01 May 2013

Interview with Eric Guido of The V.I.P. Table

During the Snooth PVA weekend in NYC, I was surrounded by twenty fascinating wine writers, but did not have a lot of time to spend one-on-one with each of them. Some of them I've only gotten to know better through online conversations since then, and all of them have standing dinner invitations if they ever find themselves in my dear river city. One of those fine folks is Eric Guido, writer at The V.I.P. Table. Eric also writes wine and food pieces for snooth.com as well as whatscook.in. I wanted to get to know him a little better as well as share some of his thoughts with my readers, and he kindly accepted my invitation for an interview.

Eric is a native New Yorker and a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education where we had lunch on Sunday with South African wines (stay tuned for that writeup!). He was interested in cooking early in life but then got involved as an adult in professional cooking after hosting high tea service for sweet sixteen parties and wedding/baby showers. That led him to culinary school, and passion about his work as a private chef and wine collector grew into his various writing gigs. I'm particularly excited to try out his brasato al barolo recipe as soon as I have a suitable bottle, and I've been notified that I need to have a decent Barolo and reduce the sauce until it coats a spoon. I'm already salivating.

BWR: On Facebook I see you in lots of pictures with your children. What are your opinions on the kid cuisine debate? I'm talking about the European "smaller portions of what the adults eat" vs. the American "chicken nuggets and ketchup on everything" mentality.

Eric: My children have never seen the inside of a Burger King or McDonald's. My wife and I both work, and we decided from the start that we would take the difficult road of preparing home-cooked meals, introducing our kids to a wide variety of foods, and taking them with us to restaurants at a very young age. I can understand why parents choose the “American Diet” for their kids. It’s easier, less time-consuming and much more affordable. However, I believe that the time we spend in the kitchen (my kids often cook with me) and at the table are very valuable, and it’s worth the extra effort to have that time with them. I have many fond memories of the last seven years around our table.

From a strictly dietary perspective, this choice is even more relevant. Knowing exactly what the ingredients are that we place into our children’s foods is extremely important. Providing them with balanced, healthy meals is setting a standard for them for the rest of their life. Fast food establishments see balance as protein, grain and starch. You don’t see the option to order steam carrots, sautéed spinach or broccoli. I might not let my kids eat Chicken McNuggets; but instead, I make them chicken nuggets each week. My kids love the dredging of the chicken and the seasoning of the breadcrumbs. “Daddies chicken” (as they call it) is a very popular meal in our home. The same goes for a number of other foods I prepare for them, from buttermilk pancakes to hamburgers. These aren’t difficult preparations either; they just require us to slow down for a moment and reflect on what’s important in life.

BWR: What was the most memorable wine you tasted in 2012?

Eric: I’d like to mention two wines that really made an impression, one being a much older bottle that may be very difficult to find again. It was a 1977 Mastroberardino Taurasi Riserva. I’ve always heard that Taurasi could age well; in fact, many people refer to it as the Barolo of the South. However, I had no idea that one could be so young and vibrant. Most experiences I’ve had with Taurasi were enjoyable, yet they left me feeling like the bottles simply needed more time. I had no idea that 36 years could be the aging curve. Another bottle would be the 1999 Produttori del Barbaresco Riserva Moccagatta, which (although it is a Barbaresco) was inserted into a blind tasting of 1999 Barolo and ended up being my bottle of the night. Keep in mind that these are $45 - $55 bottles upon release, which isn’t that expensive when compared to the $100+ price tags of many great Barolo. Also, it’s a Barbaresco, made from the same grape as Barolo but known to be more feminine—this bottle was far from feminine. On this night, the Producttori outshined some pretty stiff competition. This year, I was sure to put a case of 2008 Produttori del Barbaresco Riservas (the recent release) into my cellar.

BWR: As a private chef, what's a good management technique for keeping the hosts out of your way while you commandeer a small and unfamiliar kitchen?

Eric: It’s all about being straightforward from the start. Whenever I’ve opened up a new client, there’s a process that I insist on before doing a job. For one thing, I’ll usually have a brief interview with them to clarify a few points. One being, that they are hiring a private chef with servers, not a caterer. Two, that my goal is for them to feel as if they are hosting a dinner at their favorite restaurant, not their home. Next, we talk about the menu, and once I get a feel for them, I’ll begin to inquire about their kitchen, the space and the resources they have. Some customers have the space and everything you can dream of in that space, while others have amazingly small spaces to work in and require me to bring a good amount of equipment. An actual tour of their kitchen is extremely important, as I would never take a job without knowing what I’m walking into, and it’s explained to them that their space will be left exactly the way we find it. Once this process is completed, both myself and the customer have a very good idea of what we can expect from each other. It’s important to note that this business is about building repeat clientele. It’s very rare these days that I take on a new customer, and when I do, they usually know what they’re getting by word of mouth alone.

