“Discussing the way a dish is prepared, arguing over courses and sampling pairings only leads to a chef’s nose in the glass and a sommelier’s hand on the knife.”
So said Lindsey Whipple, sommelier at Cut restaurant inside the Palazzo resort in Las Vegas. His comment underscores the importance of the relationship between a chef and a sommelier, and also brings up a question: When it comes to food and wine pairing, which comes first — the food or the wine?
After talking to a number of chefs and sommeliers, I found that there are two distinct schools of thought on this topic. Not surprisingly, most of the chefs believe that wine should be matched to dishes, while many sommeliers feel that a chef should try to tailor specific dishes to specific wines.
Not to appear wishy-washy a la Charlie Brown — although I’ve read every “Peanuts” strip ever composed by the late Charles M. Schulz — but I can see both sides.
Marcel Boulestin, a restaurateur and French cookbook author during the first half of the 20th century, once observed: “Cookery is not chemistry. It is an art. It requires instinct and taste rather than exact measurements.”
When Boulestin was in the kitchen, he wasn’t cooking a meal; he was creating a feast for the senses. Whether it was a spice or a sauce, he was looking for flavors that complemented and elevated one another. He was seeking to create a perfect balance of aroma, flavor and texture — a task challenging enough without adding wine affinity to the equation.
But there’s a solid case to be made on the other side of this debate: Once a wine has been fermented, aged and bottled, there is nothing more that can be done for it. There are things we can do to it — such as exposing it to too much light and/or heat — but there is no way we can improve the product, or alter its flavors.
On the other hand, a chef has the ability to alter ingredients in order to change the flavor of any given dish. With that flexibility, he or she also has the ability to tailor a specific dish to a specific wine.
Of course, it takes a special chef — one with little or no ego — to follow that path. And that’s why it’s likely that chefs and sommeliers will be engaging in passionate debates for untold vintages to come.