A Star Sommelier’s Wine & Food Journey from India to America
With its antique railroad-signal lanterns and wine list evoking a train station’s departures board, San Francisco’s RN74 is a paean to travel.
That makes the peripatetic Rajat Parr feel at home. Born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the 37-year-old Parr is the wine director of chef Michael Mina’s restaurant group and one of America’s most respected sommeliers. This year, with Mina’s backing, he opened the hotly anticipated RN74, an ultra-ambitious restaurant and wine bar. (The kitchen is run by Jason Berthold, previously the sous-chef at Napa’s famed French Laundry, which helped power the hype.) As Parr explains, RN74 brings together everything he loves about wine and food—just not in the way he’d always expected.
“I had wanted to be a chef since I was 10,” explains Parr, who grew up in a middle-class family. “My mother and grandmother were incredible cooks. Plus, my cousin had two restaurants in Delhi, and I was enamored of that life.” He visited often and snacked on street foods like chana chaat, which inspired the spicy, tangy chickpea salad he makes today.
Parr might have found a job in a kitchen in Delhi if not for a wealthy uncle (apparently they still exist) in England, who offered to pay his tuition at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. That’s when the wandering started. After a year, he did a six-month externship in the kitchen at Singapore’s legendary Raffles Hotel. “All I ate six days a week was street food from the hawker stands, like chili crab,” Parr says; he still makes a version of the dish today, often substituting shrimp. Then, back at school again, he took a course that changed his life. “At my first wine class, I got interested—really interested—but I couldn’t afford anything.” he says. “So I sold my computer and got three cases of wine.”
After graduation, Parr applied for wine jobs, but because he’d trained as a chef, the 60 resumés he sent out didn’t result in a single offer. So he started at San Francisco’s Rubicon as a food runner and worked his way up, helping the sommeliers whenever he could. One day, when wine director Larry Stone was out of town, the restaurant manager asked Parr if he owned a suit. He did—just one. “Wear it tomorrow,” the manager said.
Parr’s wine career took off from there, but he still uses the skills he learned in cooking school. At Thanksgiving, he rubs lamb shanks with his mother’s homemade garam masala. When she comes to visit from India, bringing the spice mix with her, Parr offers some as gifts to his chef friends. “I give some to Michael Mina and to Daniel Patterson at Coi; it gets around.” he says. Parr’s mother always sensed he would go far. “Back when I was growing up,” Parr says, “she knew that once I left India, I was gone.”