In the first of a third (and very popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario. A few years back I was flicking through the pages of a locally published periodical and noticed that when it came to Sommeliers it was the same names that seemed to pop up over and over again. I was also becoming gradually cognisant of the fact that we more established wine folks were well and truly “losing our edge” to these young blood Sommeliers.
Being well aware of the depth of new talent that was out there I finally decided to get together with a couple of fellow Toronto Sommelier “Old Guard” (Anton Potvin and Peter Boyd) to assemble a line of questioning that would give us an entertaining insight into the minds of these rising stars.
Last year we put Pizza Libretto/Enoteca Sociale Sommelier Lesa LaPointe through the wringer in one of our most popular articles thus far. We followed this with an interview with the Owner/Wine Geek of Parkdale’s Café Taste, Mr. Jeremy Day, then with Zinta Steprans, who at that point was Sommelier at Toronto restaurants L’Unita and Malena but is now at Soho House, Carolyn Balogh of Abcon International Wines, Christopher Sealy of Midfield fame, then a debacle of an interview (my fault) with the mercurial Ms. Sheila Flaherty, ex of Mercatto and Pearl-Morisette, Café Boulud‘s Jordan Alessi, and then from Montreal, Lawrence‘s Sommelier Etheliya Hananova.
For this issue we pinned down Momofuku‘s Service Director Steve Sousa, who gave us an insight into what makes him tick…
Good Food Revolution: So Steve, what are you up to?
Steve Sousa: Working at Momofuku. As a part of the opening team, I’ve been with the company for just over a year.
GFR: Describe what you do at Momofuku?
SS: I’m the Service Director; I work closely with the chefs, FOH managers and Beverage team.
GFR: And how would you explain the wine program there?
SS: We have three distinct restaurants and a cocktail bar. Our wine and beverage program is quite unique. We focus on products that work well with our dishes; we don’t have pages of labels on our list which helps keep things fresh and evolving. Generally our lists lean towards the old world, with Canada and the US also represented.
GFR: And how much of a role does Mr. Chang play in that?
SS: Dave is in town this week actually, he visits often and is active in all restaurants. Like everything we do, the beverage program is a collaborative effort, we encourage input and ideas from everyone.
GFR: And how many agents do you deal with?
SS: Jonathan Gonsenhauser, our beverage director, and Sheila Flaherty, the Sommelier at Daishō, curate the list. I deal with the operations side. I do sneak in on Jonathan’s tastings and offer some feedback.
GFR: What makes a good agent in your mind?
SS: Someone with good wines for sure, agents who are passionate about the wines they offer and someone I can have a conversation with that doesn’t always involve wine and the business…Someone who’s not a pusher.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
SS: As early as I can remember. My father always made wine at home with my uncles and neighbours. Everyone would rotate a basket press and ferment in their basement… wines were terrible but that’s all they drank, they would never drink a commercial wine. My sister and I would drink the free run; that was good!
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
SS: I think in the right environment and with the right people around, as early as they can appreciate it. My sister and I added wine to our soup to cool it down when we were kids. I think we turned out alright.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?
SS: I’ve worked in restaurants since the age of 15; I became interested in wine in my early 20’s. Once I finished University I began tasting and reading a lot more which lead to me take the Sommelier program through CAPS.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
JD: Early on, my father for sure. There was always a bottle of wine on the dinner table. When I began working in restaurants people like Dan Volway, John Szabo, and Zoltan Szabo were great teachers and good drinking buddies.
GFR: Describe your average clientele?
JD: We have a wide range of diners given the variety of food and beverage we serve. Everything from families celebrating birthdays to business clientele from the downtown area, industry folk, and everything in between. It’s what’s make working here so enjoyable.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
SS: Less than I would like to: I’ve been to Napa, Sonoma, Setubal in Portugal, Jerez in Spain, throughout Austria, Hungary, and Slovenia.
GFR: Have you ever thought about making your own wine?
