Katy Wilson, The Blanton’s public programs intern and a graduate student in UT’s art education program, has been working at The Blanton since 2010. This spring, she has organized Art on Tap: Craft Beer and Local Fare, an event that features tours of our American Scenery and Go West exhibitions, followed by food and beer tastings selected from regions represented in the shows. In preparation, Katy interviews sommelier Sam Hovland and chef Mat Clouser, our partners for the event.
Katy Wilson: Sam, as a sommelier and buyer for East End Wines, you are knowledgeable about more than just wine. Would you mind telling us how you became certified, and what exactly it means to be a sommelier?
Sam Hovland: I was hired away from the Austin Wine Merchant by the Headliners Club to be their sommelier. Though everything went swimmingly there, I thought that I better get a piece of paper to help prove my qualifications for future endeavors, and so I went through the International Sommelier Guild diploma program. There are a few intermediate steps before the diploma program, and I was able to get through those earlier in my sommelier career, and then take the very rigorous exams for the diploma when I had a few more years of study and tasting under my belt. Besides wine, aromatized wine, and fortified wines, sommeliers must be knowledgeable about beers, ciders, sake, fruit distillates, grain distillates, and any other boozy goodness that a customer might want to talk about. While I certainly feel that doing the work and being referred to as a sommelier is an accomplishment in itself, certification has become pretty important, and does help when you are trying to get new customers to trust a recommendation. But in order to succeed as a sommelier, with or without certification, it is the constant tasting that gives you the backdrop against which to view new wines, and consider new pairings.
KW: I believe you are a beer enthusiast and home brewer. How did you get into home brewing?
SH: We are in a great period to be in to beer right now, as specialty micro-brews are more varied and widely a<vailable, and there has been a surge in Austin based and central Texas breweries. When I started brewing in the early nineties, it was to make styles that were hard to find in the market, or tweak recipes to make them more to my taste. It was great to learn that it was pretty straight forward if you were very scrupulous about cleanliness, and fun for a science geek who had some of those skills, and the beginning of a palate, to work with. It was also pretty cost efficient, as I had more time than money at that point. I did get sick of bottling beer, and took a bit of a hiatus before starting to brew to keg, which is much less hassle. I was able to nab some very small kegs from when soda syrups were delivered to restaurants in them, so that I could finish a batch of beer in multiple ways, and brew with friends so that we could make bigger batches and then split them up, sharing all of the preparation and brewing and clean-up efforts. I am taking a little bit of a break at the moment, but my empty kegerator is beckoning, so I will be putting together some new batches soon.
KW: During Art on Tap, guests will get to try different beers selected because of ties to the art in Go West! and American Scenery, two exhibitions currently on view at The Blanton. Can you tell us how you selected the art works and corresponding beers for the event?
SH: Some of the art choices are based on places where Mat and I had spent time, and some are regionally selected so that our progression made sense. We usually chose the beers first and then paired the food afterwards. We knew that we wanted to do the food as three courses, each delivered as a pairing with two beers, so we had to keep that in mind as we narrowed down the art, beer, and food choices.
KW: The two of you recently went on a research trip to Oregon hoping to find new wines and beers. Can you share any of your new discoveries?
SH: We had a great time up there, visiting friends in the food and wine industry in Portland, and then setting up a base of operations at Left Coast Cellars. We tasted a lot of local beers and craft cocktails, but segued smoothly into the more wine-centric portion of the trip. Here are a few finds: PN = Pinot Noir, Wm = Willamette Valley
BeersFull Sail Sessions Black
Deschutes Black Butte Porter
Rogue Yellow Snow
White WinesLeft Coast Pinot Gris 09
Bethel Heights Pinot Gris 09
Amity Gewurztraminer 08
Red Wines Chehalem PN Corral 07
Belle Valee PN Wm 07Bridgeview PN 09and especially- Labor Wines PN 09 from Austinite Richard Oppenheimer,
and the steal – Left Coast Cali’s PN 08.
