Yesterday I spoke with Thomas Lents, executive chef of Sixteen in the Trump Tower, about his latest seasonal menu. Actually there are two menus—one called "Day" and one called "Night," each built around foods associated with those times of day. While we were talking Dan Pilkey, the restaurant's sommelier, came up and I was especially eager to ask him about a decision he made about the wine pairings—to serve only biodynamic wines with the menus.
Biodynamic farming is a particular movement within organic agriculture, devised in the early 20th century by the Austrian philosopher and spiritualist Rudolf Steiner, who also created the Waldorf school system (and the exercise system that gave an 80s band their name). What distinguishes it is that, besides a generally more natural, nonindustrialized approach to growing, it includes a fair amount of ritualized practice tied to vaguely mystical stuff about the stars and lunar cycles and so on, such as burying a steer horn full of manure in the fall on a particular day and using it to spray the plants in the spring.
Mainstream agricultural scientists tend to look at this as agri-voodoo, but that's kind of missing Steiner's point. Reacting (like William Morris in England and others) to the rapid dehumanization of the industrial revolution, Steiner sought to reintroduce peasant-style rituals tied to the seasons to help nurture the farmer at least as much as the farm. A farmer who plants according to a mythology of the stars and the seasons is likely to be more connected to his land than one who sits in an office and orders chemicals out of a catalog. That at least seems to be the reason for its widespread popularity in the world of wine in particular, with biodynamic wines a growing segment of the market and many labels bearing a certification of biodynamic practices called Demeter.
For Sixteen's "Night and Day" menu, connecting with biodynamic approaches in wine gave the menu concept a deeper rooting in cultural practices which already were intimately intertwined with how things grow under the sun and the moon. I spoke with Lents and Pilkey about how biodynamic thinking, and wine in general, informed the menu.
Michael Gebert: How does the sommelier fit into the menu development process?
Thomas Lents: Dan has really brought a connection to the wine element and the food element, that same level of storytelling and that same level of thought process, that for the first three or four menus we were really missing. For example, for the harvest one it was all magnums, all big, celebratory bottles. The table was always full, six or seven different plates at once, and so Dan said let's pour big bottles.
It's tougher for Dan, he's always depending on the menu coming first. But the concept of using biodynamic wines came up in the first three or four weeks of our menu discussions. As soon as our discussion starts, Dan starts throwing out ideas for what we can do with the wine pairings, and this one came up pretty early and it was one we thought made a lot of sense right away.
Dan Pilkey: As soon as we mentioned spring, as soon as we said "Day and Night" and lunar calendars, the first thing it sparked in my mind was what takes place in the vineyards and what takes place in the springtime. And I used the analogy that, just like the chefs come into the kitchen and prep all the ingredients before the start of service, in the vineyard it's the same way, the winemakers are all preparing for the harvest. Springtime is this start of growth, we see a lot of development of the vineyard during this three-to-four month growth window.
In the summertime, we get a lot of sunshine, a lot of photosynthesis, and then in the fall you have the crunch time when everything comes to fruition. The spring is really important, though—it's where you do a lot of work in the cellar, even preparing last year's wines, getting them ready for bottling, moving wine out of the tanks to make way for the new vintage coming on board.
So it was a little bit of research on what goes into it, and I found that a lot of it is preparing some of the biodynamic preps and getting ready for a healthy state in the vineyard. It's a lot of farm work at the end of the day.
That's what the inspiration for biodynamics in the spring menu was. It's kind of obvious, but people have been mentioning biodynamic this or organic that for a long time. So I wanted to teach myself, and the staff and even some of the consumers, about what that means and how it affects the quality of wines. So I think we've seen some really good pairings and some really vocal guests about how the biodynamic wines work with this menu.
How would you describe what biodynamic growing is?
DP: Essentially it takes organics and adds a holistic nature. Organics is something that pays a lot of attention to a natural process, it involves doing less but being a little more savvy, and utilizing what's on your property and the tools that are of the earth. So we want to get away from the chemical way of farming.
