As blissful as it is to order a bottle off an acclaimed wine list, overseeing a top-notch beverage program and its accompanying cuisine is no easy task. Here, seven Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winning restaurateurs, sommeliers and chefs share their stories of the most challenging experiences they’ve faced on the job, from international cooking competitions, to managing dozens of wine lists, to balancing work and family.
Wine Spectator: What has been one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced on the job?
Piero Selvaggio, 45-year owner of Valentino in Santa Monica, Calif., a Grand Award winner since 1981: You know, it’s easy to go and eat a hamburger or eat a taco, but as you go to the next level, you have to kind of appreciate the subtleness of why that Dover sole costs $50 rather than a frozen piece of domestic Dover sole that will cost half of it. Pricing is so difficult because people say, "But a dish of pasta costs you $2, $3 [for ingredients]." Yes, but do you know what the chef costs, what the rent is, what the real estate is all about? That’s being in business. We are different than the clothing stores that, to get rid of things, eventually have these deep sales—40, 50, 75 percent off—we cannot do that. Because we don’t have those margins.
Look at the truffle: After one week, the same truffles have lost some weight, and therefore, if it cost me $2,000 a pound, the value has shrunk. Same thing with [fresh] fish. Same thing with wine: Keep the right vintages, make sure to store everything properly, have the right glassware and so forth. People say, "Why can I buy the same wine at the supermarket at so and so, and here it costs twice as much?" Well, just look around. The sommelier costs me money, so do the glasses, so does the service. Remember, if only 30 people come to this restaurant tonight, we have lost a lot of money.
Rasmus Kofoed, owner and chef at Grand Award winner Geranium in Copenhagen, Denmark: The biggest challenge for me was to participate in the Bocuse, d'Or, the world championships of cooking, three times. That's really not something you just do. Everyone who knows about the competition knows how tough it is.
First I got the bronze, then I got the silver medal. Even after the silver, I felt something in my heart and stomach saying, "This is not over." It was a really difficult decision I had to make. Should I do it? Because I knew the second that I would confirm and say that I'm going again, there would be strong pressure, thousands of hours, a lot of challenges.
So when I took the decision—I remember there was a staff party, and me and Søren [Ledet, cofounder and wine director at Geranium], we ended up in a bar, and we were quite drunk, and I just felt that this was the time to tell him. I said, "Søren, I will go for the Bocuse d'Or again. This is my decision." He was really happy and supportive, and from that day I was focusing on the competition. It was huge pressure, because the only thing left was winning the gold. The third time [winning in 2011] was really special for me.
Andy Myers, wine director for chef José Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup, which includes 14 Restaurant Award winners: Sometime around 2004, I heard about the Court of Master Sommeliers, and I thought, “This sounds fun! Good way to spend a weekend.” [Laughs] So I went to New York and I took the introductory exam up in New York City, and I passed it and I thought, “Wow! I now know a lot about wine. I’m a very smart man!” I was so stupid. [Laughs] And after I passed the intro, I took the second level exam for the Court and passed that and then I thought, “Wow, now I am really good at this. I should take the Advanced exam.” A lot of people don’t realize it, but the jump from the second level exam up to Advanced is significantly bigger than the jump from Advanced to Master. It’s the whole Mike Tyson adage of, “Everyone has a plan for how to fight me until I punch them in the face.” And everybody knows exactly how they’re going to do in that exam, and then they go and get punched in the face. And then you actually realize what you’re up against.
I got through that, and then I went up to Master and spent the next five years of my life pushing for Master [certification]. I got through that in 2014.
Brad Steven, owner and wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Wine Dive in Wichita, Kan.: In my position, it's probably making sure everyone is in sync, from the front of house to the back of house, and that's including bartenders, servers, hosts, managers, kitchen. Making sure that this special is going to go well with this wine pairing—the kitchen needs to know not to add something else to it, so it doesn't affect the wine pairing.
Jessica Norris, recently appointed beverage director of Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, encompassing 50 Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winning wine programs at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, Del Frisco’s Grille and Sullivan’s Steakhouse: I think time management—it's going to be the biggest challenge. I feel like, over the course of the years, I've gotten really good at time management in each of my roles. When I was the [national] director of wine education, it was building education materials and making sure that I was speaking on the phone once a week to the people in the field.
I'm going to have to figure out how to manage the time to get all the things in the restaurant support center nailed down, and I think it's 100 percent possible to figure out the systems and get everything up and running smoothly. But eventually [I would like to get] back on the road. Even if it was just one day a week, if I could go to a restaurant for a day and a half and spend some time with their staff, get them excited about wine, teach a pre-shift. I think that's where we're going to pull our bench from as we continue to grow our restaurant base: We're going to need wine experts and sommeliers and people excited about wine to kind of take some of that program under their arms and embrace it.
Michelle Corry: We have two boys, Seamus and Finnigan. They’ll sit in the office or get entertained by the pastry chef a lot. So they’re quite present in the restaurant.
Steve Corry: I think it is interesting to note, on the family end of it, that we do manage to juggle everything. I still coach my boys in soccer, and we make sure that we spend a ton of time with them. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for sleeping, but family is priority No. 1. It’s so hard to manage businesses that operate in the evening when you have little kids, so I think that’s been the biggest challenge for us, but it has opened our eyes to how quickly that time could go by if you let it.