Share |

Who’s your Guest? Food and wine pairing personified

Sommeliers show off their hand-picked, iPad-based wine lists. Servers jockey to increase the beverage tab. Who cares what the diner really wants to drink?

Recently I met two pros who leave their superior attitude behind the bar and approach food and beverage pairing from the guest’s viewpoint. They instinctively know that “guest” is the Latin root word for hospitality.

By chance these culinary professionals both work for the Hyatt Corp. Vince Cannon is Food and Beverage Director at the bustling and historic Hyatt at the Bellevue in center city Philadelphia. A half-world away, Sven Ullrich is executive chef at the laid-back, ocean front Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa. Their venues, food and beverage couldn’t be more different. Yet their approach to food and beverage pairing is striking similar—and not in a corporate, canned way.

My ears perked up when I heard Cannon say, “I tell staff to always think about wine from the guest’s perspective.” What a difference from listening to wine staff promote their esoteric and expensive “found” wines that no one knows about yet.

Another way Cannon stood out from the hospitality crowd was his honesty about the reality of how servers work the wine list.  “The challenge lies in breaking servers away from selling ‘comfort zone’ wines. Most serves have six to seven wines in different price points that they fall back on when selling. This may work in restaurants with small wine menus. But to cycle through a 250-label wine list, we hold weekly wine tastings to keep more wines fresh in servers’ mind.”

Cannon encourages his staff to focus on the aroma and finish of the wine and ask simple questions about their preferences. The natural extension of staff interaction leads to the pairings. If guests say they like earthy reds, Cannon prompts his staff to consider the oak, cherry and spice of Primarius Pinot Noir with braised Colorado lamb, root vegetables and Sardinian cous cous.

Cannon’s training programs may be similar to others, but they actually work. Before meeting Cannon, I dined at elegant XIX, the hotel’s elegant American brasserie high above Philadelphia on the 19th floor. During the dialogue on drinks, I mentioned the need for a refresher after our busy day. The sommelier returned with Bele Casel, a DOCG Prosecco with a lively, clean finish to accentuate the bright flavors of jumbo crab cake and Spanish octopus salad. When my new-to-wine-drinking sister Gita asked for a light white, the sommelier handed her an easy drinking Wente Riverbank Riesling with enough acid to stand up to her lobster risotto.

I also like the philosophy of mixologist Nathan Churchill. “We think of the Hyatt at the Bellevue as our house. When company is coming to XIX, we need to treat them well.”

For Churchill, that mantra translates to listening well. If guests say they like sweeter drinks, Churchill may recommend the Clover Club, a gin-based cocktail with house-made raspberry syrup that was born around 1910 at the men’s club of the same name at the original Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. The creative bartender shakes up his signature drink, the Churchill Sour for the more adventurous with Jameson whiskey. After describing the drink, he immediately conjures a pairing with the artisan meat and cheese platter.

Soon after returning home from Philly to the Bay Area, I took in a few hours of Honolulu in San Francisco. Hawaiian Air and the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach were touting the “closeness” of the Bay Area to the islands and the flavors Asian-inspired food at the Hyatt Regency’s Japengo restaurant. Executive Chef Sven Ullrich was serving up chicken skewers, taro chips with edamame dip and pineapple cake while keeping an eye on the skaters circling the Embarcadero ice rink.

“Give guests what they want,” says Ullrich. “I personally like Pinot Noir with fish such as our seared tuna salad. I encourage our staff to consider the ‘sauce’ rule. If a guest orders chicken with lemon caper sauce, then we’ll match the citrus aromas with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Why not a Pinot Noir with a red beurre rouge or a pink sauce Chiron?

The bar at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki presents a sea of sakes and crafted cocktails with “Made in Hawaii” ingredients and Asian influences. “Yes, we’ll make a sweet Blue Hawaiian cocktail,” says Food and Beverage Director Vince Brunetti, “But I’d rather stir up a Red Dirt Chi Chi with Ketel One, Cointreau and sour plum powder rim. The sour plum tartness contrasts well with the slightly sweet miso-glaze on our salmon.

Brunetti talks about the way the Pineapple Express cocktail with house-infused pineapple vodka and frozen pineapple juice spears cuts through the richness of Japengo short ribs. I want to rip up the to-do list and grab the next flight for Honolulu to sample the ribs. Meanwhile, the memory of the delicious XIX sautéed Pennsylvania lake trout continues to haunt my food cravings.

Whether on the island or in center city, one of these Hyatt folks will quiz me about what I like to drink and tempt me with courteous attention and customized suggestions.

“After all, some people like Fords and others like Mercedes. It’s all about the general feeling from the night and not just a single dish or glass of wine,” says Ullrich.

Photo Credit: Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort

Your rating: None Average: 5 (1 vote)