SS: Yes I have, but I had second thoughts after the winemaking portion of the sommelier program…took a bit of the romance out of it.
The idea of living on a winery and making my own wine is sounds like a dream job. I realize that it’s extremely hard work and not as glamorous as some would lead you to believe.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
SS: Either near mountains or close to the ocean… I’d settle for something in the County near the beach as a close second.
GFR: Are Winemaker’s dinners more trouble than they are worth?
SS: No not at all. We love hosting and showcasing our favourite winemakers. We actually have two events this month, one with Norm Hardie and one with Charles Baker.
GFR: At Momofuku do you have to work as a Manager as well as a Sommelier?
SS: I do spend a lot of time on the floor where I get to work with wine. Sheila is great at what she does, I fill in the gaps.
GFR: Do you prefer managing bottles or people?
SS: I prefer to drink bottles not manage them. My preference is to manage operations. Inevitably wine and beverage programming is a big part of running a restaurant, but I like to be involved in all aspects of the business. Having a good understanding of wine and its relationship to food really helps me do my job better. I think the team we have now and the people I get to work with throughout the company are great.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
SS: I won’t say where, but for a short stint I worked as a waiter, the uniform was a bow tie and cummerbund…that didn’t last long.
Getting 4 stars from Jmaes Chatto when I was managing and working as a Sommelier at Rain was awesome. I really love what I’m doing now at Momofuku, it’s a great organization and I get to work with a talented crew.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a role model for Sommeliers??
SS: People who still have time to teach and work in the industry, the three masters come to mind, guys like Peter Boyd who have been in the game a lot longer that I have and are still the life of the party.
GFR: I’ll vouch for that!
Tell us about your WORST customer ever?
SS: People who no show are the worst!
GFR: Sommeliers famously have Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
SS: Lately: a bike ride or tennis, going to my sisters for a backyard BBQ in the burbs, then back into the city to meet up with friends for a night cap.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine in Toronto… perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of your lovely city?
SS: It’s usually after work: 416 Snack Bar, Bar Isabel, Odd Seoul. My hood has less variety than the west end; I like Weezie’s or the St Lawrence Market for lunch. I still need to check out Edulis, not in my hood necessarily but I’ve heard so many great things.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
SS: I cooked a whole sea bream the other day on the barbecue that was pretty damn good.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters?
SS: Yes, thankfully I have a very sensitive smoke alarm.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
SS: We make a lot of wine that we should be proud of. It’s a treat to head to Niagara or out to the County when I can.It is also nice to have a personal connection to the people that make the wines we serve.
GFR: How do you feel about the possibility of LCBO privatisation and how would that affect Momofuku?… and you personally?
BB: I think anything that would increase variety and decrease the limits we have as buyers is welcome. Not sure if that would be the case with a privatized system but one would think so. If we could get what we wanted with less hassle, that would be amazing for the entire industry.
GFR: What do you feel are the biggest challenges of running a downtown restaurant in Toronto?
SS: The weather seems to be playing tricks on us lately. People tend to stay home when there is even a minor threat of a storm.
Finding good talent is a challenge in any industry I’m sure.
GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a wine city?
BB: Toronto is budding in many ways. The restaurant and wine industry is full of passionate, talented people. I sense more camaraderie than ever, which is amazing to see.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
SS: My dream job: professional tennis player
GFR: What does your Mother wish you were doing?… I know that mine probably wishes I had ended up going to Aberdeen university to read medicine…
SS: She wishes I was married and had kids
GFR: I know that you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
SS: I think they feel it’s fun and I get to hang out and talk to people all day, eat and drink. Not sure if they know about all the pressure and stress of operating a restaurant.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting?
SS: I don’t do enough of it but it’s always fun to get together with a group and deconstruct a wine.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
SS: I think it changes from time to time, right now I like wines from the Loire.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
SS: I guess the term ‘natural wine’ is getting thrown around a lot lately, and is being misused in some cases.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now? A dish on your current menu?
