Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Small Town

Cue Mellencamp ... I grew up in a small town, was born in an even smaller town. Every stereotype about being a kid in a small town is darn near true, especially when you're from Indiana. City life is always exciting and has it's own teachings, but growing up a small town kid translates to an ethereal state of mind as one moves from wonder to wisdom years. Those wonder years can keep you from realizing the special nature of being from a small town, maybe even make you want to run from it as you shed your youth. But as you creep into the wisdom side of your years, you'll follow the road back to the foundation of a small town upbringing and how it plays a key role in what you view as important today. So, what did growing up in a small town teach a little girl, that I'm finally realizing makes a difference ...

Community is key. No small town can survive without the coming together of a community and you learn this at a young age when you're at the local grocery store, acting up and a parent ... not your parent, puts you in your place and tells you to mind your manners. Now of course, there are a million other ways that a community works to keep a small town thriving, but they help raise each other's kids, that's small town. Learning to drive long before you're 16, because you've been driving a tractor, golf cart, dirt bike, ATV, pontoon boat, heck even a horse ... and more since before you reached your double digit birthday, and you learn the consequences of going too fast, too soon, that's small town. You play basketball, because you can always shoot hoops on your own when there is no one else to play with ... but more importantly you'll learn how to shoot free throws, and why free throws are not only important in the game, but their life metaphor in terms of fundamentals and practice, that's small town. Going home is always the most important part of the day, it may be cheesy, but almost every single one of my friends had some sort of picture or plaque on the wall of their house that said 'Home Is Where The Heart Is' and that's the truth, because your home is your sanctuary, where you feel the most safe and happy, where your family will help you learn to pick yourself up after defeat and not to gloat in triumph, that's small town. There is nothing like an in season tomato from your grandmother's farm, the one she picked because she knew it was ripe, because she had been picking ripe tomatoes her entire life, and then she slices it, and serves it to you plain with a hint of salt, and that tomato gives you joy, because that's the only tomato you've ever known, that's small town. You learn at a young age that literally jumping off the bridge into the lake or pond will turn into figurative leaps that you will have to make again and again in your life, sometimes it will hurt, but you will always find a lesson and embrace the thrill of the jump, that's small town. Accountability. When you're from a small town, and you pick the flowers from the old lady's lawn three doors down from your house ... everyone in town will know, because there is nowhere to hide, and you will have to knock on her door, apologize and mow her lawn for the rest of the summer ... for free. The literal aspect of not being able to hide, will teach you later to own up to your mistakes, so you can stand up for everything you believe in, that's small town. Courage, to be the David and go up against the Goliath, no matter the fear and pain, because you never want to let anyone down, because they are your community, they are your friends, they are your family, that's small town. When you see someone you speak, you say hello, when they leave you say goodbye, it's called manners, and that's small town. And most of all what being from a small town will teach you is that your family, whether it's yours by birth or by choice will always have your back through good times and bad, because that's what family does, that's small town.

(Photo: Marvin K. Albright)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Writing Impossible

Thoughts are so jumbled that it becomes impossible to write without error ... error of my mind, error of my fingers, error of my heart. I'm an over thinker, to the point of obsessing. My grandmother used to tell me not to worry about things that I don't have control over ... but that's why I'm worried, because I don't have control. Uh oh, and now there's that split second of over thinking my existence as a control freak. Keep the brain on emergency mode for every waking moment, and the mind and many times body pay the price ... including your brain, which delivers the Mission: Writing Impossible. So, why so much stress?

