers, great chefs, and wineries to represent themselves.