Beltrami: You've been with Union Square Cafe for nearly 15 years,
which is unusual stability for the restaurant business. How has that
Karen King: Well, partly that reflects the wonderful people here-owner
Danny Meyer, [managing partner] Paul Bolles-Beaven, and [chef] Michael
Romano-and the kind of work environment they've created. I'm fortunate
to be working with such caring, supportive, and genuine people. Also,
I've been able to grow professionally within Union Square Cafe, instead
of having to go out on my own.
AB: I'd like to hear that story.
KK: I had actually been trying to get out of the restaurant business
when I started at Union Square. I started waiting tables, then soon
went behind the bar, where I stayed for 11 years, while gradually adding
wine responsibilities. One day about 11 years ago, the wine director
asked me to help with inventory, and later I attended a tasting with
him. I was very nervous at that first tasting, with all its strange
rituals-people spitting in buckets, writing notes. But I found that
I had a good palate, and I slowly began easing into wine duties. About
6 years ago I met with Danny for the first time to make changes on the
wine list. I continued tending bar while doing the wine program until
about 3 years ago, when I finally took over the wine program full-time.
In my first year as Wine Director I felt that I was dog-paddling, swimming
against the current, but now I'm in a groove-comfortable but still excited,
invigorated, never bored, always challenged.
AB: Is being a woman in a male-dominated profession one of those
KK: No. Being a woman has not been a hindrance. In fact, it feels
like it works in my favor.
AB: What are some of the challenges you face, then?
KK: Dealing with salespeople can be a challenge, because I can't
please them all. There's so much good wine in the market now, and so
many good salespeople in New York, that I can't do as much business
with all of them as I would like. Right now, in fact, our inventory
is on a diet-we have huge wine holdings that we've acquired over the
years. I also can't spend all day tasting wine, with sales reps or at
trade tastings, as much fun as they are, because tasting is only part
of my job. Sometimes I feel like a carcass on the plain! But I always
try to be respectful and considerate in my dealings with salespeople,
which is very important. As a sommelier or wine director, you're in
a position of power, and sometimes people let that affect their behavior.
AB: What do you do to educate your staff? Do you send servers
to wine courses?
KK: We don't send staff to training courses as a general rule,
but when a server wants to enroll in a wine class on his own, we'll
help pay for it. But I do all the staff wine education myself. I give
our servers written wine tests twice a year, and I hold mandatory tastings
every three weeks, which we take seriously. They are scheduled in January
for the year, and although other things inevitably come up, I don't
cancel them. The kitchen prepares food for these tastings, since food
and wine is what we are about. I also lead informal tastings with a
small core group of interested servers. And when we taste the specials
every day I pour a wine with them.
AB: What are your guidelines for pairing wines with Union Square's
KK: Chef Michael Romano's food is very eclectic and lustily spiced,
so big-flavored, rustic-style wines work well. I don't have a lot of
specific guidelines; for me, food and wine matching is not so much an
intellectual as a visceral process. It's based on experience and knowledge
of the food. Our occasional food and wine dinners, where a wine is paired
with each course, are a lot of fun and a good model for what we do on
the fly every day.
AB: How do you decide which tables to approach when you're working
on the floor?
KK: If I see a wine list open I might go over. Or, if I serve
some guests I may engage them in conversation. Of course, I'm always
available if a server comes to me and says a particular party has requested
extra help with the wine. One of our big goals at the restaurant is
for the waiters to be confident and capable of handling guests' wine
questions and needs. I am by no means the only person interacting with
wine. We want all of the staff to be wine knowledgeable.
AB: Your list includes a wonderful selection of sweet wines,
including two old vintages of Vouvray Moelleux from Gaston Huet, 1924
and 1959. Do you find sweet wines to be a tough sell, and do people
typically order them with, or in lieu of, dessert?
KK: We have offered a wide selection of dessert wines since we
opened, and they sell steadily. Some people drink a sweet wine instead
of dessert, some with dessert, and others while they wait for dessert.
People like sweet wines.
AB: Your house red is notable, the "Union Square Cafe Reserve"
from Valentino in Italy's Piedmont. Would you tell us more about this
KK: It is a blend of about 80% Nebbiolo and 20% Barbera. We have
used it as our main house red wine since 1985. We did have a little
break, because 1991-1994 were not strong vintages· so there was about
a 9-month interlude between the 1990 and the 1995, which is what we
pour now (we bought a lot to eke through). It is our philosophy that
a "house" wine should reflect the quality of the restaurant and not
serve as a cash cow/ bread and butter pour.