All of these offerings are currently on the shelves at East End Wines, and some will appear at Swift’s Attic.
KW: Mat, you are creating food pairings to complement the beers and art works in the exhibitions. Where do you find inspiration when devising new dishes?
Mat Clouser: Inspiration can and does come from anything. I am always trying to leave myself open to any new ideas or styles. I read about food quite a bit, which tends to inspire my thoughts while I am out walking. As Nietzsche once said, “all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Mine frequently come this way, with a great amount of clarity to them, as well. I think just being in the vastness of space, rather than the typical confines of a kitchen matters. Beyond that, my predominant inspiration tends to be based on seasonality and availability. Nature supplies us with some pretty amazing stuff; I wouldn’t say I try to stay out of its way, but more that I try to accent its great ingredients with my own idiosyncrasies. I do try to spend a great deal of time determining how sensible the food can be: whether the ingredients make sense together, if they might be traveling too far to rationalize their usage, given their toll on our and their own environments. I have to sit on ideas for a while sometimes, some disappear from memory, but the persistent ones almost always become fabulous. I imagine one might call that pragmatic gastronomy, though I think for many chefs it is the one true path to good food. Lastly, I have been meditating on the Dada and Surrealist movements of late: the concepts of unique juxtapositions in food, the playfulness of including some non sequitur into a dish or meal, rule breaking, and in particular the idea of cooking via psychic automatism.
KW: When can we expect your new restaurant, Swift’s Attic, to open its doors? Will the food served during Art on Tap provide a sneak peak of your new menu?
MC: Swift’s Attic will be opening sometime after SXSW, as we want to invite people to come and visit us at a less hectic and congested time and place. We’ll do it when it’s safe to go back downtown, so to speak. The food for Art on Tap is a mixture of things that will be on our menu, albeit with custom tweaks to fit the presentation, and some things that we think compliment the beers, paintings and locales. Six items in total, one paired with each beer, ranging in texture, flavor, and inspiration. Most will be vegetarian, while I am not a vegetarian; I feel that they end up suffering too often when eating out. My, and Swift’s Attic, intent is for there to be many options, for all palates, that are quite delicious on their own, meaty or not. That being said, I am somewhat of a Pork Spiritualist, so do be on the look out for that!
KW: Do you have any advice for people at home who want to pair meals with the perfect libation? Is it easier to start with the food or the drink?
SH: In my opinion, it is easier to start with the drink so that you can tweak the food a bit as needed, to make the pairing. That being said, most of my pairing is done in the opposite way, when a customer knows what they are ordering in a restaurant or are having for dinner, and are then looking for help to pair it with a wine or come up with a few options that would work well. MC: As a chef, it would be somewhat gauche if I did not say it starts with the food, but that may be just another part of the age old struggle between the front and back of house. I completely agree with what Sam is saying for certain meals or events. For the home cook, however, who may or may not be savvy about wine, or extremely adept with adjusting the various nuances of their cuisine, I recommend picking the meal first. My advice would be to get a very clear vision of the food, the herbs and spices that will be used, whether the dish will be light or heavy, all the dominant flavors, and anything that might potentially alter the wine for the worse—peppercorns and artichokes come to mind. Once that is established it will be very easy for the nice folks at your local wine shop to find something that will genuinely add another element to the meal. There’s certainly no wrong way to do it, it is eating and drinking after all. If you’re in search of the perfect pairing, or would like to try something new, I’d encourage you to visit East End Wines on Fridays from 4-8 pm for their free weekly tasting of select wines. More information can be found on their website www.eastendwinesatx.com. And be on the lookout for the opening of Swift’s Attic later this spring!
Sam Hovland and Katy Wilson getting excited for Art on Tap; Image courtesy of Oliver Martin.
“Taking one for the team,” during the research trip to Oregon. Image courtesy of Sam Hovland