Any time you take a journey of discovery, you pick up a few pointers worth sharing. Here are some of mine, in no particular order.
BAND-AIDS ARE AS IMPORTANT IN THE KITCHEN AS KNIVES
Yes, you’ll want high-quality knives, and you’ll want to keep them sharp, just know that you’re going to eventually cut yourself (although the cut will be clean, since your knives are sharp), and that there’s going to be blood. Keep handy gauze, bandages, and anti-bacterial ointment. Remember to not panic, and that people will think you’re a pro when they see you wearing one of those little finger condoms.
AVOID THE ARROGANCE OF COMPETENCE
I know how to handle a kitchen knife. I know my way around a wine list. And every time I think I’m all that, failing to pay attention to the basics of the situation, I invariably cut a huge gash in my thumb or make a suboptimal choice for the table. The times I do best are the times that I remind myself how little I know about things and give sharp blades and
complicated lists their due respect.
DRINK THE HIGHEST QUALITY BOOZE YOU CAN AFFORD
It doesn’t have to be First Growth Bordeaux and the latest P. Diddy vodka, but quality alcohol means less chance of a low-quality next day. The worst hangovers I’ve ever had
have been from the well. As we’ve talked about before, there are plenty of great wines under $15, so there’s really no need to drink stems-and-seeds plonk that leaves you with the next-day pounder. If it comes in a plastic bottle and it’s not mixer (like Crème de Cassis or Apple Pucker), avoid it.
DON’T ALWAYS DRINK THE HIGHEST QUALITY BOOZE YOU CAN AFFORD
You’ve invited over a few friends, cooked and enjoyed a great meal, and you’ve had a great bottle of wine or two—you pulled out something special that paired extremely well with the food and was a nice treat for both you and your guests. Everyone is still in the mood for another glass. Your instinct is to try to outdo yourself, find that gem in the cellar that you’ve been saving for that special occasion.
This isn’t it. Your taste buds are singing with the delights they’ve just experienced and might not actually be able to take much more. There is indeed such a thing as palate fatigue. Open something enjoyable that’s not going to get lost in everything else. Gustavo Thrace Wines has created a solution: it’s called Third Bottle Red. It’s a tasty, inexpensive offering named for its exact purpose—being the one you open when you’ve had a few
BE NICE TO YOUR WAITER
It amazes me to see the way people sometimes treat the person serving them food. Yes, it’s
reasonable to demand the best experience a restaurant can bring you, but being an ass to a person who can easily spit in your food doesn’t seem like it has positive EV. You know that guy who has had enough success in life and earned enough money to think that he can now
treat everyone in the service industry like crap? You don’t want to be that guy. Treating people with respect is a great way to get through life, and a great way to get the best out of a restaurant.
SIT AT THE BAR
Good restaurants have good bars. Unless it’s really important to have the crisp white tablecloths and more forks than you know what to do with, you’ll get the exact same food and a reasonably good chance of better service sitting at the bar. Good bartenders are good conversationalists, and since they don’t have to cover the same amount of territory a waiter does, they’re available to provide that conversation. When you establish a good relationship with the bartender at a place you frequent, there are many benefits. The “sit at the bar” tech is also likely to get you a seat right away at a busy restaurant, where you might otherwise be waiting for a table.
For a long time, I was a holdout on the ‘better stemware makes you enjoy the wine more’ argument. I still don’t think that the experience is any more than just slightly better when you have good glasses, and I’m not advocating spending $100 each on world-class crystal stems (unless you can afford it), but I think that really thick-rimmed glasses, the kind that restaurants use because they’re less breakable, actually detract from the experience. I don’t think it’s too snooty to carry along your own stems. Reidel makes a line of glasses sold at Target which are perfectly acceptable.
Whereas thin and light is good for a wine glass, I think heavy is good for hard liquor. You still don’t want too thick of a rim, but there’s something about the feel of a well-weighted, bottom-heavy old-fashioned glass for your mixed drink.
DECANT THE WINE
I’ve come to believe that nearly every red wine benefits from some air. In some cases, it needs just a little, in some cases it needs a few hours, but in almost every case, pouring it out of the bottle improves it. Whether it’s to blow off the dustiness of the tannins or to make sure you don’t end up with sediment in your glass, decanting is always a good choice. That said, I’m not a fan of the Vinturi and other aerators, especially at restaurants. When I’m drinking a wine, I don’t want to taste the last thirty bottles that have been poured through that thing. At home, I have a couple of strainers for bottles with high sediment, and I’m religious about cleaning them.
Speaking of sediment, I’m happy when I see it in a bottle (although quite a bit less so when I see it in my glass). One of the downsides of modern winemaking is that wines have been over-fined and over-filtered, sacrificing quality for consistency and marketability. Sediment in a bottle tells me that I’m getting the wine in a much truer form, that it’s going to be richer and have more expressive flavors. The sediment doesn’t bring the flavors so much as clue me in that those flavors haven’t been filtered away.
These are a few of the many lessons I’ve learned during my discovery of food and wine. I’d love to hear some of yours as well.