Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare didn’t have a liquor license when it opened in 2009. With the early BYOB status and Chef Cesar Ramirez’s back-to-basics, bright, elegant food, the restaurant quickly became a haven for collectors, wine eccentrics, and anyone looking to eat at one of Brooklyn’s most exciting restaurants.
Michele Smith started working at Brooklyn Fare in the summer of 2010. She was hired with the intention of building a wine list that would pair with Ramirez’s food once the restaurant got its license. That happened in January this year. You can’t bring your own booze to 200 Schermerhorn Street anymore, but you can pick from Smith’s wonderfully curated list.
Digest NY recently talked with Smith about putting the list together, her philosophies about wine, and what it’s like to work with the same six people six days a week.
How did you get started in the wine industry?
About 8 years ago I was working at a small restaurant on the Upper East Side. It’s not there anymore, but it was called Ian. It was very small and they didn’t have a big wine budget. There was only one company that would sell to it and that was Wine Symphony, which is owned by Andrew Bell, a co-founder of the American Sommelier Association. So, really we were just selling a lot of his wines. He would come in and just educate us for a couple hours a week for a long time. He would come in and do tastings and that was really my first exposure to wine at another level.
How did you end up at Brooklyn Fare?
After Ian I went to Per Se so I could learn more about wine. They have a great wine program. I applied and then I worked a couple years on the service staff and then in the wine department there.
I left Per Se after 4 years and then I was sort of in between. I was working at my friends wine store in my neighborhood. It’s a good wine store, small production stuff. Then the opportunity just came up. Cesar was about to expand the restaurant from the original table. I don’t know if you ever saw it but the original table was 12 seats.
It was smaller than it is now. Now there’s a center where Brynn serves from but before there wasn’t. It was just a small table and Cesar, essentially, was the server as well. There was somebody that marked the tables, or put the silverware on the tables, but he was doing everything. At that time they were applying for a wine license so they needed somebody, one person to do service, to develop the system of service and then to put a wine program in place. That was me.
When it was BYO was there any sort of wine service, opening and pouring for the guests or anything?
No. I was in the center. All the wine service came from the other side and the guests would do it. It was really funny. You could see people’s different exposure levels to wine. Some people were really good. We put everything out. There were decanters, glassware; we put out different glassware for everything. It started with champagne flutes, white wine glasses, burgundy glasses, Bordeaux glasses etc. A lot of people got it but it was kind of funny to see. Some people were like, “What is this?” It really made it very interactive. Where else do you get to pour your own wine at a two or three star Michelin restaurant?
What was your approach to pairing wine to Ramirez’s food?
Really the whole idea and the whole focus with the list is pretty much our same philosophy. Our restaurant is a very small production. We’re only 7 people including the dishwasher and we work together 6 days a week as one team and that’s it. It’s a very grass roots kind of thing so I like to keep the wine list in classic wine regions that focus on small production, artisanal estates. I also like single vineyard wines if that’s possible. But, there’s a large focus on Champagne, Burgundy, and German Riesling because it consistently works well with our food.
It’s always focused on fish. There’s a huge Japanese influence. The whole idea behind the restaurant is just to keep raw ingredients. So you get the best possible ingredients and then leave it alone. It’s non manipulative. There’s no molecular gastronomy. It’s very simply cooking. Everything is done by taste. Cesar tastes everything. It’s the same idea with the wine. You find these small production estates that are working hands on, taking care of the vineyards, taking care of the grapes and then just leaving it alone. It’s not manipulated. It’s just very simple wine from the best possible source. That’s the whole idea behind it.
I would say 70% of the list is white wine because that’s what works well with the cuisine. It’s not heavy. Everything is citrus, soy, these light flavors. Not butter or cream. So the wines are the same: light and fresh.
Are there any wines that you would like to have on the list but can’t because they wouldn’t pair well with the food?
I would say Piedmont would be my region. Piedmont and Valtellina, northern Italian but with a focus on Piedmont. That would be where I want the list to go.
I just kept the scope of the list really short and focused. Like telling a story, something with a point of view. Just to say, “This is it.” There’s fantastic wine made in California, for example. I’m going there to taste next week to taste for when we do the Manhattan list. I’ll put all those great wines, more of a plethora of wines on that list. But this one here is like us. It comes with a point of view. It’s very short and focused. This is what we have and that’s it. Bordeaux is obviously missing. I love old Bordeaux. My first experience with wine was Bordeaux so I love these wines. But, for here, if I have a choice to buy Burgundy at the same price, or Bordeaux, it’s going to be Burgundy because it’s going to go with the food more.
What was your main source of inspiration for building the wine list?
It was the food. The food and collaboration between Cesar and myself. He has a better understanding of wine now. He loves it and his palate is insane. Even if he doesn’t know what it is he knows by taste. I always reference his palate because it’s really good.
Also, that period we didn’t have a wine list this was really important because we would have people come in and we had a lot of collectors. They could eat at a three-star Michelin restaurant and bring all these bottles of wine that you don’t drink everyday but you collect and drink with friends. So within that time period we were able to try incredible wines and I’ll always be grateful to those collectors for sharing. They were really useful as a point of reference. I’ve been lucky to have access to great wines in my life but not on that consistent basis, just always coming in and being able to taste things that were pretty incredible. So really it was the collectors that would come in too, that was really influential.
Are there any pairing options at Brooklyn Fare?
Not officially no. I’m happy to build a pairing for somebody if they want it but officially there’s no wine pairing.
Are there any wine lists out there that inspired the one at Brooklyn Fare?
I really like Noma's wine list because they put a large focus on terroir. That wine list has a great point of view. They say, we’re going to focus on organic wines and we’re going to focus on wines that go with our food. There’s a focus on terroir, it’s site specific. Rather than use the varietal as the point of view, the grape, they’ll say this is where the wine is from, from this place in the world and that’s why it’s important. That’s kind of what I try to do as well.
Brooklyn Fare has changed a lot in the three years it has been open now. Is there a philosophy the restaurant adheres to year after year that makes it so successful?
Just to serve the best product. It’s not for everybody but the whole idea was not to compromise anything. Just always serve the best product possible. When I started we didn’t have any ratings. There was no Times review; there was no Michelin anything. There wasn’t even the idea of Michelin. It wasn’t part of our psyche. It’s changed a lot since the beginning but that’s always been our philosophy. That’s it. No PR, no nothing. It’s just word of mouth so that there’s a sort of authenticity to it.
Where do you go for food and drink when you’re not working?
We have only Sunday’s off here. So Sunday I try to eat from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed. Some of my favorite places are Marea, I love Franny’s, I just had some great pasta at Lincoln that was fantastic, and I love Daniel, Le Bernardin. I like very casual places though too, and cooking at home. This Sunday I’m doing a big Riesling and schezuan dinner. I try to do that on Sundays, just get all my friends together with a bunch of wine and good food.