Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

November-December 2006
© 2006 by Bret S. Beall


If you enjoy wine, I have no doubt you will enjoy this fantastic interview with Drew and Susan Goss of West Town Tavern in Chicago, and formerly of Zinfandel, two of my all-time favorite restaurants in the USA. If you don't enjoy wine, please, please, PLEASE read on, as I believe this very enlightening discussion will provide exactly the framework you need to understand and appreciate this both worshipped and reviled beverage, particularly in the context of food.

I can honestly say that I have been drinking wine for more than 30 years (my parents weren't too concerned about the concept of "legal drinking age," but they were concerned about flavor and pleasure). That said, my first food and wine epiphany came when I was an undergraduate (1979 or 1980), when I was eating a simple pan-fried T-bone steak with a baked potato, and had poured a glass of my mother's homemade red wine (no one was really sure what type it was, as the labeling had been lost years before, but I'd be safest guessing it was elderberry). I had "enjoyed" wine before, but tasting the fruity and slightly dry liquid against the rare, garlicky meat along with some potato skin created a flavor explosion in my mouth. Since then, I've been seeking re-creations of that pairing epiphany.

I have sought wonderful food and wine experiences across North America and Europe. Sometimes I have found them, and sometimes I haven't. My experiences have run the gamut from "wretched" to "sublime." Without any hesitation, I can say that the most consistent source for "sublime" food and wine pairings has been the culinary work of wife-husband team of Susan and Drew Goss, both at their original Chicago restaurant, Zinfandel, and their current restaurant, West Town Tavern. As far as I'm concerned, they are the best in the USA at food and wine pairing (that experience is shared by MANY others, such as Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Winery and Larry Turley of Turley Winery). Given Drew and Susan's expertise, it seemed logical to invite them to share their knowledge here at GOD-DESS. I was delighted when they agreed to sit down with me.

Bret: Susan, Drew, I want to thank you not only for agreeing to be interviewed, but for the many, many hours of pleasure you both have brought me. To get started, could you tell me about how you ended up doing what you are currently doing?

Susan: Well, as a liberal arts major, I was essentially unemployable. My formal education was in physical anthropology and geology, and I did fieldwork in archaeology. My goal was to attend graduate school and earn a PhD in archaeology. After graduating, I decided to take the proverbial year off, and ended up working in a restaurant. I loved to cook, and found myself employed at the Indianapolis TGIFriday's, where I made a lot of quiche and onion rings. It was about this time that I decided that I wanted to spend my life with Drew, who had a job in Indy working as a bartender. We both had liberal arts degrees, and thought that would be good for the restaurant business, as they allowed us to be good with people.

Susan: With the help of Drew's parents, we enrolled in a six-month program at the New York Restaurant School, which emphasized business practices, and we got out with Certificates of Completion. In 1983, we went home to Indy and started our own place after being impressed with places like Gourmet-To-Go, SOHO Charcuterie, and Silver Palate. We rented a 750 square foot space in a mall (to lend credibility!), and called our new venture "Something Different Carryout Cuisine." Oh, we struggled, working from 6am to 9pm, six and seven days a week. We actually developed a bit of a cult following of people who loved our food, so we were inspired to stay in the biz, producing the standard fare of main dish salads and sandwiches, and we even invited people to bring in their own dishes which we would fill with the food of their choice … if someone wanted to serve coq au vin to their guests, and present it as their own, they could bring in a serving bowl, we'd fill it with coq au vin, and off they'd happily go. We created catered menus that offered food that would pass for homemade. We introduced Indy to to a whole new level of dining.

Drew: Many of those people from Indy still come here to our Chicago venues.

Susan: We stayed in business for five years, the length of our lease. When it was up, we moved into an old pizza restaurant and in 1989 opened "Something Different," a white-tablecloth, sixty-seat restaurant with a New American menu that changed weekly. We kept at this for one year. I worked the sauté station, Drew worked the grill, we worked through weekends, sickness, family tragedy, and became successful enough to buy a house and live well. There were very few independent restaurants in Indy, with only one competitor in New American cuisine, and we really only benefited by attracting his most competent wait staff.

Susan: Eventually, the space next door to Something Different became available. We had over-ordered bread and butter plates by the thousands for Something Different, and having been inspired by Jennifer Shaw's cooking at Café BaBaReeba in Chicago, we decided to open a bar and serve tapas. Since Chicago is only three hours away from Indianapolis, and since Something Different was closed on Sundays and Mondays, we'd drive up here frequently to study menus. One time, we were having a great lunch at Topolobampo, and stayed too long. We called our Something Different staff and lied about being delayed by snow, and then called a locksmith so that they could get intot he restaurant. By the time we finally got to the restaurant, the staff were using scraps of paper to take orders and had pooled their cash to make change, since everything had been locked up within the restaurant. We did have a great staff!

