Drinking on the line is part of the job at Underbelly in Houston, where cooks and somms collaborate to create spot-on pairings.
The next time you sit down at a restaurant and order your bottle of Chianti or Cabernet, consider this: The chefs cooking your meal, in all likelihood, have never tasted it. Ever.
Strange situation, right? The front-of-house folks—the servers, the managers, of course the sommeliers—taste wine all the time. They have to, otherwise what are they supposed to say when someone asks, “So this Italian white by the glass—what’s it like?” They taste the dishes on the menu for the same reason. But the people cooking the food that will actually go with that wine, like the grill-station guy? Or the prep cook who’s been chiffonading basil for six hours straight? What are the odds that they’ve tried that gorgeous 2012 Brunello di Montalcino that went on the list the other day at $24 a glass?
If you guessed zero, you’re probably right—except, that is, at Houston’s Underbelly. Last year, wine director Matthew Pridgen and chef-owner Chris Shepherd (a 2013 F&W Best New Chef) started an unprecedented weekly blind wine-tasting for the kitchen staff. They dubbed it Wine on the Line. After service ends and the restaurant locks its doors, Pridgen sets out glasses on the pass between the kitchen and the dining room, and everyone starts tasting and brainstorming pairings.
“It’s the whole line, from pastry chefs to the grill station, every Wednesday,” he says. “The cooks are very dialed in to the food, thinking about what’s in season, what’s going to come across flavor-wise in a dish. So they taste from that standpoint—they look at saltiness, savoriness, acidity, balance.”
Part of the point is to give the kitchen staff a chance to sample wines on the restaurant’s list (finally!). But more importantly, the exercise helps them to look at the food they’re cooking in a new way, and to draw inspiration from the experience. One week, for instance, Pridgen poured the cooks a Moric Blaufränkisch—a cherry-scented, exotic Austrian red. “None of them had ever had Blaufränkisch before,” he recalls. “I don’t know that they’d even had an Austrian wine of any kind. But they loved its earthiness and spiciness, and a week later they came back with a seared gochujang flank steak to go with it.” The dish appeared on the menu paired with chef Shepherd’s peppery Korean pasta salad (see below). Pridgen adds, “I think the tastings have really elevated the level of their cooking—plus the knowledge is something that will stick with them throughout their careers.” Shepherd himself might be the model for this entire exercise: Early in his career, he took a break from cooking to work as a sommelier, specifically to understand the intricacies of how wine and food interact.
Learning about wine doesn’t preclude the risk of getting pranked by your head sommelier, though. Pridgen says, “One night I snuck into the kitchen and decanted one of our cooking wines, then served it to everyone blind.” When he revealed what the glasses had in them, “I got called a few unprintable names, but everyone did finally admit it was a useful lesson.” The stunt brings up a key restaurant question, though: Is it really wise to mess with the cooks?
The answer is, almost certainly not. “Oh, yeah,” Pridgen admits. “They’re definitely going to get me back at some point. I’m just waiting to see how.”