Is there a saying that you can take the chef out of the kitchen but not the kitchen out of the chef? If not, there ought to be. Because you can always tell, particularly when it comes to wine.
For example, take Mark Young, co-owner and de facto wine director at newly-opened Viale in Central Square, who discusses a vast range of wines and wine regions in that exact same relaxed-but-quick, orderly-but-impromptu way chefs have of ticking off ingredients in a dish, dictating prep lists, and putting in orders to a purveyor. (The impression always that the conversation is somehow taking place in pencil.) Which makes sense, given that Young is a CIA-trained chef who cooked everywhere from London to San Francisco before moving to Boston and making the switch to the front of the house—and so came to wine from the same angle as he did any other ingredient, from cilantro to truffles. Namely, what does it taste like? And more importantly, what will it taste even better with?
All of which comes through brilliantly on Young's first wine list at Viale, a compact and remarkably welcoming collection that manages to hit all the compulsory elements of a place destined for a core of serious regulars (Argentine Malbec, Napa Zin, Loire Sauv) and somehow still has room to offer an impressive array of genuine wine geek curios (Piquepoul, Mondeuse noire, Pignoletto Frizzante). All in clear yet relaxed conversation with co-owner and chef Greg Reeves' Mediterranean-style menu.
With Reeves in the background, presumably working on his own list of ingredients, Young sat at the Viale bar and discussed a wine list that reads very much like what a wine list really is—another page of the menu. The two childhood friends seated at either end of the bar a visual and gustatory reminder that when it comes to chefs (and former chefs), all wines lead back to the kitchen.
At what point did you shift over to the front of the house?
I did some wine training in culinary school, so I got exposed to some basics about wine there and had bartended my way through culinary school. Then shortly before I left San Francisco, I started dabbling in it a little bit, and I decided when I came here that if we [he and Reeves] were going to be serious about putting this project together, that the front of the house would be my main focus. I used to work with Jeremy Sewall [chef/owner of Lineage, Island Creek Oyster Bar, Row 34]. He was actually the first chef I worked for as a line cook, right out of culinary school—in a place called the Lark Creek Inn, in Larksburg, California—and he was definitely something of a chef-mentor for me. Which is funny, how things come back around, because he had already been working here and was the first person I contacted when I came to Boston, looking for work. I explained to him that I was trying to do front of the house, and he gave me a job waiting tables at Lineage.
Meaning you pretty much had to learn about wine.
Absolutely. At that point Lineage was still following a model that came through from Lark Creek Inn, which is all American wines. So it was a 100% American list. The list at Lineage has now evolved and they've expanded a little bit, but that's what they were doing at Lark Creek Inn and that's what we were doing at Lineage when we started. Out in California I obviously saw a lot of California and Oregon wines, so I was able to build on that exposure. I didn't really start getting exposed to Old World wines until I started at Green Street.
Where the list is almost entirely Old World?
Yeah, Dylan [Black, owner of Green Street Grill] has a really concentrated list, but it's definitely very Old World heavy. If he has New World wines, they're made in an Old World style. You know, Coturri Zinfandel—that was raisiny and barnyardy and not what people would think of Zinfandel, but is made it in a very old-school, traditional way.
Later on I got into some really funky and interesting stuff when I was managing Spoke Wine Bar, over in Davis Square. Felisha Foster, who is the owner and wine director there, she has got a really cool palate and is into some really off-the-beaten-path wines.
So when it came time to put the list together here—your own list—how did you see those influences playing out?
I realized I was definitely leaning toward the Old World, wine with high acidity.
I noticed when we were going to open here, I was trying to focus on both Old and New World wines. As I started picking wines out and I realized I was definitely leaning toward the Old World, wine with high acidity, those kinds of wines kept coming up. I still think I have a little something for everybody, but there was a big palate shift for me after working with Felisha.
You grew up with chef Greg Reeves, and you both share a culinary background. I think I know the answer to this, but how much of the wine list was a collaboration?
We tasted through everything together. I think chef came to just about every single tasting that we did. And a big focus is on food-friendly wines, and obviously the menu is going to be diverse so it's difficult to say you do all these wines exactly to fit the menu because there are amazing different flavor profiles on the menu. We've got everything from oysters to a hearty, earthy pork shank. But most of the reds we do here are on the light-to-medium side. We do have some fuller body stuff as well. But with a little bit of a lean towards a lighter body types that go with the Italian and the pasta fairly well. Basically anything in the northern third of Italy.
One of the challenges of starting out with a new list and a new staff is obviously staff education. What has been your approach in training staff on the list?
The biggest most encouraging thing about the staff so far is that they have been really enthusiastic, asking a lot of questions and really excited to learn.
My approach with the staff has been to keep things as simple as possible in the beginning. I list wines by their general region, not necessarily the remote AOC it might be from. We focus more on flavor profile and body and less on things like soil type. The biggest, most encouraging thing about the staff so far is that they have been really enthusiastic, asking a lot of questions and really excited to learn. They've been very responsive to this methodology, of focusing on what I believe to be the most important aspects of wine in a restaurant setting.
What is the overall impression you'd like guests to have when looking over the Viale wine list for the first time?
The list is set up to be fairly affordable, allowing guests to break out of their comfort zone and try something new or eclectic without having to break the bank. Our list is somewhat small, around 50 bottles, but hopefully has enough variety that everyone can find what they might be looking for.
The overall impression I'd like guests to have when they first see the list is variety and affordability. With many bottles in the $40 range, it will hopefully drive people to try new grapes from different regions and find something new that they wouldn't normally try. But ultimately it comes down to being able to offer something that makes them happy
Alright, so as a former back of the house guy, I have to ask about opening wine tableside. Any adventures?
[Laughs] I don't know about adventures, but my absolute favorite thing about opening wine is sabering bottles. Without question. I love it.
Understandably [chefs love knives].
You know, I once had an instructor in culinary school who could saber a bottle with a butter knife.