Pairing foods with spirits and cocktails — a great match
The term “bar chef” has entered our lexicon. Not limited to just chefs, the term is best applied to those who venture behind the bar, bringing the flavors of the kitchen and melding them with the creative output of the bar. In other cases, these resourceful souls find glory pairing specific cocktails with particular foods.
Whereas many restaurateurs might be somewhat intimidated about recommending main course dishes with cocktails, bar chefs have no such fear. They work in a field where they are required to combine complementary and occasionally disparate ingredients into a delectable mélange. Extending that pursuit to the bar is seen as a natural progression.
“My goal is to have my guests experience spirits in ways that they can appreciate them, in ways that they would never have thought of by pairing them with complementary food dishes,” says Andrew Featherstone, executive chef at Winchester’s, a popular, high-end restaurant in Canton, Georgia. “In return, this gives the guest a new level of experience that could not have been achieved by drinking these spirits or cocktails alone.”
Nick Siracusa, manager of trendy Sorrento Grill in Laguna Beach, California, worked his way through the ranks of the grand, French-influenced restaurants of New Orleans, where wine rules supreme. “I learned a great deal about pairing wine with food during my formative years and I now try to put those skills to good use in creating appealing pairings of contemporary cocktails with great food. Ten or fifteen years ago it would have been laughable in finer establishments to pair spirits with anything more than bar nuts. These days I feel encouraged to do so throughout the entire dining experience.”
SOUP TO NUTS
There is a growing cadre of bar chefs who aren’t chefs at all, but rather experienced sommeliers. It’s not surprising, in as much as sommeliers are classically trained at pairing wine with complementary dishes.
Jeff Mitchell is the wine steward at Café Lurcat in Naples, Florida. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a French trained chef, Mitchell delights in working with spirits. “The array of flavors present in spirits is a natural complement to those found in many foods. While it’s somewhat more challenging to pair spirits or cocktails with food dishes than it is with wine, the results are frequently spectacular.”
“I think the art of spirit creation can definitely enhance a guest’s experience,” says Sean Beck, sommelier at Hugo’s and Backstreet Café in Houston. “Because of my background, my first thoughts naturally drift to wine when it comes to creating the perfect pairing. I’ve learned, however, to relish in combining spirits with food. While I still believe wine is the perfect beverage to complement food, tequila and other spirits can prove very compelling.”
Beck also believes spirit and food pairing enhances the interaction between the guest and the wait staff by creating interest in the process. Promoting guest exploration and curiosity affords your staff a chance to connect with the guests and provide information and suggestions that improves the entire experience. In addition, it helps keep your chef, sommelier and staff creative and on their toes.
Another reason to pursue pairing food with spirits is that the latter’s popularity is surging. Last year liquor consumption grew for the seventh consecutive year, increasing 165 million 9-liter cases over 2003, a jump of 4.1%. The largest rate of growth is in the top-end of the spirit categories. Where once the mantra in the industry was “Americans are drinking less, but better,” today the chant is “Americans are drinking more often and they’re choosing the good stuff.”
WHERE TO START
Most of the experts polled admitted to preferring the trial and error method. One of the country’s leading authorities on creative mixology, Tony Abou-Ganim is an avid devotee of pairing spirits and food. Despite years of hands-on experience, Abou-Ganim adopts an artisan approach and relies heavily on trial and error. He contends that often things that you think would never complement one another actually work together beautifully.
“I like to have a theme to work from and I always work closely with the chef. It’s easier for me to pair my cocktails with the chef’s food as opposed to creating the cocktails first. I tie in ingredients in both the food and the drink. I also look for natural matches, like blueberry compote worked into a cocktail and pairing it with a rich chocolate dessert with cinnamon ice cream. I add a little cinnamon-infused simple syrup into my cocktail. It’s a slice of heaven.”
Industry veteran and founder of spiritsexperts.com Sean Ludford also employs the same methodology, largely because “it’s much more fun and you get an opportunity to sample many cocktails, which is never discouraged in my company.” But he also contends that the pairing process relies more on one’s senses than intellectualizing.
When Ludford first started working with food and wine pairings he was given an important piece of advice. “Sometimes the best wine for the dish is beer. It taught me three important things, namely to keep my mind open, look for natural flavor affinities between the wine or spirit and the food and keep the pairing uncomplicated.”
But Ludford says that there’s a rationale to the pairing process. “Tequila obviously is a natural companion to Mexican cuisine. Seems a bit too simple, but the best approach often is. Campari and soda with prosciutto ham and melon is amazingly delicious. An aperitif is typically best matched with hors d’oeuvres from the same region.”
Siracusa recommends pairing spirits with foods that won’t overwhelm them. “One of my favorite examples is pairing a Stoli Vanil Martini with prosciutto-wrapped scallops served on butternut squash risotto. The light vanilla vodka is a marvelous complement to the flavor of the risotto.”
Chef Featherstone thinks that the so-called trial and error method greatly facilitates one’s learning process. “It helps a great deal to have firsthand knowledge of the flavors of many different foods and spirits. For example, you cannot distinguish the aroma or flavor of juniper berries or coriander from the gin itself. Once these aromas and flavors are experienced it becomes much easier to pair them with food or cook with them.”
Jay Hernandez, executive chef at O’Rourke’s Steakhouse in Houston, admits to relying heavily on inspiration. “I may be making something in the kitchen and think, ‘Hey, this would be great used in a Martini and married with that kind of dish.’ I then go out to the bar and start tinkering.”
One such occasion led him to add cold mango and cucumber soup to chilled vodka. The brilliantly flavored resulting Martini soon became a successful specialty of the house. Another time, he drizzled a bourbon sauce he was working on along with some caramel sauce into cocktail glasses, which were then placed in the freezer. They would later be used to present a signature vodka Martini. As the glasses gradually warm, the thawing sauces bleed into the cocktail. Hernandez says the results were “divine.”
Ludford thinks food and spirit pairings have real sizzle. “I’m a committed ‘gastronaut,’ so I’m always seeking the kind of tremendous flavors and aromas that discovering a great new pairing can deliver. For example, Islay malt whiskies taste delicious paired with sushi. The peaty seaside notes marry beautifully with the oils in the raw fish. A classically prepared Margarita paired with ceviche is sublime!”
Laguna’s Sorrento Grill is a popular haunt, one known for its bar as well as contemporary bill of fare. “The easiest food and spirit pairing to sell people is a New York strip steak with a classic Manhattan,” says manager Siracusa. “The robust and slightly sweet cocktail stands up nicely to the rich flavors of the steak. Another popular pairing is blackened mahi-mahi served with a citrus Ni