“To me, eating and drinking wine are things that can’t be separate from each other; a great meal is always complimented by a bottle of great wine” Cedric Nicaise tells me over the phone from New York. With both sides of the family being huge wine enthusiasts, drink has always been an important part of Nicaise’s life. Now a member of the esteemed Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York, Nicaise ensures that the wine list is just as spectacular as the food by developing a stellar selection to perfectly compliment the award winning dishes.
While its multi-course tasting menus focuses on the agricultural bounty of New York, Eleven Madison Park’s wine list takes inspiration from Spain, Italy, New York, Germany and France just to name a few, ensuring the wine list is varied and vast. But most importantly, the wine list is balanced. “I think you have to be able to satisfy all of your guests. It’s very easy to focus on the high end wines only, but it’s important to remember not everyone is buying multiple $100 bottles. You have to have amazing things at every price point. Balance in a wine list is very important.”
Equally as important but perhaps the most difficult element when judging the wine list is impartiality. “I think taking out your likes and dislikes and judging the wine based on its own merit is the most difficult part. Everyone has wines that they really gravitate to and that they really like, so judging wines that you may not like may still be amazing wines. For me that’s probably the hardest.”
For Nicaise, there is no typical day on the job. “It’s variable”, he tells me. “It usually starts around 10:30am; I take a look at some new wines and some new vintages. The unglamorous parts include various meetings and talking about upcoming things that are happening in the restaurant. Sometimes I will add new wines to the list and I’ll check the wines to make sure that we’re not running out of anything. Then by 5:00pm, the fun part begins – selling the wine and interacting with the guests.”
When asked about his fundamental philosophy on fine wine, the partnership between Head Chef Daniel Humm and Nicaise is evident: “I think it should be something that’s delicious. I think that it coincides with food in the restaurant well. If it’s not delicious then it is not good enough.”
The progressive list aims to satisfy every palate and budget, and features an array of wines and variation, all of which help to enhance the flavors of the contemporary American menu. And while many trends come and go – Nicaise tells me New Yorkers currently have a penchant for vintages – Nicaise’s love for Burgundy continues to remain. “It comes from my grandfather as that was one of his loves. I love how Burgundy can be so many different things; every producer makes very different wines. Even the same winemaker can make totally different wines. It’s intellectually stimulating and it is just something that I love.”
So what’s next for Nicaise? “Next is figuring out how to be good at this job. Becoming a wine director at a Michelin star restaurant is something that was a goal for a long time. Doing well at this is super important and that will be my main focus.”
And the secret to his swift succession? “I think it’s the people around me” he says. “I work hard but I have to admit there have been so many amazing wine directors that I have worked for in my career, especially here. It all coincides with the restaurants – the team is everything. I’m sure I could be pretty good on my own but without the team I’m nothing.”