Susan: In 1991 we opened "Snax - Not a Sports Bar."

Drew: We had to keep emphasizing this was a "tapas" bar, not a "top-less" bar. We served affordable plates from $2.95 to about $8 each. One guy said, "I'd have to order a bunch of these to get a full meal." Yeah. That's the concept.

Susan: One woman came in and wanted to order a baked potato. We didn't serve baked potatoes. She said, "I've never heard of a place without baked potatoes." We eventually got tired of repeating the menu to people over the phone, and that's when Drew came up with his first great marketing idea. We got a separate phone line that we called the "menu line," and Drew would read the menu and record it so that callers could automatically access it. It was perfect for Indy; it was very passive.

Susan: Overall, it was very hard work, but it was an amazing experience. Our business has no real entry point, so we were fortunate, as most people go in without enough money or knowledge.

Susan: We have always been interested in giving back to the community, and we got involved in Share Our Strength early on. On one of our trips, we met Rick and Deann Bayless (of Chicago's Frontera Grill and Topolobampo), who were also involved with Share Our Strength.

Drew: One evening, just about the start of service, we got a call from Rick. He explained that they wanted to start an American-concept restaurant in Chicago, and wanted us to be their partners. We didn't really know them, they weren't friends at the time, so when they said, "Come to Chicago," we said "No," they said, "Yes," we said "No," and after several back and forths, we sold our home and moved to Chicago.

Bret: And that's when you opened Zinfandel, an amazing New American restaurant named after my favorite wine varietal, and where I first experienced your world-class talents for pairing food and wine, which I want to discuss. But first I want to discuss Susan's philosophy of food flavor. Your culinary creations are always extraordinarily flavorful, and yet the flavors are always balanced and never overwhelming. For example, I never really liked Brussels sprouts at all until I had them roasted at West Town Tavern. What can you share about your general approach to cooking?

Susan: I can echo what some of the California wine makers have said: "Have great grapes and leave them alone." I do that with food. I get great ingredients that have great flavor, but then do just enough to bring those flavors out. Like with those Brussels sprouts. Boiling won't do it. It won't bring out the sugars. You have to coax out the flavor. You have to "talk" to the ingredients.

Bret: Yes, quality ingredients are important. You often use organic ingredients, as well as local and sustainable products, and always artisanal goods. How did you come to the decision to use this class of ingredients?

Susan: First, things that are grown locally taste better; they haven't traveled hundreds or thousands of miles and used all sorts of petrochemicals to get them to their destination. Secondly, Drew and I think community is very important, starting at a local level. Thirdly, I love to develop relationships with people who grow the food, people who have the same passion that I do. Fourthly, here in Chicago, we are surrounded by farmland, so it's silly not to buy locally; I like supporting the local farmers.

Bret: Now that we've established the framework for the food, let's move onto wine. Could you relate how you and Drew came to be the wine connoisseurs that you are? When did this passion begin, and how did it grow?

Drew: It definitely came from my father, who was always interested in dining. My folks loved going out to dinner, and enjoying it with a great bottle of wine. We attended the University of Wisconsin, where the legal drinking age was 18, so we were able to experiment a lot because of that. In the earlier days, we also went to Sam's a lot [Bret's note: Sam's is a popular wine store in Chicago].

Susan: After college, when we returned to Indianapolis, we found a nice wine store owned by Louise Kahn. Louise had a wonderful palate, and loved to introduce people to wine. After restaurant school, we wanted big, robust, tannic reds, and Louise would tell us, "You'll learn that the French are the ladies." Louise was always encouraging us to try French Burgundies, and other French wines.

Drew: When we were on our own, in Appleton, WI, we worked our way through lots of Almaden and Carlo Rossi and other "affordable" wines. One time, when we were still in high school, for our first New Year's together, I stood outside a liquor store in Indy, waiting for someone who would buy for me. One guy finally agreed, and I told him I wanted Mumm Cordon Rouge, and that it should be about $38. He said, "You could buy a lot of beer for that," but he took my $50, bought the champagne, and pocketed the change. It was a great New Year's.