I'm what you might call a self starter. I thrive on stress. It's my adrenaline rush. Not only rarely afraid to take the leap into a new endeavor, but seeking out the jump off a cliff moment. Even as a kid and later as a young adult I was all about finding new challenges and climbing whatever mountain presented itself in my path, usually a mountain that I built for myself. College was probably the first time that this became a realization, when I left Indiana University to go to DePaul University (best decision!). I wanted to attend Indiana University my entire life (in a Bobby Knight walks on water kind of way), there were no other options, because I didn't want other options. Two years later, bored. No stress. No adrenaline. Bored. DePaul was a rush, Chicago was a rush. Something different and new. It was always challenging (the quarter system will keep you on your toes, semesters give you too much time to get ... bored). But DePaul was expensive (still paying for that education today) and I needed a job, one where I could make more money than any 21 year old should ever make ... my thrill seeker soul got a job in a restaurant, and the rest is sort of history. Adrenaline junkies love the restaurant business, no night is ever the same, every guest presents new challenges and needs. But then I graduated and waiting tables and bartending wasn't enough, not enough stimulation for the brain. Speaking of being a junkie, I used to be a statistics junkie, usually following baseball, it's probably one of the reasons I got hooked on wine, besides all of the blah blah blah that people tell you about why they're into wine, those who have a successful career in pushing adult grape juice are usually some sort of geek ... statistics, geography, language, chemistry, music ... whatever it is, sommeliers usually geeked out about another subject first that later spurred an interest in wine. Wine lead to management, then beverage direction, then consulting, then opening my own restaurant. And even for this stress ball, opening a restaurant has been the hardest work I've ever chosen. But I still choose it, as many floods, blown hvacs, people leaving you in the middle of a crisis, lack of sleep, health and well being ... I still choose it. And now, I want more ...

A second restaurant. It will happen. But I'm working to turn in my stress thriving, rushing adrenaline, jumping off a cliff moments. It's taken three years for me to realize that no restaurant is more important than my friends and family. No amount of covers in a night will be more important than talking to my mom. No VIP will ever trump hugging my Goddaughter after she graduated high school. The joy of cheering on my friend as she runs a marathon far outweighs having a clean desk. My moment of clarity almost makes the stress of owning a small business less stressful ... almost. Time to shed my brain's emergency mode and move from writing impossible to Mission: Possible.

(Photo: Marvin K. Albright)

Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday Night is Alright ...

Friday night. The night the line cook should never call off, but he does, and it doesn't just sting, it cold cocks you so hard it's makes you dizzy. You don't have time to be dizzy, you were already in the weeds, before shithead called in sick, now you have to double time. Thank the food lords that chef is on the line, prepping with us or we'd be screwed. But that's what chefs do.

Friday night. When the sommelier and cellar master bust ass for three hours putting away the day's orders, so servers can waltz in five minutes late (hey, late is fucking late. And, ya know what ... on time is late.) so that those dedicated wine professionals get to repeat themselves about tonight's wine specials, and these aren't everyday wine specials, these are extraordinary wines, brought in for a chef's dinner. But we'll wait, while you take off your coat and get settled. I'm sure Vega Sicilia doesn't mind your disrespectful ways. Plus, our arms need to rest because they are tired from making sure we stocked the wines, to set you up for success on Friday night.

Friday night. You have to miss your sister's wedding rehearsal dinner, because by some sort of miracle you've been gifted the opportunity to have a rare Saturday night off, to attend your sister's wedding because your General Manager does in fact care about your well being, and doesn't want your family to hate you for not attending said wedding. How does your GM know that your family will hold it over your head for your entire life that you missed the wedding? Because your GM has paid her dues, worked her way up from hostess, to server, to bartender, to assistant bar manager, to manager, to sommelier to general manager, and made huge sacrifices in her life to be in a position to offer you a Saturday night off. Cherish that shit, there's no complaining about missing rehearsal dinners, it's Friday night.

Friday night. All of your training is about this night. It's the end of the week for the "real world" jobbers, and they've spent the week either being told what to do or telling someone else what to do and that equals stress. Major stress. Stressed guests. Because no one takes Friday night yoga. More drinks. Not eating. Now eating. Full book of reservations. Walk-ins. Regular's last minute plans. Dishwasher breaks. Toilet over flows. Kitchen needs hands. Bar needs hands. Front door needs hands. Dish pit needs hands. Weeds. Weeds. Weeds. Friday night.

But ... Friday Night is Alright ... because this is what we do. We survive. We thrive. We don't quit. We're stubborn like that, quitting is easy and we don't like easy. The toughest guest, in the end, is our favorite guest, because we're pleasers, we're here to please you, take care of you, in every way possible that we know how. And we like it. Because we're pleasers. We want to feed you. We want to pour you a drink. We want to take the edge off your week. Because we're pleasers. Through all of it ... no show line cooks, entitled servers, awesome dedicated servers, rockstar line cooks, requests off, schleping cases of wine, serving you, pleasing you, having each others backs, getting each other out of the weeds, breathing deep when we're out of the weeds, selling exceptional food and wine, and locking the door at the end of the night on this place we call home ... we love it. Friday Night is Alright.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Thank you, for the Lessons in Excellence

Charlie Trotter changed the restaurant game, he was a visionary on the culinary cutting edge, but it didn't stop in the kitchen. Chef Trotter was about the ultimate guest experience, and you felt it every time you walked into his restaurant.