And when you involve biodynamic principles, you start to look toward the galaxy. It’s hard to capture a qualitative or taste difference, but it's something that you have to believe in. It's hard to measure, but you know it exists.
And farming is a little bit like that. You can see the plant's energy, the vitality of the vineyard, the colors that it emits. Does the fruit taste any better? Arguable. Does the wine taste any better? Arguable, but you can see this healthy stasis of your property.
Now when you make the wines, I think there's definitely a spark and an energy in the wines that maybe wasn’t there before. That's also arguable, and everybody has different palates, and whether it gets a 99 from Parker and a big score from Wine Spectator, that's all relative, that's all to the individual.
People are moving away from that chemical style of farming, they're getting into more natural ways of making wines based on terroir. And if you have a bad vintage, you have a bad vintage, and that's the way it is. Sometimes it's helpful in promoting a good vintage! I look at Bordeaux, and everyone's making great wines, and it seems like every year’s a banner year. At what point do we become desensitized to that type of advertisement? You start thinking to yourself, are you really having a good year every year or are you actually adulterating the product to taste good every year?
Holistic farming, I think it's very transparent, you have good vintages and not so good vintages, and you try to make what you can. If you lose a little bit of your crop, you lose a little bit of your crop and that's the honest nature of that season. If you read into [biodynamic farming], it is logical and it's a beautiful thing, it really is fun. We're talking about it at the table and there is interest. People want to know what separates these products from others.
So what are the principles for how you pair these wines?
DP: The first thing I look for is density. And what I mean by that is food density versus wine density. A lot of times opposites attract. They help influence and lift up some of the flavors, some of the nuances that make the wine and the dish so different.
I look at the density of the dish and the wine and think, is Sauvignon Blanc the same as Chardonnay? It's not, one rarely has oak, the other has oak and a malolactic fermentation, a creaminess about it. So if I said what's the density of Sauvignon versus Chardonnay, well, it's night and day difference, pardon the pun. One is light and thin and in a thin frame versus something that is bulky, shouldered, and top heavy. So when I put food to those things, I need them to either align or contrast, in a positive way. So that's where I start.
Then I look at some of the flavors. I don't simply say, well, if the dish has orange, I'm looking for spice, because spices and orange can go together nicely. It's not necessarily based on that, but it is a lot more based on food densities and food textures.
Textures in wine are important in the wine-making process, so I look at is it a thin-skinned grape, is it thick skinned? Is there some manipulation here, did the winemaker do anything like give us some oak that might give us more body, more texture? I like to buy wines that are a little bit off in a way to balance food and texture.
But if you'd looked at my desk a month ago you'd have seen 50, 60 bottles that were open that I was looking at. I pigeonholed myself a little with the biodynamic practices, but there thankfully are a lot of wineries that fall into that category, or they preach a lot about sustainability, sustainable winery operation. They might not have the certification, because it is costly, and it means you cannot go out of that boundary year in and year out. If you're a certified biodynamic winemaker and you have a tough year, you have to stay within that framework. But at least it's consistent for them and for their plants and for their business model, which is important.
TL: You talk about spring and you start to get into—"Night" is going to be heavier, but you talk about "Day" and you've got more of the spring vegetables. It's not robust, overly ripe flavors yet. You've just got the beginnings of the vegetables, smaller vegetables, the young garlic, the beginning of green asparagus which is a very light flavor. But that's spring—you're talking about that transition out of the roughness of winter into the gentle beginnings of spring and summer.
DP: We did some really big Mediterranean wines with those first courses of the "Day" menu, looking at those vegetables and kind of that green growth. Corsica, Sardinia lead the charge on that menu, and it's really fun seeing these sun-drenched, windswept, ocean islands that produce this wine that really is compatible with the dishes. It's one of my favorites. And we have a mushroom tea that's on that menu, and that was definitely a challenge but I've never been happier with a red wine and a soup pairing than on this menu.