April 20, 2018

STRANGER: André Hueston Mack
LOCATION: Mu Ramen, 1201 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, New York
THEME: Supper with a sommelier/winemaker/designer

André Hueston Mack is thirsty.

“I need a beer, man,” he says as he sits down next to me for a ramen dinner. Behind him are suitcases from one of his countless business trips. After landing at JFK airport just a short while ago, he’s come straight to the interview instead of heading home. Next week he’ll be flying to Washington, DC, and North Carolina. And more cities the week after. And on. And on. His schedule would exhaust anybody, so no wonder he wants a relaxing drink.

But beer? It seems an incongruous beverage for a man who was the first African-American to win the title of Best Young Sommelier in America, who left a lucrative career as a sommelier to open his own winemaking company, and who is just months away from realizing his dream of opening a wine bar in Brooklyn. Beer, really?

“At home, on a night like tonight, we’d start with beer while cooking,” André tells me about the usual routine with his wife Phoebe. Then they’ll move on to a bottle of wine with dinner, and then spirits like rum or bourbon after. So even though he spends every day immersed in the world of wine, I’ll cut him some slack for ordering beer at dinner.

We’re eating at Mu Ramen, a small (22 seats) venue in Long Island City run by Joshua Smookler, a former chef from the Michelin-starred Per Se across the river in Manhattan. André knows Joshua from his sommelier days at Per Se, and has been itching to try out his friend’s restaurant. Tonight he finally gets a chance to scratch that itch.

But first the beer. Our friendly waitress brings us two cold ones, and I raise my glass of crisp, refreshing Sansho Japanese ale to toast the start of the interview. From there, André runs with it, talking at a vigorous clip, so charismatic I just sit and listen.

“I’ve been trying to make it out a lot more recently. Sometimes I feel like I don’t even know my own city anymore” he says. “Generally when I get home I’m just beat, and as soon as I’m back it’s the daddy gang,” he adds, saying that his three sons (ages two, seven and nine) take up a lot of his free time. But we’re able to meet because he has a rare couple of days off until it starts up again next week.

André’s calendar is always a work in progress — one day he might be overseas giving talks about starting a business, the next he might be flying back to the States to work with his design team on t-shirts that focus on wine puns. After that, he might check in on the suppliers for his Maison Noir Wines company, or plug away at various book and mobile app projects. It’s impressive he can sit still for our almost two-hour dinner.

We start by snacking on a hefty plate of edamame, charred so it leaves black on the skin around the peas. They’re coated in Mu Ramen’s hot version of gomasio, a simple combination of toasted black and white sesame seeds with Japanese sea salt, and drops of tangy yuzu citrus juice. Sucking the vegetables out, the smokiness of the skin is the first flavor that hits the tongue, then the stronger-than-expected kick of the gomasio, tempered by the citrus. The combination is irresistible, and I pulverize more than my fair share.

Andre grabs as many as he can in-between charting the story of how a kid born in what he calls a “pretty rough neighborhood” in Trenton, New Jersey, went from a successful career in the banking sector to enjoying even more accolades in the wine industry.

He wasn’t raised in New Jersey, instead traveling all over the world in his childhood because his parents were both military officers. But he spent every summer in Trenton at his mother’s insistence. “She never wanted me to forget where I came from,” he says. “I think there’s where I learned street smarts; paying attention to your surroundings, being able to size up situations if something doesn’t look right, not being a sucker.”

Eventually the family moved to Texas, where he first started waiting tables at restaurants to earn some money. After high school, André went to the University of Texas at San Antonio and Oklahoma City University. “I studied finance, but never graduated,” he says.

He returned to Texas and started looking for work, and that’s when a friend from his service industry days helped get him a cushy gig working for Citicorp Investment Services. He was a personal banker for high net worth income people — those with more than $300,000 in their account — and most of the time he just gave stock quotes to clients. The place had a gym, a 24-hour cafeteria and unlimited overtime. It was an easy life, he admits.

“But it lacked the human touch,” André adds. “Even though I was speaking to people on the phone, I was used to interacting with people in an environment like this,” he says, waving his hand around the interior of Mu Ramen. It’s a single small rectangular dining room, dark wooden tables and exposed brick creating an intimate space for patrons. “I just knew I wanted something more, I was bored.” And so he quit the job at Citicorp.

He started working again at restaurants for income. During this time he began watching old episodes of Frasier, the Cheers spin-off sitcom about the sometimes pompous Dr. Frasier Crane and his family, including equally pretentious brother Niles. The doctor was used to the finer things in life like antique furniture and vintage wines, and the enjoyment of the latter got André hooked. “They were these two pompous brothers having the best time with wine and I felt like having fun with wine,” he says with a smile.

