Wine, Food, Friends

After I left Frederick Wildman, I reached out to friends for guidance, insights and jobs. Some friends were friends of my dad’s, most were those I made along the way in my career. I called a friend of mine, who as am I, is a child of a parent who was in the industry (his dad is one of the most celebrated pioneers of our industry). He and I had a long talk. At the end of our conversation, he asked me if I thought of looking outside of the industry and I said in turn, “would you?” We both laughed and said an emphatic no.

I can think of no other industry where not only does our job center around wine and food, but so does our lives. In fact I can think of no other industry where it is so easy to make friends from all over the world. My mom used to remark, each time I went somewhere for vacation, that she was amazed that I usually said I had a friend there.

I am constantly reminded of how welcoming and friendly the wine and food world is. I just returned from an eye-opening trip to Brazil where I was hosted by Wines of Brazil to visit the wine scene. My invitation came via my good friend Waleska (a Brazilian living in Curacao and Venezuela). I met Waleska when we both worked with Trapiche in our respective countries. In fact I met many people through my working with Trapiche and am friends with many still today — folks from Venezuela, Spain, England, Ireland and of course Argentina. What a collection!

On this trip I was surrounded by other wine professionals from all around the world, and again we all bonded and became instant friends. At the end of the trip each of these new friends from Poland, Brazil, Russia, Ireland, England and Belgium invited me to come visit and I of course extended the same invitation to come to NY. We all bonded over our meals, enjoyed the wines and above all enjoyed meeting each other through the commonality of wine and food. I still laugh at the thoughts of the last evening when the wine flowed — of course we brought back bottles from the fair to share for later. As we are sharing and comparing and laughing, we were being served food that the Russians had brought with them. Yes, some how they packed a smoked chicken in their bags along with chocolate bars, and we feasted on them at our last evening together. Sharing culture, laughs, wine and friendship that’s how we spent our last night in Brazil.

My longest standing wine industry friendship is with Elena, whom I met when we were both teenagers. Our dads, both in the industry, worked together and also became friends. I can vividly remember spending time with Elena and her family in Rome and I still make sure that each time I’m in Rome I visit Campo dei fiori for my pizza bianco at Forno. During the summer, when all Romans flee the city, we went to their ancient house by the sea, where I can still taste the ripe tomatoes we’d have each morning for breakfast with fresh mozzarella. Elena, a fantastic artist who creates amazing installations, and I are still friends and I see her every time I am in Rome.

I would almost never approach a stranger in a restaurant or bar scene in my “civilian life”, but in the wine world I have no problem doing this. First night on the trip to Brazil at the welcome dinner, Waleska and I reached out to the table next to us and immediately we became friends. This crew — the English speaking group, took the party back to the hotel and continued bonding at the bar over what else, more wine — except for me, I had to have my palate cleanser which was a scotch.

Food and wine bring people and cultures together. In this industry we all have a unique bond in that we not only promote this concept to the consumer, but also benefit from it on personal levels. Nothing is more gratifying than sharing a great meal, served with great wines and conversation with friends. The wine world is a special industry for sure. We form lasting friendships based on our love of wine, food and life. Today I can count the countries in which I have “wine” friends, let’s see, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Curacao, Venezuela, Spain, Amsterdam, Switzerland, Belgium, Russia, Poland, Ireland, England, Scotland, Israel, Italy, France, (probably missing a few) and of course the USA. Wine and food are the bonding elements; we live it, we promote it, we share it and friendships evolve from it.

My Windows on the World

I used to travel a lot for work and pre-9/11 I remember that I would feel like I was home when I’d see the twin towers from the plane’s window. Post 9/11 it took some time for me to get used to not seeing the towers and knowing that as soon as I saw them it meant I was home. My birthday is September 10 and for the first few years it was hard to celebrate that day knowing what the next day meant. I finally got used to the idea of celebrating and knowing that we had to go on and not let “them” get to us and in our way of being alive.

This brings me to my thoughts and recollections of the famed Windows on the World restaurant. I just attended a get together for the new book called “The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World.” The book which I haven’t read yet is a compilation of stories about the famed restaurant and the many characters who worked there and ran it.

To me and my family it was like home. We were regulars there and I even had the opportunity to work there for a few summer jobs which I’ll get into in a bit. Windows as we all called it was a sparkling fantasy land of food, wine and scenery. It glittered, it swayed, it sparkled and it enthralled all who went there. My dad with his passion for wine and food became friends with and a bit of a mentor to the famed wine personality Kevin Zraly. As I like to say, I knew Kevin before he was Kevin. Kevin would always let me and dad go to lunch at the club when only members could go. We loved the brunches in the main dining room and would always be escorted to our corner table which had a view where we could see the Statue of Liberty. I would bring friends up to the restaurant just to see the view because the staff would let me go into the closed banquet rooms where the best views of the city could be seen. It was a magical place to be sure.

One year my dad through his wine club called Les Amis du Vin, conducted a wine dinner in which we honored the famed Sam Aaron of Sherry Lehman fame. I wish I could remember the dinner and yes I should not have been there but it was a different time than today and things were not as stringent if you know what I mean. It was a bacchanalian feast, yes that was the theme and we even had our own Bacchus come in to lead the roast. Then there was another dinner which featured the famed Champagne afficianado and ambassador of all things Champagne, Robert Gordin. Robert created a spectacular champagne pyramid with baccarat glasses and then poured Dom Perignon from the top and we watched it cascade down into the glasses like a giant fountain. He topped that off by saboring bottles of DP which had everyone concerned that he’d blow out one of the windows!

While still in university, I spent a summer as Kevin’s wine school coordinator. Kevin ran the famed Windows on the World Wine School. Kevin was all educator and all showman, anyone who as ever taken his class knows this. No one in the business can educate a crowd and captivate them at the same time like Kevin. His book is his class on paper, but seeing him in action and learning from him first hand well, there’s nothing like it!

I even worked in the kitchen one summer while I was at the CIA. Now that was an experience! I had eaten there since the restaurant existed, but being behind the scenes was something else. Because it was so high up, they couldn’t pump the gas up that high and we had to cook on electric cook tops. In fact they were all flat tops which was totally different from what I had ever cooked on before.

Whether it was the main dining room, the small Statue of Liberty room, the Greatest Bar on Earth or the banquet rooms, Windows holds a special place in my heart. At this gathering for the book, we were surrounded by former chefs, captains, servers, sommeliers and family who had lost someone on 9/11. We all listened to the stories and some of us had our own on the side. Kevin put us right to work opening bottles of Champagne for the crowd so we could all toast those past and present and the memory of the Greatest Restaurant that ever was.

The Journey Begins – my life in food and wine

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

So who would have thought that at the age of 52 I’d be not only an orphan, but unemployed and living in a new home which was my old home! They say that some of the most traumatic things in life are the loss of a loved one; a change of career and moving. Well all of this happened to me within the space of a year! It would be really easy to wallow in self pity but I’m not really sure how to do that. Instead I’ve embraced the changes and have tried to greet each day with a smile. Sounds corny I know but it’s actually true and amazing how good you can feel with a sense of peace within.

What to write that’s the question and why. Well I think that it’s cathartic to write so that’s the first part. Second my journey began with food and wine and will continue with food and wine and I know that I have a lot to say!

Why FKDecanted? Francine Kowalsky (FK), Decanted an homage to my love of wine; and it’s me “exposed or decanted”. So travel with me through my love of wine, food and into a new life. I will talk about how my love of wine and food began; take you on journeys to some of the fantastic places I’ve traveled to in life and during my career in wine; delve into wine and it hope to decant some of its mysteries and wonders.