SS: We have a Lamb dish in Shōtō with yogurt, allium and kohlrabi we pair it with a 2006 pinot gris “Herreneg’ from Barmes Buecher.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but with… sandwiches
1: Egg. Mayo, and Cress
SS: White Burgundy a Meursault would be nice. I rarely get to drink Burgundy, much less Meursault; they are such elegant wines, I can imagine the soft creamy texture matching well with the egg and mayo.
SS: Austrian Riesling, something from Knoll or Prager. Who doesn’t like a good Riesling? Austrian Rieslings tend to be abit richer and full bodied. These wines could stand up to the bacon and cut through the fat. They also have the acid and slight RS to match the avocado on tomato.
3. A Caplansky’s Special
SS: Norman Hardies Cuvee “L” Pinot Noir. Norm makes some of my favourite wines from Ontario. His Pinots are bright and lively. The cuvee L pinot has added spice and complexity to match the smokiness of the meat… I’m getting hungry!
GFR: Now… which wines would you pair with these pieces of music? Think of it as a musical Rorschach test.
SS: Something to ponder while drinking…Clos De La Coulee De Serrant Savennieres
SS: Mature Barolo
SS: WOW…bubbles, a lot of bubbles
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
SS: Yes, often! With so many new local brewers the variety is amazing… Negronis are my go-to cocktail
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as Sommelier? For me it was doing inventory…
SS: I would have to agree, not fun counting.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
SS: Any double hinged freebee I get from an agent, currently it’s from Bernard at Le Sommelier, I tend to lose them quick. I have a Languiole, but they’re not as easy to use.
GFR: What are your thoughts on natural wines?… I feel that there is more crap out there in that segment than anywhere else.
SS: Some are interesting but I find most hard to enjoy with a meal.
GFR: Sommeliers often have quite the increased tolerance for wine/booze. What is your limit?
SS: I’m pretty soft lately, some days are better than others but when that little voice tells me to leave, I listen.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”?
SS: Maybe in Austria, I think there was a few of us involved so I can’t be certain that it was me.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
SS: Lately not often, 2-3 times
GFR: Do you spit or swallow?
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
SS: Usually a mid-range Portuguese wines, my family has given up on buying me clothes and stuff for my place thank goodness, they buy me wine…I’ll take a decent Douro or Vinho Verde any day.
GFR: Do you keep a cellar at home?
SS: My place is pretty small I have bottles scattered around, under my bed, closest and in my fridge. I’m not much of a collector though.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
SS: A flight of Austrian Rieslings from the Wachau there was a wine from 1978, I don’t recall the producer… but the grapes were sourced from Heiligentein. I do remember the flavours and brightness of the wine, everyone was smiling after that tasting.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy night at the restaurant?
SS: Chenin from the Loire
GFR: And now the cheesy question Steve… If you were a grape varietal what would you be?
SS: I’ve been called Syrah and Bastardo
GFR: Well thank you very much Steve Sousa!
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution.
Peter Boyd has been a part of Toronto’s wine scene for over two decades. He has taught the Diploma level for the International Sommeliers Guild, and has been the sommelier at Scaramouche Restaurant since 1993. He also writes about wine, food and pop culture and raises show molerats for fun and profit. He’s also one of the most solid guys in the business.Trust this man. Seriously… he knows his shit and it TAKING OVER THIS CITY!
A well-known and much respected figure on the Toronto food and wine scene for almost twenty years, Potvin has worked in many of the city’s very best establishments including Biffs, Canoe, and Eau. In 2004 Potvin opened his incarnation of the Niagara Street Café, a restaurant that has gone from strength to strength year after year, with universal critical acclaim. Anton spends much of his time traveling and tasting wine and has been ranked highly in consecutive years of the International Wine Challenge. Anton is currently the General Manager/Sommelier of the newly opened Chase restaurant..