Top Pair: Cracking a Beer in the House that Keller Built
Working for Thomas Keller is demanding, rewarding, and the kind of thing you "casually" mention at your high school reunion. It's also comes with a bit more freedom than you might expect. Keller, the name, man, and tweezer-armed hands that built The French Laundry, is actually fairly open to experimentation. Just ask Chef David Hands and Sommelier Rob Harpest of L.A.'s Bouchon, the duo responsible for one of the more sublime and classically on-point pairings we've had in some time.
"Bouchon is like a sandbox that Thomas has allowed me to play in," says Harpest, one-time English education major turned joyfully OCD sommelier. "He encourages experimentation and new ideas." For Hands, the sentiment is the same, "I come from Per Se, and that environment forces you to be creative," he says. But whether you're playing in a sandbox or forging something painstakingly original in a culinary crucible, the results tend to collide beautifully—whether Harpest is shirking Pinot Noir to gently finish an umami-rich duck tart with the lusher fruit of a Gigondas, or playing up the joyful melee of a house-made charcuterie plate with beer.
A degree in English Education and a short-term gig at Outback Steakhouse aren't the stuff of sommelier dreams. But for Rob Harpest, it was the spark and motivating force to delve deeper into juice. Their wine program wasn't revelatory, but it did inspire Harpest to explore the wines, mostly because he wanted to have a more in-depth knowledge than the two-word descriptors Outback mandated. Fascinated and focused, Harpest eventually moved to California, where he found himself touring wineries and working as wine captain at Morton's.
Harpest next found a home at Jar—a small, comfortable spot with room to grow and explore with a loyal clientele. He was the sole sommelier and beverage director at Wolfgang Puck in the Hotel Bel-Air for two years before Bouchon called. Harpest jumped at the chance to work with Thomas Keller and his team, combining everything he loved about Jar with several new and welcome challenges.
Bouchon's charcuterie plate struts its way down the sweet-savory divide, marrying earthy cacao and sleek fennel to silken pork fat, and subbing a bacon, cream, and port-enriched chicken liver mousse for the foie gras of yesteryear. "Charcuterie really is the bistro," says Hands, who travels up to Yountville four times a year to prepare his salty meats. "There's so much good bought charcuterie, but we really challenge ourselves to make it better than we can buy it."
So, how to contend with an array of unctuous aged meats and accoutrement? "Beer!" says Harpest, a self-professed "beer fanatic" with a beer cellar at home and an after-work inclination to stray from grape to hops and malt. "Let's face it, beer is world's better for dishes like this than wine. Lower alcohol, refreshingly bubbly, and with all the flavor components wine can provide." The trick is remembering that the beer doesn't need to answer to every component on the plate. "You're never going to match one beverage to all of these styles," says Harpest. The brew's job is to encourage the variety of flavor to reach up and play with it.
"I look for versatility, and a beverage that will make me want to dive back into the dish," says Harpest. In fact, the basic revelation of his pairing is its use of refreshment—a concept too oft taken for granted in culinary shorthand as a kind of nice, unobtrusive cleanness. But, as Harper knows, it really means active renewal—helping the palate to react, relax, and reenergize for another bite (which, in the restaurant industry, tends to be pretty profitable). "I like to picture a beer like those Scrubbing Bubbles guys," says Harpest. "They come sweeping in and clean everything up on your palate and make the next bite taste that much better."
Harpest's pair—Colette Farmhouse an homage to saison—is "fruity, spicy, refreshingly on the lighter side, and has enough weight, acidity, and character to play against all of the meats in a variety of ways." The meats and condiments coax nuance out of the beer. "It's kind of like being in a carnival when you're a kid: almost sensory overload, in that every time you turn around, there's something awesome happening. That's how I felt about this pair. Each meat changes the beer and draws out something interesting, while the beer's cleansing character makes each new bite of charcuterie fresh and new."
Charcuterie plates can rapturously begin, or raucously end, a meal. Going for something more refreshing, like a lighter beer pairing, not only engages diners, but it also sets the stage for an interaction between food and drink that enriches the whole experience. "Most diners know by the time we are at the table if they're going to drink beer, a bottle of wine, wine by the glass, or a cocktail," says Harpest. "When given the opportunity, we definitely push the envelope as much as we can." Beer here!
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