Robert Mancuso, CMC, Executive Chef of the Bohemian Club, shares his philosophy and process for expanding and enhancing wine and food pairings.
The rules about pairing wine with food are being rewritten to keep pace with evolving culinary trends. Instead of following old-school guidelines, club chefs are now pinpointing specific characteristics in different wines and creating dishes that harmonize in beautiful ways.
“Longstanding rules—like red wine with red meat or white wine with fish—can be very limiting,” says Robert Mancuso, CMC, Executive Chef of the Bohemian Club in San Francisco, who is in the midst of earning his Master of Wine designation through The Institute of Masters of Wine. “A good pairing comes down to balance.”
Pairings are successful when certain elements—like acidity, sugar, fat, alcohol, salt and tannin—marry well. Sometimes the food enhances the wine. Other times the wine enhances the food. Ideally, it’s both, but sometimes it’s even more.
“A colleague of mine—Ken Arnone, CMC—wrote a book called Pairing with the Masters: A Definitive Guide to Food and Wine,” says Mancuso, who joined with Master of Wine Martin Reyes to present on “Food & Wine Pairings: The Perfect Match” at the tenth annual Chef to Chef Conference in Seattle.
Robert Mancuso, CMC, Executive Chef of the Bohemian Club in San Francisco, is in the midst of earning his Master of Wine designation through The Institute of Masters of Wine. He offers these tips to club chefs as they develop food and wine pairings.
Taste, taste, taste. Taste the wine. Taste the food. Taste the wine with the food. Taste two different wines with the same dish, and vice versa, to identify even more nuances.
Practice makes perfect. Always practice the dishes you’re going to serve at a wine dinner. This will allow you to further refine and enhance the pairing.
Study up. The more you can learn about the wine you’ll be serving, the more you’ll be able to speak to your members about the pairing and why it works.
Think outside the box. Don’t be afraid to break the rules and create a dish that might seem out there. If it works, it works.
Balance it out. Successful wine pairings are all about balance between the acidity, sugar, fat, alcohol, salt and tannin.
Earn the trust of your members. When your members trust your ability to create dynamic pairings, you’ll get more support for wine dinners and events.
Simple can be elegant. Every wine dinner doesn’t have to feature super-complicated flavors and plates. Less really can be more.
Enjoy yourself. The members who attend wine pairings are typically knowledgeable about food and wine. Allow yourself to be drawn into the group.
“In the book,” Mancuso says, “[Arnone] categorizes wine pairings into three groups.” Those groups are defined as follows:
- One-Way Pairings either make the wine shine or the food shine, but not both.
- Two-Way Pairings make both the food and the wine shine.
- Three-Way Pairings not only make both the food and wine shine, but work together to create a magical element.
“As chefs, we always aim for the two-way pairing,” says Mancuso. “Three-way pairings are rare and nearly impossible to replicate. When they occur, they’re ethereal. They essentially create a new flavor.”
Mancuso has only experienced three-way pairings a handful of times over the course of his career. And he’s never been able to recreate one, even when he marries the same dish with the same wine.
“There are too many variables,” he says. “From the way a wine matures to the way a dish is seasoned—those minor impacts have a much larger outcome.”
While a two-way pairing is generally the goal, one-way pairings are sometimes useful, too, especially if you want either the food or the wine to shine. “When you have to create a pairing to go with a really rare or special wine, a one-way pairing allows the wine to be the star of that course,” says Mancuso.
The Bohemian Club typically serves five- or six-course wine dinners, and tries to keep guest counts under 40.
“I’ve done wine dinners for over 100, which I don’t recommend, as you lose a sense of intimacy,” says Mancuso. “Plus, when you’re serving a group that size, it prohibits you from executing the finer points of the menu.”
Before any event, Mancuso learns everything he can about the wines that will be involved.
“I like to start by tasting the wine,” says Mancuso. “From there, I begin to identify the nuances I want to draw out with the food.”
Once he develops the dish he wants to pair with the wine, he cooks and tastes it with the wine, to analyze the match and see if he can further refine or enhance it.
“As the chef, if you’re doing the pairings, you have to be able to articulate your philosophy with each pairing,” he notes. “You cannot skip your way through a wine pairing. Learn as much as you can about the wine, and make sure you can back up your dishes with a detailed explanation.”