Top Pair: Breaking Tradition with Emilie Perrier of Ai Fiori

top pairing
by Jeff Harding with photos by Antoinette Bruno
Vol. 32
February, 2013   
Italian food, an ocean away from the motherland, is ripe for experimentation, especially in the hands of New York City chefs. And at Chef Michael White’s fine-dining Ai Fiori, Sommelier Emilie Perrier embraces this freedom in her wine program. With a playful rock-and-roll approach, Perrier bends (OK, breaks) tradition with surprising New and Old World pairings.
Sommelier Emilie Perrier

Originally from Roanne, France, Emilie Perrier came to New York City in 2003, starting her stateside career at Murray’s Cheese Shop. Developing a passion for wine, Perrier passed the American Sommelier certification in 2004, while working at Asiate at the Mandarin Hotel. She then joined the wine team at The Modern as assistant wine director until 2007. Perrier moved on to become wine director at Joel Robuchon’s L’Atelier in New York City, where she fulfilled every sommelier’s dream: developing her own wine program instead of running an existing one.

In 2009, Perrier opened Sho Shaun Hergatt in New York’s Financial District (receiving one Michelin star for outstanding wine list) and was honored as a 2010 “Top Ten Best Sommelier North America” from Food and Wine magazine. She is a founding contributor of PBS’s “Vine Talk,” and is currently chef sommelier at Michael White’s three-star Ai Fiori in the Setai Hotel, which she helped open in 2010.

Pinot Noir, Knez Winery, Anderson Valley, California, 2010
Canestrelli: Pan-seared Nantucket Bay Scallops, Celery Root, Black Truffle, and Bone Marrow
Pairing Note
Inspired by Nantucket Bay scallops, Chef PJ Calapa’s preparation amps up the luxury quotient while allowing the delicate sweetness of the scallop to shine. He chooses to highlight the classic pairing of scallops with black truffle—a luxurious surf and turf. A celery root purée is studded with earthy black truffles to counter the succulent fruits de mer, which Calapa dresses in brown butter; the nuttiness wraps the dish together. Topped with bright celery leaf and frisée tossed in bone marrow vinaigrette, the dish is an ode to timing and balance: bay scallop season is long gone, but memories of this dish linger.

The trouble with perfectly balanced dishes is they don’t always need a wine’s acidity or earth notes to complete them. Hence the challenge for the sommelier—to complement the dish without overwhelming it. But a seasoned pro like Emilie Perrier is full of surprises, and up to the challenge. She first poured Knez Winery Pinot Noir. (We’re open to the idea of red wine with seafood, but a Frenchwoman serving American Pinot? Sacre bleu!)

The combination of fish, bone marrow, and brown butter is meaty and sweet, making red wine an ideal choice. “Some rich whites could work, but I like to surprise people and also show something they wouldn't expect,” explains Perrier. She considers the lightly fruity and aromatic Pinot as somewhat Burgundian (notes of truffles and roses), as well as fragrant and generous in flavor. Perrier likes the juicy cherry-like acidity in the Knez Pinot and further describes it as “feminine—a light red wine with a light seafood composition is elegant and different.” We love the faintly sweet notes in the wine that enhance the natural sugars in the scallops while the earthy tones play well with the root vegetables and anchor the dish in the savory world.

Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc/Sangiovese, Tolaini, “Valdisanti,” Tuscany, Italy, 2008
Corzetti Stampae: “Stamped” Corzetti Pasta, Duck Ragu, Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, and Ricotta
Pairing Note
Stamped Corzetti are traditional Ligurian pasta. Richer than other pastas, this dough is made using only egg yolks instead of whole eggs. For this dish, Calapa creates a free-form "lasagna” with layers of pasta, duck confit, and hen of the woods mushrooms. He sears the duck and braises the mushrooms and tosses them with beurre fondue, rosemary, and mirepoix. Balanced delicately on a base of lemony ricotta, parmesan, and black pepper, Calapa builds the dish with the corzetti, mushrooms, and duck and finishes it with brown butter and chicken jus.

Perrier’s pairing this time around was more conventional but surprising nonetheless. She balances a dish rooted in tradition with a modern-style Tuscan blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Sangiovese. She explains that the wine’s smooth and dry notes of oak and fresh black currants focus the gamey flavor of the duck, and it “pairs softly with the lemony ricotta, and overall, brings a nice herbal spice to the duck jus.”

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