Bret: We have the food, and now we have the wine. Please share the process, the knowledge, the experiences that allow you to create the pairings that have brought so much joy to me (and many others) over the years.

Drew: We pick the wine first for a wine dinner. We usually start with twice as many types of wine as we need for a dinner, and Susan prepares twice as much food to go with the wines. We sample all of the wines with all of the dishes, and it's really pretty hard work. We are looking for a synergy, where the result is greater than merely a sum of the parts. I think that's what we're always looking for.

Susan: As agricultural products, food and wine are related. The entry point is the aroma each, and that should be compatible. Then there's the first flavor of each, that initial burst of flavor. That's followed by complexity in the middle of the tasting experience; through the process of mastication and sipping and slurping, additional flavors are released. Finally, there's the swallow, with the finish of the wine. The food and wine can have similarities, or they can be opposites. A spicy dish needs to be balanced with some sweetness; a spicy zin just wouldn't work with a spicy recipe, as the palate would be overwhelmed. If you have something delicate like oysters, then you do want something similar like a Sancerre that matches rather than contrasts.

Drew: Most winemaking areas have a long food and wine tradition, so there's already some food pairing ideas there.

Susan: Except perhaps California, and much of the New World. In the US, wine drinking is very new. Most Americans don't grow up drinking wine. In Europe, in Italy and Spain, kids drink watered down wine. In this country, being based on puritanical principles, wine was kind of taboo. Take the style of wine in California, like a Paso Robles Zinfandel: in southern California, you have a mixture of Spanish, Indian and Mexican cultures. Those cuisines would go well with a Zin from Paso Robles. The food and wine of America didn't grow up together. France has been producing wines since the 1300's [Bret note: and Italy since the time of the Romans, and Greece even longer]; there's a reason that boeuf bourguignon is made the way it is.

Bret: This is truly a wonderful, systematic approach to pairing food and wine. Of course, you have access to many wines, and lots of food, particularly when you are working on a wine dinner. What general advice can you offer for the home cook who wants to maximize his or her chances of a good, or even great, pairing of food and wine?

Susan: The one thing people need to do is ask questions. If it's a $5 wine, they're afraid of embarrassing themselves, of appearing unsophisticated. Go into a wine store, and explain what you like. Everyone has a unique palate, so don't be ashamed of what you like. If you like food and wine, go for it; they go so well together. To start, try lots of wines to understand what you like and don't like. Generally speaking, I think it's better to serve a wine similar to what you are cooking, and cooking with. Think about contrast in food and wine, and think about echoing flavors. Try new wines. Try a Riesling. Some combinations can really make a "wow" note.

Bret: Before moving onto the last part of the interview, would you care to share any additional insights into food and wine? Perhaps some advice on maintaining a "basic" cellar of wines? Maybe some recommendations on some multipurpose food-friendly wines that are also a great value? Some holiday suggestions?

Drew: I love picking out wine for holidays. It's so fun. It fun to get people exposed to wine at holidays. Get a magnum of rose at Christmas; no one will forget it. There are so many flavors at holidays that so many wines will work.

Susan: There's the dressing, the cranberry sauce, the roasty, toasty turkey. Turkey works with red or white. Go with a Riesling, a pinot noir, or a Zin. Turkey is one of the easiest dishes to pair wine with.

Drew: The holidays are an opportunity to splurge. Instead of buying one $10 bottle, buy two different ones and experiment. Also, with the holidays, you will have more opportunities to taste different wines, so try them, and try them with different foods. One time, we had a wine dinner with Richard Sanford, of Sanford Winery out of Santa Barbara. Susan had created a great stew of clams, shrimp, homemade spicy smoked sausage, and a lightly tomatoed broth; we paired it with one of his newer (and very tight) pinot noir vintages, and he came into the kitchen with his glass saying, "This is the best pairing with this wine ever."

Susan: Also try different preparation techniques with the food. Poaching, roasting and grilling will each require different wine treatments.

Drew: Have a great relationship with your retail store. Give the store guidelines, and they get to know your palate. Provide them with feedback so they can learn more. One time, I went to Sam's, wanting a cabernet franc to go with Susan's pig knuckles. The staff offered a variety of explanations about their cab francs, and led me to pick the one that went perfectly with Susan's dish. The best way to learn about wine is to dirnk wine. The best way to learn about food and wine is to eat good food with wine. One of the things we love to do is to experiment with friends in Chinatown and other ethnic neighborhoods; this is a great way to try affordable wines with affordable food. And try some of the wines from new regions. Garnacha from Spain is amazing. There are still some great values from Australia. And Brazil is producing some great values … the wines come from an area just south of the equator where the grapes ripen in 120 days rather than the usual 180 days, so they can have three production cycles annually. Because of that, their wines are non-vintage, but they are interesting.

