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The Science of Food + Alcohol Pairings

Do certain taste combinations really elevate the dining experience?

By Ilene Ross · October 10th, 2012 · Cover Story
local127_chef_jf68Chef Geddes at Local 127 - Photo: Jesse Fox
Some years ago, fast food giant Burger King came up with the idea that pairing soft drinks with burgers would enhance their customers’ dining experience. Suggestion stickers were posted on the soda dispensers with examples of taste combinations, such as Coca Cola with a Whopper, Diet Coke with salads, Sprite with a chicken sandwich and Dr. Pepper with a BK Double Stacker, whatever that is.

The choices were based on the taste and smoothness of the soda and the characteristics of the burgers. While I find Burger King’s exercise somewhat amusing, as a chef, I do agree with their initial theory.

While liquids are basically around to keep us from dehydrating and alcohol was originally consumed in tribute to ancient gods, the correctly chosen beverage does add the right touch to a meal. After all, we’re always told that certain wines go better with certain foods (as in white wine with fish, red wine with beef), and beer commercials tend to show giant juicy burgers, barbecue ribs or wings dripping with hot sauce instead of fresh vegetables. But does it really make a difference with fast food? Well, of that I’m not so sure. Is there actual science behind why certain foods taste better with certain beverages? It turns out there is, and some of our local food professionals know exactly why.

I recently joined Laura Landoll, sommelier, adjunct professor at the Midwest Culinary Institute and sales manager for Grand Cru Wine Company, for a lesson in the science of food and wine pairings at Local 127.

We were royally welcomed by the restaurant’s chef, Chef Steven Geddes. Chef Geddes is a Level IV Master Sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers, an internationally recognized organization “established to encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants.” To understand just how significant it is to be a Master Sommelier, keep in mind that there are only 129 in the United States. The fact that Geddes is also a chef makes him uniquely gifted at the task of pairing food with wine, something he takes very seriously.

Within minutes our table was covered with crystal in all shapes and sizes filled with spectacular wines in various hues from pale gold to a deep ruby red. We began with a brut from New Mexico, because, according to Geddes, “the crispness of the wine is the perfect way to begin a meal, and everyone should always have some form of bubbly in the fridge at all times.” Then a dozen or so plates of Chef Geddes’ delectable pickles, cheeses, pork products and smoked fishes appeared.

Chef sat with us briefly and described the wines, while Landoll led me gently by the hand through a tasting, just as she would one of her students at MCI.

As a chef, I’ve always held the theory that you should drink what you like, and that typically wines and food from the same region go well together, although I never really gave much thought as to why this was the case. Chef Geddes explained that this is due to few things: tradition, region (the food and grape are grown in the same soil) and body chemistry, which is why to a certain degree there is always a bit of subjectivity in wine tasting.

A huge fan of German riesling, Geddes blew my mind when he had me taste cheeses with both red wine, which I would typically drink with cheese, and a riesling, which I was not familiar with, but now know is the right pairing. It turns out that all that puckering I’ve been doing from the tannins in the red wines is not desirable with my cheese. 

Landoll finds that people gravitate toward what they know, so she spends most of her time educating people on how to step out of their wine “comfort zone” and taste things they’ve never had before. “I try to tell my students that we can’t tell people what’s good unless they themselves have had it. Also, [when working with a restaurant sommelier] people should be comfortable saying, ‘I have no idea what that is,’ and be open to new pairings.” Nobody knows this better than Landoll. She works with sommeliers in some of Cincinnati’s finest restaurants and is adept at helping them craft wine lists that work perfectly with their kitchen’s food.

Since they don’t take as long to make as wine, craft beer is a beverage that in recent years has exploded on the food pairing scene. According to Bryant Phillips, general director — as well as a sommelier himself — of Django Western Taco, a traditional Tex-Mex joint in Northside, beer is “easy to pair with food, due to the fact that it’s palate cleansing as well as refreshing, sort of like champagne.”

“Beer is super good for food pairing, and I like to try new pairings all the time,” says Phillips. “You really can’t do it wrong with some of these new craft beers since you don’t have to deal with the tannin issue that you have in wine. It’s a really fun crap shoot.”

Eric Faber, Django’s manager, sommelier and wine director welcomes the chance to help people to try new things without being too pushy. “When people order things that don’t go together, we’ll try to educate them. But some people want to drink what they want to drink. Our job is to make people happy.”

Phillips adds, “The clientele at La Poste [Phillips’ other, more upscale restaurant in Clifton with partners Kelly Lough, Chef Dave Taylor and Jens Rosenkrantz] really wants to be educated. Here at Django, it’s a taco bar, and we’re just having fun.”

Since both Phillips and Faber are sommeliers, I asked them if wine makers have food in mind when they produce their wine. “It depends on the winemaker,” says Phillips. “Some of them do, but a lot of them just consider themselves farmers. There are three different kinds of winemakers. Those who make wine for money, those who make wine for drinking at the table and those who make wine for the craft of wine.”

There are approximately 9,000 taste buds on a human tongue, and according to Scientific American, “Flavor is a complex mixture of sensory input composed of taste (gustation), smell (olfaction) and the tactile sensation of food as it is being munched, a characteristic that food scientists often term ‘mouthfeel.’ ” Given the unfathomable possible combinations of food and drink, and the fact that each person processes information in a completely different way, I’m of the belief that although there are generally accepted guidelines as to what goes with what, taste is and will remain totally subjective, and, as Phillips says, “The bottom line is, eat what you like and drink what you like.”

CONTACT ILENE ROSS: letters@citybeat.com



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