Chef Cindy Gold is that rare culinary bird: a tea sommelier. For the past four-and-a-half years she’s been overseeing all things tea-related at the historic tk-room Boston Park Plaza Hotel and Towers. This includes pairing menu items with just the right specialty teas and formulating signature teas as well as tea-infused cocktails.
Along the way, she’s also taken afternoon tea to the next level by developing tea-focused recipes incorporating various teas in rubs and marinades. Recently she debuted a full-fledged tea influenced menu for lunch and dinner featuring more than a dozen items. The project was a collaboration with executive chef J.J. Fernandez and executive sous chef Joao (“John”) Barros.
Some 15 years ago, when Gold, a Johnson & Wales graduate, was opening a new restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., she very much wanted a decent tea list since she realized few East Coast restaurateurs had one at the time. On her own, she began reading and tasting and steadily built a list that she felt was good. Her next logical step, she found, was to begin cooking with teas.
Word of her tea creativity spread and, in 1997, the renowned tea guru of the day, Helen Gustafson (author of Agony of the Leaves), was brought to the restaurant by a friend. “To my knowledge—although she didn’t have the title—Helen was the first ever tea sommelier,” Gold explains. “A very charismatic woman, she convinced Alice Waters that [Waters] couldn’t be offering mediocre tea at Chez Panisse; she needed high quality tea, steeped. I believe it was the first location outside of an ethnic restaurant where tea was served correctly.”
Thanks to Gustafson, Gold was given entrée to numerous farms and tea estates in China and since then she has spent time on other estates throughout the world. “Gustafson really inspired chefs to pay attention to how the flavors of food and tea are linked,” Gold says. “I’m looking at tea as an ingredient in food and beverage—they should be properly balanced to highlight each other.”
When Gold first “fell in love with tea,” as she puts it, there was no formal training; hers was gleaned from Gustafson’s sharing of knowledge and from others in the industry, as well as her time in the fields of tea farms. Today, there are still only a handful of tea sommeliers in the U.S., but training is becoming more available. The Specialty Tea Institute offers certification level classes in tea but not as yet from the culinary side, Gold notes.
Tea Focused Drinks
Tea selection can be incorporated in a drink program in much the same way it becomes part of a food one. In order to do this, an operator should not have the same generic tea list as everyone else and every venue should aim to offer one or two signature teas that are designed to complement the location’s own menu.
She recommends that operators start with their tea purveyors. “Perhaps he or she can custom blend or recommend someone who can. The more demand there is [from operators], the more people will be doing it.”
At the Boston Park Plaza—which has thus far served every U.S. president since its opening in 1929—the two most popular tea cocktails year ’round are the Green Tea Martini—made with tea-infused Absolut vodka–and The Plaza Citrus Teaser, priced at $11 each.
The Plaza Citrus Teaser is a “fun drink,” Gold says. “It’s an infused rum shaken with a bit of grapefruit juice plus tea and lemongrass infused simple syrup and basil, then finished with a splash of Tk brand Champagne.”
To prepare these drinks, all the complexities of a slow, room temperature infusion should ideally be carried out weeks in advance, she points out. “But straining is the key to working with tea cocktails because the alcohol will break down quickly if impurities, such as bits of fruit, aren’t strained out. Straining is also key to shelf stability [and] product can last at least six weeks.”
This season, tea-infused spirits are taking center stage in the bar area, even before guests get to see the drinks menu. “We’re displaying interesting decanters of these beautifully infused alcohols to prompt guest conversation with the server. The green tea base is slightly green, slightly golden in color; our white port—I use Dow’s Fine White Porto—infused with black tea (a Yunnan), plus ginger and dried lychee, is crystal clear with the deep, rich color of a good bourbon ($9); and white Port infused with black tea, rose petals and lavender has a pinkish hue.
Typically, Gold infuses vodkas, Ports and gins, choosing the alcohol that complements other ingredients to build a new experience. She has even given a new twist to the traditional Gin and Tonic with her Yin and Tonic.
“Here, the gin has been infused with Ti Kuan Yin, a Chinese Oolong,” she says. “I tested different gins in the mix with friends and then with guests at the bar; the unanimous choice was Bombay Gin—that worked well with the Ti Kwan Yin. It’s still a Gin and Tonic, but a little rounder, more aromatic, more complex.”
Gold has finally launched her Tea Cuisine menu, which is available in the 80-seat Swan’s Café. She adds that the foods don’t taste like tea but that,“The health benefits [such as tea’s array of antioxidants that can destroy free radicals, thus protecting our DNA from various types of cancer, heart disease, etc.] will attract guests, but the beauty and complexity of the dish will get them to order the item again..”
Among the tea cuisine items, guests will find Beef Short-ribs plated with grilled polenta and sautéed bitter greens ($24). A dry rub including very small amounts of about 11 spices plus three teas is applied to the beef which is then refrigerated over night. It’s then braised in a barbecue sauce containing tea, then the sauce is thinned out with Aged Pu-Erh tea, an earthy, complex tea from Southern China. “So there’s tea in the dish three ways.”
Another unusual item on Gold’s menu is the Lapsang Souchong-Poached Scallop Ceviche ($13) or as part of a Seafood Tasting Plate ($16). “We poach the scallops very briefly in Lapsang Souchong, a large leaf black tea smoked in pine needles, so there’s a wonderfully smoky, tarry flavor; it also is great with lamb and all other meats,” she suggests.
Whether using tea in food or cocktails Gold contends that “tea should be the hidden ingredient that bridges between flavors.”