Bret: My question about value wines relates to my goal to help people have better day-to-day experiences, and thus have better lives cumulatively. With each individual having a better life, the world will be a better place. Of course, via the philosophy espoused through GOD-DESS, there are other ways to make the world a better place. I know you are involved with Share Our Strength (http://www.strength.org/), and many other hunger relief charities. Please share some of your activities, and any advice you might have for others who wish to become involved.

Susan: I'm doing some really fun things. I've discovered how to blend my two favorite things, cooking and gardening. I work with a local church that has a community garden. The kids learn about growing fruits and vegetables, then we harvest what has grown, talking with the kids about the entire process, and cook what they've picked so they can see the entire process. I also work with Common Threads, http://www.ourcommonthreads.org, whose goal is to teach diversity and commonality through cooking, and that has been great. I'm also active with the Greater Chicago Food Depository (http://www.chicagosfoodbank.org), doing not only charity dinners, but also helping directly on the line packing baskets of donated goods for deserving families. It's really fun; we do this with friends, and then afterwards we all head to Chinatown for food and wine! Overall, Chicago has great neighborhood opportunities to give back to the community. When I'm ready to do some volunteer work, I just think about what I enjoy doing, and let that guide me. People just need to pick about what they like. Once they do that, they can check out Chicago Cares to see what volunteer opportunities are available, or check their churches or the Park District.

Bret: I've known you and Drew for almost 15 years. I've always known you were special people. I hope that by your leading by example, others will follow and become part of the legacy you have created. Any closing thoughts?

Susan: I think it is a very exciting time to be eating and drinking. The overall quality of food and wine has increased. Farmers are becoming more aware. People in general are becoming more aware and more adventurous. Wineries are popping up everywhere, and because of that increase in supply, wine is more affordable. If you have an open mind, the opportunities are endless.

Drew: With the Internet, now we have access to information on any wine or region. There's so much information out there, and so it's much easier to educate yourself about wine. Chat groups like Chowhound, LTHForum, eGullet and others all allow educational opportunities. It's an exciting time to enjoy food and wine together.

Bret: Thank you, and Drew, for your contributions. I can hardly wait until your next wine dinner!

I hope that the information above will both educate and inspire you. To toss in a bit of my own advice, I want to reinforce Drew's and Susan's comments by encouraging you to go out and try various wines with various foods. Do this with intention. Taste the wine by itself, and analyze its flavor profiles on the front, middle and back palates. Then try some of the food; chew, taste with intention, and swallow, then take a sip of wine (or take a little sip when you still have some of the food in your mouth, proper etiquette notwithstanding). Notice how the wine tastes different by itself and with food. I love the looks of "Aha" and "Oh my" when I coach friends and clients through this process.

Also, please abandon your anxiety in trying to find a "perfect pairing." When you find a perfect pairing, it's sensational. Otherwise, just settle for a "good enough pairing." I did this recently with a client luncheon (I was a guest), when all of a sudden the others said, "Let Bret pick the wine." OK, I knew they wanted red wine, I knew we were all having seafood, and I didn't want to select too expensive a wine, plus I wanted one that would be appropriate for both sipping and for pairing with the foods; I settled on a light, fruity Italian nebbiolo, and thankfully, it was a hit!

Or do what my favorite dining/traveling companion and I do: when we get a clunker pairing, we analyze why that particular wine doesn't work with that particular dish! That process forces us to identify flavor components of both the food and the wine, and we always emerge more educated as a result. It also helps develop a memory profile of various foods and wines, so that when I see suggested pairings such as I saw recently in a back issue of Food & Wine magazine (sauvignon blanc with scrambled eggs for breakfast, and zinfandel with peanut butter), I have the confidence to say, "No thank you."

Please consider visiting West Town Tavern the next time you are in Chicago, and sampling Susan and Drew's talent first-hand. Visit www.westtowntavern.com to see sample menus, sample recipes and other news and events. Be sure to call to make a reservation (but please don't call to ask about what to pair with your dinner at home; they are busy professionals running a top notch restaurant).

If you want to become a client, however, I hope you will call me for assistance with pairing. You can get my culinary and enological feedback at 773.508.9208 or email. I hope you all have a fantastic holiday season!