“But I was always afraid to go into a wine job because it was intimidating, I didn’t know anything about it,” he adds, grabbing a handful of the dwindling edamame. “But watching that show gave me the courage to invite wines into my life.”

A few months after his move back to San Antonio, André saw an advertisement for a sommelier position at the city’s upscale Palm restaurant.

He decided to apply despite having minimal knowledge about wine, going armed instead with a sense of humor. “I’ve always felt like the greatest foil to pretension is humor, and that I could use that deflect all this angst I had,” he says. The interview was held in a round robin style with other candidates and several Palm representatives. The CFO asked André what he knew about wine. “I just said, ‘White with fish, red with meat,’ and everyone started laughing. I thought, shit, I’m not getting this job. And then the CFO said, ‘You know what, kid, we can teach you everything you need to know about wine.’”

They liked André’s personality so much they hired him, and he began on-the-job training. How did he have the confidence to start such a job with no knowledge of the subject matter? He credits it to having worked at restaurants since he was 16, learning the ins and outs of menus, developing a strong work ethic so he didn’t mind working extra hours for no pay whenever he was needed. “I thought if I could memorize everything I could do it, but what I quickly realized was I didn’t have a lot of experience opening wines.”

At an early service André had to open a bottle of red wine for a table of six diners, with all the waiters from the Palm lined up watching him. He thinks the cork was saturated, and that made it pop, wine running down his hand and onto the floor. That’s when he saw one tiny drop project through the air and land on the sleeve of a brand new shirt worn by one of the customers. “All hell broke loose,” he tells me with a mortified look. “They made me pay for the dry cleaning, and then come in early for four weeks to open bottles.”

Yet the incident had a positive pay-off, because roughly a month later corporate bigwigs from the Palm came in to have dinner and test the employees. One of them made an incorrect statement about wine, and André stepped in to correct him. “They said, ‘Aren’t you the kid who couldn’t open a bottle of wine?’ But what was interesting was the whole staff said they believed me because they knew how fast I had learned in those few weeks.”

He paired his work training with reading about wine. “I wasn’t a born taster so I figured just be book smart as hell. I studied my ass off,” he says. “I read tons of books on how to taste and blind taste. From 10.30pm to 4.30am every day I studied, I bought a big ass dry erase board and wrote things down over and over and over and over.”

Eventually he was given the chance to put together his first list of 150 wines for the restaurant, after tasting more than 1,200 varieties. “That’s when everything changed and I felt like I understood how to taste,” André says.

But he really felt he’d grasped the subject in 2003, when at 30 years old he entered — and won — the Best Young Sommelier in America contest held by the Chaine des Rotisseurs food and wine gastronomy society. The contest involved a theory section, a practical section performing a service, and a blind tasting of six reds and six whites with the goal of determining their origin. He aced each round and was declared the winner, gaining publicity for being the first African-American to score the title.

I ask him how much being African-American affected his career. He shrugs. “I could have complained, I don’t know how many times I went to a table and they said they’re waiting for the sommelier. But I decided early on that I can’t go through life saying I didn’t get shit because of the way I look,” he says. “Maybe someone didn’t buy a wine because they didn’t like the way I looked or talked, but I couldn’t get caught up in that, it would drive me crazy.”

So again he used humor to diffuse any tension, making me chuckle as he tells me some of the tricks he used. If he approached a table and was told by the customers that they were waiting for the sommelier, he’d wait silently for someone at the table to cringe and realize he was the sommelier, or he’d turn his back on the table then spin round to face everybody again and say “ta-da!” — and at that point he was now the empowered one. “I tried to have fun with it, and they would never forget me after that,” he says.

After his success in the contest, he started getting calls from other restaurants to come work for them and eventually took a sommelier position at the exclusive French Laundry in Yountville, California, and after that with the sister Per Se in New York. But something would happen at Per Se that would prompt him to leave the industry altogether.

Before André can elaborate on the next change in his career, it’s time for us to put our taste buds to use, as we’re approached by the waitress carrying two more appetizers.

The first is a black maitake mushroom roasted in a charcoal oven, served opened up like a blooming flower, topped with a poached egg and drizzled with ailoi made with the yuzu citrus juice. It’s a meaty, satisfying snack, the egg giving the strands of mushroom a smooth, enticing coating with each bite.

