Park Ave. S. and 7th Ave. Chicago, Miami
Interview with Paul Tanguay
By Jim Clarke
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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