We all have a debt a of gratitude to pay to Chef Trotter, our dining scene in Chicago and throughout the hospitality world would not be where it is today, without his dedication to pushing himself, his restaurant and his staff in a direction that in our current climate many think is commonplace. The man was a wizard with vegetables, among other proteins and delicacies, and was farm to table before any of the media and marketing gurus hated or over used the phrase. Chef Trotter cared about every aspect of your dining experience, from the moment you walked in the door to the pouring of the last pairing, he never wanted you to forget your time in his namesake brownstone, and you didn't.

As one friend said after Chef Trotter's passing, the role of the modern sommelier would not be where it is today without this man. Chef Trotter was masterful at teaching his staff empowerment, self-motviation, discipline, leadership and a toughness that you need to achieve success in a grueling business. We as a community have all benefited from Chef Trotter's teachings as many of his disciples moved on into the food and wine world, and shared his tenacity from front to back of house. Upon hearing the news of his passing, I was stunned and didn't really know what to say to anyone about such a loss. As I remembered my meals and wine tastings at the famed restaurant, I reached for one of the many books in the library behind my desk, and within reading a few sentences, I knew exactly what to say ... thank you. Chef Trotter's lessons reach far and wide and I want to thank Joseph Spellman, Linda Milagros Violago, Robert Houde, Paula Houde and Serafin Alvarado for conveying those lessons and making a one time young and inexperienced girl care about every aspect of service to a degree that I never thought possible. Thank you Chef Trotter, for the Lessons in Excellence.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Most Important Job

Any small business owner will tell you they wear many hats and play various roles in day to day operations to help with the success of their venture. In our case at Vera, Mark and I start with the roles of owners and work our way down the chain of command everyday, carrying out tasks in departments of accounting and janitorial, and in between the bookends of running the business we also manage to put together some good food and wine that our guests tend to enjoy, all the while having a bit of fun.

There are few days that go by where guests don't ask me 'What is your favorite wine on the list?' and while there is no secret on my love for Sherry, you'll hear many sommeliers say that picking a favorite wine is like picking a favorite child. And it's true, because if you've curated a list such as the one I have at Vera, you love all the wine, for different reasons. On the business end of my life, people also ask 'What is the hardest part of being a business owner?' and that question has endless answers, as each day is always different, and a task that is difficult today, wasn't a dilemma yesterday. That question got me thinking about what is my most important job, the most vital role to my business, and life, whether it be dealing with employees, guests, purveyors, partners, the community, friends, family, mentors and proteges, what is the most important job ... and unlike being able to pick a favorite wine, there is one job that is most important, being a good listener.

Yes, listener. It's the most important job you have, no matter any position you work, in any industry, anywhere. Listening. Listening. Listening. We live in a world where everyone is screaming out their story, both virtually and in real life, and amongst so much clutter, you have to ask yourself ... is anyone listening? The same world, where everything can be looked up on the interwebs, is one where everyone is formulating an answer, before the individual they are in a "conversation" with has even finished speaking. And if you ask the person, in that same "conversation" to let you finish they almost always get offended. Listening, let's you gain knowledge, knowledge is power ... so no, talking, talking, talking isn't going to prove how smart you are in any subject. And here's the thing we're all guilty of ... at one time or another, we've all been bad listeners. Not adhering to the job that can help us the most in our job, whether it be a line cook, sommelier, chef, owner, husband, wife, friend, mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother ...

My grandmother used to tell me 'You have one mouth and two ears for a reason', looking back, I now know that was her "gentle" way of telling me I should shut up. And for a girl today, that does have to talk and interact with thousands of people, I'm going to take my grandmother's advice once again and work a little bit harder on being a good listener ... because it is the most important job.

Monday, October 7, 2013

And It's Still All Good ...