The second appetizer wins my love, a dish called tebasaki gyoza. It’s a pair of deep-fried chicken wings that have some of the bones removed inside, creating space for the chef to pump in extravagant foie gras. The waitress warns us to give the wings time to cool off, and we do. It’s worth the wait. The battered skin on the wings has the perfect crunch, leading to perfectly cooked moist chicken and ending with the alluring foie gras. I could happily make an entire meal of more of these, but I resist in favor of ramen.

I sip at some water, and that’s when André tells me it was sparkling water that made him quit the restaurant industry. At Per Se they carried an obscure brand of sparkling water and the person responsible for keeping it in stock for whatever reason was never able to do so. If they ever fell short, André would go to the nearby Whole Foods and buy their sparkling water. One day he was on a very rare vacation when he got a call from the restaurant while at the airport in Seattle. His boss was complaining about a water shortage and refusing to serve the Whole Foods backup. André was so irritated by the obsession over the water, and being hassled during his time off, that it fueled what had been a growing desire to leave the restaurant. “And that was it, I called my boss the next day and said I’m done.”

Although the water incident was a frustrating experience, he did meet his future wife Phoebe Damrosch at Per Se — and she went on to write a memoir about her time in service.

But now André was unemployed and with no clear idea about what to do next. “I knew I wanted to continue to learn about wine,” he says. And so he emailed all his contacts saying he was thinking about getting into wine making. People started to write back offering support, either with wines they wanted him to sell, or other encouragement. He also realized that running his own wine company would let him indulge more creative interests, such as designing t-shirts that promote wine through puns or parodies of corporate logos (a particular favorite is the Burger King logo with the words Barolo King instead). “I’m so immersed in wine that when I see a logo, all I see is wine,” he laughs.

In 2007, he launched Maison Noir wines through which he sells bottles from 13 Oregon vineyards under contract, making about 40,000 cases of wine a year.

Separately the company also sells the t-shirts, which he says are about “infusing pop culture and wine. ” They feature the Maison Noir logo on the back, making them free billboards — while also helping break down what he says is the image of wine as “a stuffy thing.”

“We’re going to continue to grow,” André says as I ask about his future plans. He’s also working on a book telling his life story based on 99 “influential” bottles of wine. It’s not his first publishing experience, as he already wrote a culinary coloring book for children. “I want my book to be inspirational, to show how you can really change your life.”

There’s a TED talk he gave in 2014 in which André talks about the importance of being unique. I ask him how he’s unique. “I just think I have a different perspective, I think some people are afraid of putting all their eggs in one basket” he says. “I’m a black kid that grew up partly in the inner city on hip-hop and skateboarding, and I fell in love with wine. Why can’t I put all those things together? That’s just who I am. My message to everybody is embrace what makes you different to help propel you to greatness.”

Our meal is about to hit the next level of greatness with the arrival of the main course.

André is having the “I’ll Shoyu,” a duck broth-based soup served with pork belly, baby kale, nori (an edible seaweed) and menma, a topping made from fermented bamboo shoots. He gives the ramen praise, much like every other dish served this evening.

I dig in to the tonkotsu, a noodle soup topped with a pork cut known as ton toro, kikurage mushroom, menma and the onion negi. The creamy broth, with just the right level of salt, infuses all the components, the succulent pork offering a generous bite of meat. The thin noodles were so wonderfully made I have to order more to add to the bowl.

We’re having a wonderful meal and it’s easy to see why Mu Ramen is so popular. But the food is that good and that rich, we’re too full to even consider dessert.

So as we wind down dinner, André tells me about the wine bar he’s hoping to open in Brooklyn the week after Labor Day. They’re close to breaking ground on construction and already have the necessary licenses from the city. It’ll be a small place, smaller even than Mu Ramen, with a bar on one side and a deli-type store on the other where customers can buy the meats, cheeses and other treats that he plans to serve.

The concept is all-American, from the wines to the charcuterie to the cheese. Even the fixtures and fittings will be American wherever possible, including an early 20th century meat slicer made in Indiana and 1930s gym mats to serve as cushions against the wall. “I love shopping for old shit like that and putting them all in one place,” he says.

More generally, he’s invigorated to get back into the restaurant industry — except this time as an owner. “I’ve been working on this concept for years.”

I wish André luck with the bar, though perhaps he won’t need it. He flashes another smile and makes one last joke. “People are always going to need to drown their sorrows.”

In the days prior to publishing this interview, I ran an Ask The Expert feature with André asking him 12 questions about wine, from how to pick a good $15 bottle to whether the shape of a wine glass really matters to the taste of the beverage. Click on this link to read his answers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *