Most of the time, chefs select the menu first and pair appropriate wines later. But not always.
In June of last year, executive chef Phil Evans, of Colorado's St. Regis Resort, Aspen, was asked to cook for a dinner sponsored by two vineyards visiting Aspen for Food & Wine magazine's gastronomic festival, which overtakes that town every year. He was asked to create a menu to complement the wines—not the other way around. And it had to be done quickly. "All the big-time chefs backed out at the last minute," he says. "I was really the last resort."
Three weeks before the scheduled dinner, the wine arrived from the vineyards. "The assistant food and beverage director and I sat at the bar, which was closed, opened all 20 bottles of wine, and tasted all of them," recalls chef Evans. "First, we narrowed it down to the 14 we liked best, and from there we reduced the number to what we could do for food." Nice work if you can get it? You bet. "It was a three-hour process of us just sitting there with these wines, coming up with flavors they invoked," Evans says. "That's what we live for. I wish every day was like that."
In designing the menu, Evans' primary concern was the large head count. "It's a challenge to prepare and execute food for 200 to 300 people simultaneously," he says, noting that a party of that size requires 12 chefs working in the kitchen nonstop for the entire evening. But beyond that, he says, he let the flavors and bouquets of each wine dictate the foods that would make the pairing. "Some of the wines had really great, grassy characteristics that reminded us of the outdoors, so we came up with leeks and truffles to play on that theme," he says. "The wine we paired the scallops with had a nice buttery flavor as well as a lemon characteristic, which really complemented that dish."
In all, Evans served 12 varieties of wine—two with each course, which he says is a rarity for normal dinners. "I'd very rarely offer two wines per course if choosing the food first because there are not a lot of vineyards that do two different varieties of the same wine," he says. "And it's really tough to take two different winemakers and couple their wines because they always contrast."
Chef Evans calculates the cost of a food and wine dinner by the head, not by the bottle or by the entree. This allows him a certain degree of freedom: "If we have to cut back portion size and throw another small course in there to accommodate a really high-end wine we want, we can, or if there's a food I want to go with, we'll play around with the wines." Although the vineyards' dinner cost $180 per head, Evans estimates the lowest cost per head for a wine-pairing dinner would hover around $120.