|Sommelier: Roxane Shafaee-Moghadam of Per Se—New York, NY
By Katherine Martinelli and Amanda McDougall
Roxane Shafaee-Moghadam was on the path to become a surgeon before she made the leap to the restaurant industry. After working at only two restaurants (Tribeca Grill and Montrachet) she is now the sommelier at Thomas Keller’s acclaimed New York outpost, Per Se. In this position she controls the majority of the extensive wine list (its 51 pages cover 1300 selections), offering a balance between Old and New World wines.
Just as menus are printed daily, Moghadam prints the wine list every day to reflect the constant fluctuation of the wine list. Even their by the glass offerings are altered every three to seven days, which represents Moghadam’s desire to constantly have fresh offerings and her resistance to becoming stagnant. She must also keep up with the superb and often-changing food that comes out of the kitchen, which is no easy feat.
We recently caught up with Roxane Shafaee-Moghadam and talked with her about her philosophy on food and wine, why she switched careers, and what she keeps in her own cellar.
Amanda McDougall: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Roxane Shafaee-Moghadam : Wine was always a part of family meals. My mother is American and my father is Iranian and they adopted a European [attitude]. Wine and food were the part of the day that united us with the culture and people we were involved with at the moment. We didn't eat lunch or dinner without wine. It was table wine, not fine wine.
Wine was always something I had an interest in. As I cooked more as an adult my natural interest was to learn more about wine. I was in another industry but I started cooking more and began thinking about working in a restaurant. And wine was a vast area where there was so much to learn.
AM: Describe your fondest wine memory.
RSM: It's kind of an extension of that period of time before I was working in the industry and had my first experience with a truly fine wine. I was cooking pork chops for dinner and my friend brought wine, a 1983 Chateau du Cru, Beaucaillou (Bordeaux, St Juliana). We had no idea it was so expensive. It was a graduation gift. I remember it being really fantastic and complex. It had a lot of sediment and the cork was crumbling. It made me want to find out more about it. I started looking into it and that's when I realized that it was really special. From that point on I developed an interest in wine.
We drank that wine all the way through the dregs. We drank the sediments—we didn't know you're not supposed to! I know now. But what I love about that memory is that we didn't know what we were drinking, that it was so special. We were naive about that.
AM: What year did you begin your career in wine?
AM: What are the most important restaurants where you staged, apprenticed, or externed? Please give us the restaurant name, city, state, country.
RSM: It's hard. I've worked in only three restaurants. They form an equilateral triangle. The Tribeca Grill was important. It was the first restaurant I worked in and they had an amazing wine program. They hired based on character rather then knowledge. They have tons and tons of bottles—in the thousands. Their wines are inexpensive for New York. And they have a policy that every bottle on the list should be tasted. Their two sommeliers were just so warm and friendly; I got to learn so much. That experience in wine taught me the most. It was the most formative in terms of learning about wine.
AM: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
RSM: There are two gentlemen who I consider mentors. One is David Gordon at Tribeca Grill. He's very unassuming; not your typical sommelier, not pretentious at all. I learned that it's not important to know everything but important to know about what you love, and know about it in a way that's personal. He's a fanatic about Chateauneuf du Pape and that's one of the reasons why I love it so much. He's my wine mentor.
For work in a restaurant my mentor is Raj Dagastani, the former director of operations at Per Se. He taught me how to become a teacher, how to form the information, and give it back to the staff and guests.
AM: What courses have you taken? Certifications? Awards won?
RSM: I have done course work at The Sommelier Society of America (SSA), and also through IMW. It puts you on the track to do Master of Wine (MW) certification. I recently competed in the Best Sommelier in America Competition by ASA. I've considered pursuing the MW and the Court, but I haven't put myself through that yet.
AM: To what extent do you control the wine list? How much existed before you arrived?
RSM: I do 95 to 98 percent of the buying. The structure was inherited from The French Laundry. We have a beverage director who sends me wine for my list from time to time. But it's up to me to fill it in with the help of the staff, customers, and sommelier team.
It’s a pan-regional list but we focus on burgundy and American wines for obvious reasons.
I believe strongly in the list that was given to me. But I try to change it more regularly.
