Chefs and sommeliers have to work together. It’s their job. And a fair number of them work together well, putting together tasty food and wine pairings on a regular basis. But transcendent food and wine pairings—the kinds that make us rethink all that we ever knew about the potential chemistry between the dish and the glass—are far more difficult to achieve. They require that a rare kind of culinary symbiosis exists between the chef and sommelier, a pair that is wholly attuned to one another’s instincts and aspirations.
We’ve come across two chef-sommelier pairs who represent this kind of relationship. Even with their distinct menus and distinct food and wine pairing approaches, Chef Daniel Humm and Sommelier John Ragan of New York’s Eleven Madison Park and Chef William Bradley and Sommelier Jesse Rodriguez of San Diego’s Addison embody the same drive to build collaborative pairings in which neither the food nor the wine outshines the other—but are equally, complementarily brilliant.
Both of these pairs worked in multiple restaurants together and met when they were at similar ages and points in their careers. Daniel Humm and John Ragan first met eight years ago in California while working at Campton Place (where they both won StarChefs.com’s San Francisco Rising Stars Awards in 2005). “It just worked out to be such a good match,” recalls Humm. “We saw things the same way, we had the same goals for the restaurant, and it just clicked.” When the opportunity arose to move to New York and go to Eleven Madison Park, they even made the move cross country together. And since arriving on the East Coast, they have only continued to hone their skills individually and, most emphatically, as a pair.
William Bradley and Jesse Rodriguez met briefly at the Phoenician in Arizona before reconnecting years later at Addison, where they formed the opening team. So strong was their connection that Rodriguez actually left The French Laundry after getting the call from Bradley. “If you’re going to be successful,” says Rodriguez, “you have to take some major risks.” And those risks have paid off—only four years after opening, Addison is one of only a handful of restaurants in the country (along with the likes of The French Laundry and Charlie Palmer) to boast Five Diamond-Five Star double status.
Although they work in different ways, working together is easy for both of these dynamic duos. They’ve done it for years and they enjoy each other’s company, both inside and outside of the restaurant. But they enjoy more than an affable working relationship; what makes these teams unusual is that they’re able to check their egos at the door for the greater good of customer satisfaction and a memorable overall dining experience—no small feat for chefs and sommeliers in a competitive, high-pressure, image-hungry industry.
In contrast to the usual equation of cooking first and pairing as an afterthought, Humm and Ragan and Bradley and Rodriguez approach pairing from the get-go, from the first incarnation of a dish or the first sip of a new vintage. As chefs, Bradley and Humm help the pairing process by taking wine into consideration when they’re creating dishes. Bradley makes his food wine-friendly and accessible by keeping it simple. “I’m concentrating on extracting the flavor,” he says, “and by only putting three elements on a plate it will always go with wine.” Humm thinks about what ingredients he puts on the plate and what the dish evokes, knowing that Ragan will take this into consideration when pairing it with wine.
And sommeliers Ragan and Rodriguez don’t wait until service to get involved with the menu and the wine. Often Rodriguez will shift the order of dishes on a tasting menu so that they flow better in conjunction with the wine. “Both together are more important than the individual part,” explains Rodriguez, and Bradley trusts Rodriguez to make these changes. When new dishes come on the menu at Eleven Madison Park Ragan offers Humm his feedback on them. After having worked together for so long Humm has come to rely on Ragan as somebody who has been tasting his food for the last eight years. “He tastes food slightly differently than a chef does,” explains Humm, “because a chef might be excited about an ingredient or technique but [John] only tastes it with his tongue.”
Likewise, Ragan looks to Humm to offer his unbiased opinion on wine. Where Ragan may have preconceived notions about a wine because he’s seen the label or read about it, he looks to Humm to provide a blind and honest reaction. And when it comes time to pair Ragan looks at a dish from all angles. “With a pairing, it’s not just about a great flavor,” says Ragan. “Ultimately it’s about a little glimpse of a culture, or thinking, or a different part of world. So I think to understand [Daniel’s] inspiration [for] a dish is important for me to find a wine.”
This kind of relationship, where chefs and sommeliers are doing the culinary equivalent of finishing each other’s sentences, takes time to develop. Ragan says that too often sommeliers (and chefs) bounce between restaurants and don’t allow the time to develop such strong ties. “I wouldn’t say I understand all of chef’s food right now,” he says, “but I know it’s taken me eight years to understand it as well as I do now.” But even almost a decade of bonding is worth it for Ragan—and for Humm, Bradley, and Rodriguez.