Interview with Sommelier Paul Tanguay of SushiSamba - New York

November 2004

Jim Clarke: After growing up in a culinary environment, you began college but then returned to the restaurant industry; what drew you back?

Paul Tanguay: I basically never left it. Restaurant work always paid for my schooling in Canada; I think at that time it cost me about $3,000 (Canadian) to go to university. I got a really good job up in Montreal running three different restaurants. It was a small restaurant group, and I took a semester off and never went back.

JC: So then you came to New York and started at L’Express; what drew you toward the beverage side of the business?

PT: It was kind of by default. There was nobody taking care of the program and I just jumped in.

JC: Is that still a side of the front of house operations that gets neglected, or that there are openings in?

PT: I think that at the time – about seven and a half years ago – there was, and I think that’s closing up and there’s a lot more people have taken an interest in wine and beverage and are taking classes; you know, with the ASA (American Sommelier Association) or Kevin Zraly’s class…I think it’s getting a little saturated in terms of the number of people interested.

JC: Did you take any formal classes?

PT: I did the ASA course. But you know, I think in beverage you have to drink and enjoy drinking. It’s a lot of studying on your own; you have to read books and the trade magazines. I think classes like that put all the pieces of the puzzle together.

JC: Your culinary background was primarily French up to this point?

PT: Basically French and Italian; that’s what I used to cook, for a good 13 or 14 years.

JC: when you were putting together the beverage list for SushiSamba, what were the challenges presented by the fusion of South American and Japanese cuisine?

PT: It’s a challenge but at the time I think there was a lot of undiscovered beverages. I’ve been doing shochu for five years and now it’s just hitting its stride. Even sake at the time – my wine sales were about 70% wine and 30% sake and now I’ve almost reversed that: we’re about 65% sake and the rest is wine.

JC: Did you know much about sake going in?

PT: Not really, no. I had had some, but really, most of work in beverage has gone toward sake and studying sake. I try to go to Japan every year now.

JC: What about the South American side?

PT: There is a lot going on: the aguardientes, cachaça…just this week I received all these artisan cachaças I’ve been waiting for for years. Really interesting stuff; this good friend of mine just started importing them. We’ve been working with that since the inception of SushiSamba, and now again I think cachaça’s just hitting its stride. Pisco is something we’ve used forever, but still hasn’t seen that rise that cachaça’s seeing right now.

JC: How well does sake, for example, match with a Peruvian dish, or what considerations do you have to look at when you do that?

PT: The diversity of sake is great and it pairs easily with some of the dishes. Sometimes when you get into the spicier elements sake doesn’t hold up and you have to move into wine. It’s not always a perfect marriage in beverage as it is in food; I think it’s a lot easier to marry the two cultures in food than it is in beverage.

JC: How do you go about developing cocktails for SushiSamba?

PT: It’s basically a very democratic process. We have a drink that we feature everyday called a SambaTini; it’s basically a daily bartender creation. So we allow our bartenders to be creative and to come up with some drinks. In terms of our cocktail lists we try to adhere to our SushiSamba concept: our shochu drinks are very highly regarded, pisco, cachaça. Obviously we do the vodkas, but rum drinks are also part of the South American culture.

We change the drink list seasonally. In my travels we hold these tasting sessions, so all the bartenders at the different locations submit their drinks. We select a few from around the country, sit down with all the corporate people, and try them. Those that we think fit in the concept and are great for the season go on the list. It’s a very democratic process; I believe in that: allowing people to express themselves. I think it can be very limiting otherwise. After all this time at Sushisamba I’m kind of running out of ideas, so it’s great to have other people’s influence and ideas coming in.

JC: You mentioned that sake sales are about 65% of your sales now?

PT: Correct, we’re moving a lot more sake. I think in general the American public is showing a lot more interest in sake; hence, I focus a lot of my energy toward sake because not a lot of people know about it; I want to be at the forefront.

JC: If you include cocktails in the breakdown, say sake, cocktails, wine – how does that balance out?

PT: Definitely our cocktail program is very strong. It depends on location; this location (Park Avenue South) is not as strong since the bar is not very big, but at Seventh Avenue, for example, the cocktails do very well. The bulk of the money that comes in is in cocktails, but as for a breakdown I’m not sure.

JC: Do you find that your guests are as savvy about sake and cachaça outside of New York at your Miami and Chicago locations?

PT: No, but people are not afraid to experiment. Even in New York I don’t think there’s a lot of savvy sake drinkers. About 1% of the people who come in really know something about it, and usually they’ve come to know a certain brewery or certain type of sake, and they come and they keep ordering the same bottle. People are becoming a little bit more willing to try different stuff.

I’ve always believe in education. I think it shows in how are list is broken down with little boxes explaining stuff. I’m not one of these sommeliers who believes in keeping all the knowledge to themselves and not share it. That’s kind of old school. In terms of your glass program, if you’re offering just Merlot and Chardonnay, what are you giving people? You’re not giving them the chance to try other stuff. It may not be your biggest seller, but if you don’t offer it people are going to be drinking the same old stuff and you’re not giving anything back to them. You need esoteric varietals and regions to be represented on the list so people will have the opportunity to try them.

We do training in that respect as well. We do beverage class once a week, and my soldiers are the staff; I think they’re some of the best educated sake people in the city; they know more than the Japanese sometimes.

JC: If a table is ordering a wide range of items from the menu – ceviche, tempura, churrasco – what sort of direction do you provide if they’re interested in ordering a bottle of wine for the table?

PT: I’m definitely a proponent of white wine with our food because they marry well, but it’s difficult. For a long time I was running a very solid half-bottle program, but I was moving enough of them to keep it going. I really wanted to do about 100 half bottles so people could move from sake to white wine to red wine with our menu. Maybe I gave up on that idea too quickly, but a table of four can enjoy a half bottle. It’s a tasting: you can pair all your courses with a half bottle on a table of four.

JC: You’ve been at SushiSamba for five years now; how have guests’ tastes changed in that time?

PT: People are definitely a lot more wine savvy, and like I said, the interest in sake is incredible: people want to know and are willing to try. It’s something I’ve been working at for four years: getting more people to drink sake.

JC: Are sake importers changing their approach as well?

PT: The problem with sake importers is that for a long time it was controlled by the Japanese, and the Japanese traditionally just sold to the Japanese restaurants. Now you’re seeing other importers like World Sake Imports and Vine Connections, and these people are gearing toward other restaurants, and I think that’s why you’re seeing sake in non-Japanese restaurants. At Chanterelle Roger Dagorn has been doing sake for years, and all these other French restaurants are doing sake because you have these importers going outside of the traditional sake market.

JC: Your next move is a Greek-Turkish place; does this mean you need to dive into ouzo and raki and the like?

PT: Correct; it’s something I’ve been slowly working on, but the plan for the wine list there is just Mediterranean, from southern Spain and Portugal all the way to Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Israel… it should be quite interesting.