BWR: I love cooking but there are a couple of things I never want to prepare again (orgeat syrup from scratch and fried bull testicles). What do you just hate prepping or cooking?

Eric: Honestly, it has nothing to do with any difficult preparations or odd ingredients, although I’m sure many sushi chefs could send me home crying. For me, it’s Asian cuisine (particularly Chinese). It’s such a flip from my comfort zone. In my world, food is prepared with great care; it’s given time and each ingredient gets its own attention, resulting in a sum of perfectly prepared ingredients resulting in a chorus of flavors in perfect pitch. However, Chinese food is all about the mise en place and a really hot wok. After spending my time thinking about the perfect sear or measuring the cooking time for garlic to release its natural oils, imagine how jarring it is to throw everything in sequence to a supper hot pan and build the sauce as fast as possible—or watch your ingredients burn. It’s simply not my style of cooking.

BWR: I see a lot of Italian influence on your blog in terms of wine and dishes. How does your family's original region influence your cooking (the old butter vs. olive oil debate, for instance), and to what degree is it driven by the NY-area Italian-American cuisine with its own unique and delicious traditions?

Eric: I had a little of both growing up, with my mother's side of the family being Polish and my father's side, Italian. However, each of these influences manifested themselves at different times in my life. For instance, as a child, the cuisine that impacted me most was all Italian, and it all came from my grandmother while living in New York. This was more of an Italian-American style of food; think of the Sopranos Sunday dinner. I learned these preparations early in life. In fact, one of the moments that impacted me most was my grandmother teaching how to make her meatballs by the look and feel of the mixture, not a recipe. I learned to know when the right blend of breadcrumbs, cheese, parsley and egg was achieved by how the mixture felt between my fingers. Then there were my Sicilian neighbors, who also had a large impact on me. Their food was all about traditional Sicilian cuisine; everything was fresh, often grown by them or bought the same day at a local market and prepared with an old-country gentle hand and slow yet determined speed. Things like making fresh pasta and leaving it on a windowsill to partially dry, deboning fresh sardines for a pasta con le sarde and sauces that were built in ten minutes, instead of five hours—all of this inspired me. I was the kid that you would find in other families’ kitchens around the neighborhood. I was like a sponge.

As I grew up, my Italian roots always stayed as my foundation, but a move to Pennsylvania brought me closer to my mother's family and with that an introduction to Polish, German and a more Austro-Hungarian style of foods. So olive oil was replaced by butter, pasta with dumplings, and fish seemed to all but disappear. This was a whole new world to me, and it was at this time that I started to make the connection between the food I was learning about and northern Italian cuisine. I believe that is why my specialties remain centered in northern Italy, while spanning out from there to cover the rest of European cuisine. It's my favorite food to eat and I've been preparing it for most of my life.

BWR: What kind of cellar do you use for your wine collection? I imagine space is a factor in NYC--here I know people who can convert an entire bedroom to a climate-controlled cellar, and my friends in Nashville have a great converted basement.

Eric: This is a huge issue in New York City; for one thing, you can't build a passive cellar unless you live upstate or far out on the Island with a subterranean cellar. The space simply doesn't exist. However, I've managed to find a happy medium. About 90% of my collection is kept in professional storage, using a company named Vintage Wine Warehouse. Other than that, I have a 50-bottle Eurocave in my kitchen and a well-insulated, passive cellar that I built out of a large closet in my basement. However, it can only be used between the months of October through May and houses about 300 bottles. So winter is a good time for me, having up to 350 bottles accessible whenever I need them, but spring through summer is incredibly rough. Keep in mind that part of my inventory is used for wine pairings and dinners, so it's not all there for my own discretion, and these bottles do take priority over my personal stock. I spend a lot of time pulling wines from storage; it's just a necessary evil in order to keep them safe.

BWR: Speaking of collecting, what's the white whale on your list? The one bottle that you've been chasing forever?

Eric: That's a bit of a sad story, because the chase for my white whale has been ongoing for over seven years now, and the saddest part these days is that the possibility of receiving a counterfeit bottle is so high, and the wine is insanely expensive. The wine is the 1978 Giacomo Conterno Monfortino. It's an extremely rare and expensive bottle of wine. There was a time, only four years ago, when this bottle could still be found for around $1000. I was so close to buying it, having saved for months, but I hesitated. Suddenly the wine jumped at auction and $1000 turned to $2000. What's worse, that's when I started hearing rumors about counterfeit bottles. So these days, I try to keep it out of my mind. If an opportunity presents itself to taste this wine, I'll jump, but I'm done chasing my white whale for the time being.

Many thanks to Eric for participating in this interview, and be sure to follow him at The V.I.P. Table and @EricGuido.

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