Sherryfest recently took place in NYC, and sadly joining the festivities this year was not an option. Staying home and running our business, is not only the priority when turning down an opportunity to attend fun events, it's the priority every single day. A small business that is two years old, is still in fact a child that needs nurturing, hand holding, supervision, discipline and everyday attention. For some, turning down trips and parties would deter choosing to own a restaurant, as many people see the work as too demanding and thankless. And don't get me wrong, owning and running a restaurant is hard work, really hard work, but I love it ... and as the restaurant gets older, I love it more and more, no matter the trials and tribulations that come along with everything from sweeping the floors to filling the seats. The best part about turning down those weekend parties, is I get to throw one everyday, a party where guests willingly pay to join in the good times, I'm grateful more than words will ever express, and this life is quite enjoyable. No, being a sommelier and owning a restaurant isn't only about wine tastings, it does involve a good amount of work, both physical and mental that you must be exceptionally tough to handle and stay in the game. But I do get to eat and drink for a living, which continually pushes me to learn, train my palate and have a little fun in the process. The trips will still come and one day I'll get to go back out and play, for now I'm going to stay home and hold my baby's hand a little while longer, while she turns two years old. The support over the last two years has been extraordinary, I'm honored and humbled by it everyday, and it is in fact that support that keeps the lyrics of Notorious B.I.G. in my ears ... "And It's Still All Good ..."

 "We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us
No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us
Birthdays was the worst days
Now we sip champagne when we thirst-ay
Uh, damn right I like the life I live
'Cause I went from negative to positive
And it's still all good ..."
~ Notorious B.I.G.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Early influences in life always have a way of filtering back into adulthood. As a young child, I became enchanted with tea, which is still my morning and afternoon beverage of choice, rather than coffee. My passionate connection with tea began sitting at the dining room table with my grandmother while our loose leaf orange tea brewed in her powder blue and gold flecked teapot. At an early age I'm sure the flavor of my tea was much more about the three or four sugar cubes I added to my great grandmother's antique tea cups, atop their matching saucers. Today, the sugar is much less, if any, and the antique tea cups and saucers are tucked away in storage but there is never a morning while my Ceylon Nuwara Eliya brews, that the pastimes of my family enjoying tea do not come to mind.

Sensory memory can be powerful, and it took months and months of being mesmerized by Sherry before I realized that one of the main reasons I was drawn to this historic and diverse beverage revolved around my early years of enjoying tea (and later years of enjoying tequila). I fell head over heals for Sherry on first taste years ago, but it wasn't until tasting some rare Amontillado and Palo Cortado more recently, when tea descriptors crept into the mix that I realized the connection. And not shocking, Sherry just like tea (especially to Americans) can be a tough sell. There are stereotypes and misconceptions of Sherry and tea, yet both are seeing quite the resurrection in beverage programs throughout the country. Sherry recently received much celebration, from those professionals around the world who are more than passionate about changing the face of Sherry, at Sherryfest in New York City. In addition to having Bodegas from the rich bounty that is Jerez, another facet of Sherryfest was absolutely exhilarating ... a new book on the subject, 'Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla' by Peter Liem and Jesus Barquin. 

It's exciting to see a modern, authoritative book on the subject of Sherry, that also includes Montilla as it is quite important, despite it not being included in the Jerez DO.

Hanging out at Terrior is never dull. The knowledgeable staff pulled out a few tricks, since I carry most of the Sherry they had on the shelves. Macvin du Jura ... Sherry has some competition for my affection.

The Grand Tasting at The Ace Hotel followed by lunch at the Gramercy Tavern bar. Cheers to GT for embracing quite the Sherry selection.

To say most of us were like kids on Christmas morning would be an understatement. Red and green from El Maestro Sierra, pure bliss.

 Have you ever walked into a room that was intoxicating with its energy? Aromas of Sherry will do that to a room full of wine professionals ... times ten.

Rocks, incredible aromas, and the glow of Sherry.

Sherryfest proved that the once celebrated beverage is on a serious comeback, no longer being painted into a sugary sweet corner. From the east coast to the west, restaurants are taking Sherry off the back page of wine lists and retailers are sharing the good word of Jerez with their many, loyal fans. And while Sherry may still be a tough sell, with the writing of Peter Liem, as well as quite the undertaking in the New York Times from Eric Asimov, here, here, here and here ... it looks like Sherry might be shedding that one note song of sweetness, and showing its true colors.

Want to get in on all that Sherry has to offer, check out those hot spots in Chicago showcasing the diverse fortified wine here ... and take a class on the subject, details at Vera.