The wine list is printed every day. And the menu changes daily and sometimes the wine list changes every day. Our wines by the glass change every three to seven days that's unusual. I've try to add more to our Rhone Valley selections. I am also trying to educate more people about South American wines
AM: So did the tasting reflect old world or new world wines or a mix? How do you choose?
RSM: At our restaurant, it's become ingrained in me. The restaurant itself is Old and New World at the same time. To say that you can take one away from the other is impossible and that is true for our wines as well. I try to pair French and American wines. That's why I picked the Dunn to go with the beef. The Snake River Hill Farm beef wants something rich and bold with lots of acidity. One of the desert wines was from the Loire. There’s a push and pull between France and America.
AM: What is your philosophy on wine and food?
RSM: I think that whenever you eat and drink you should try to do it with care. You should always try to have the best possible wine and the best possible food at the moment. You should do it with the intention of having the memory of what you ate and drink. You don't have to have multiple wines and courses at each meal. You lose the memory of each particular wine and dish; it's easy to miss the nuance if you have too much going on. My ideal meal is several courses with a couple wines that really hinge the food together.
AM: Tell me about a perfect wine and food match that you discovered.
RSM: One was scrambled eggs with caviar paired with rose champagne that had been poured into a decanter to blow up some of the carbonation. They worked together so well. The champagne had an element of earthiness to it and slightly course texture and it paired nicely with the creamy eggs. Eggs and champagne go so well together, and the caviar brought in that other element.
AM: What wine regions are you interested in at the moment?
RSM: I don't want to call them newer regions because they've been growing grapes, sometimes for hundreds of years: Chile and Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand. I am going to Canada with a group of great sommeliers next week to see what that region is like. People don't realize that places like China are making great wines. The weather patterns are changing and innovations are making that possible. There's an interest in the world at large and not just what's historically a wine growing region. It's also because these places are becoming so expensive, prohibitively expensive. Now people are willing to try Franciacorta instead of just champagne because it's so much less expensive. They are taking [these other wine regions] seriously too.
AM: What is your favorite wine?
RSM: My favorite wines in the world are from Rhone, specifically from the village of Chateuneuf du Pape. A 1999 Vial Julien Chateauneuf du Pape with a really perfect burger and chanterelles. I also care a whole lot for Riesling, specifically from Germany.
AM: What wines do you favor for your cellar at home?
RSM: As I mentioned, I love wines from the village of Chateauneuf du Pape and Riesling. Chateauneuf du Pape can be drunk young and it goes with a lot of foods. Riesling ages well and it's not too expensive. I also always like to have champagne on hand. It's great with food and on its own.
AM: What is your favorite wine resource?
RSM: There is a book called The Oxford Companion to Wine written by Jancis Robinson. It reads a bit like an encyclopedia, but above and beyond all other books it has the most relevant information. The other one is the Wine Atlas of Germany, which is specific to Germany. I don't go to it every day, but it's fantastically well done, especially for information about the people who make the wine in Germany.
AM: Which person in history would you most like to share a bottle of wine with? What would you pour?
RSM: M. F. K. Fisher. I'm a huge fan of her writing. In my opinion she's one of the best food writers that ever existed and one of the best writers, period. I feel she's one of those people you could sit down with over buttered toast and coffee. I love her prose and how simply expressed and balanced it is. I would pour a Burgundy or a Pinot Noir. If not Burgundy then something from the US. Something pure that drinks nicely. I think Pinot has a nice purity to it.
AM: Do you have a blog or contribute to any blogs?
RSM: No. I enjoy reading them but at this point I don't want to put my opinions out electronically. I like the idea of it, but I feel it's a bit uncontrolled. It's a piece that can be misinterpreted.
AM: If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing?
RSM: I would probably be a doctor a surgeon. That's what I started out doing. I left my job in 2004 at Sloane Kettering. I do think that the two industries are similar. You're working with people and helping them. The work is detail oriented and never-ending. That's the only other thing that I think about doing other than this.
AM: What are your ultimate career goals? Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?
RSM: It's really hard to answer the question because this business is so much about the present. I am really devoted to this place. I have a dream to have my own place. Something tiny, maybe five or six seats. Perhaps it will be the smallest restaurant in the world, but something with perfectly wrought food. I’m a perfectionist so it would have to be really, really small to be able to manage the details. And in my old age, when I can't be as physical in my job, I would like to write.
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