Wealthy professionals are used to doing business over a good meal. But when you want to show your appreciation, dazzle with a chef’s table and wine tasting. Even if Gordon Ramsay isn’t in your Rolodex, a night of culinary creativity is within reach.
A chef’s table gathers diners and cooks for a food and wine showcase. Guests dine in kitchen after watching the chef prepare the meal, and discuss its construction. Upscale hotels, restaurants and wineries host chef’s tables, but you’ll have to call to see the options offered. Depending on the kitchen setup, guests may dine at counter, or at a special table nearby with the chef presenting each course.
At Toronto’s Sassafraz, guests tour the kitchen before sitting down at a VIP table situated on a balcony overlooking the main dining room, says owner Zoran Kocovski.
You choose a preset menu, or chef Geoff Webb can customize the five-course meal. Wine pairings come from in-house experts or consultant sommelier James Pollock, who also teaches at George Brown College’s culinary school. After Webb explains the dish, and engages in some clever food banter with you and your guests, Kocovski says the meal gets underway.
Staff field questions on ingredients’ provenance, such as whether they’re antibiotic-free. And guests can even ask for recipes, “which we’re more than happy to give out,” he adds.
If you want more time with Webb, it’s best to book a night mid-week, instead of a Friday or Saturday. If it must be a weekend, “he certainly will give time to the table but it will not be the same,” says Kocovski.
When choosing a restaurant, take clients’ interests into account. If several recently vacationed in the south of France or in Japan, design the menu around classic local dishes. It shows you follow their lives, and also allows them to share travel anecdotes during dinner. If a restaurant doesn’t host chef’s tables, it may still offer a wine tasting. Erin Henderson, sommelier and founder of The Wine Sisters, also helps clients to scout restaurants.
Don’t be nervous if you’ve never hosted. A sommelier is there to make you look good, and will arrange a wine list and full dinner menu, or you can propose a theme.
Choose a wine-making region or variety, and she’ll guide you and your guests through what to look for in a great glass.
“Gone are the days of the snotty sommelier who wants to make you feel dumb,” Henderson says. “We look at the aroma of the wine and understanding its nuances, we look for taste, and we even look for texture and how it feels.”
And throw away stodgy stereotypes. “Is it a rigid, formal event? Not unless you want it to be,” she says. To get the conversation started, she asks guests what they taste or smell in the wine, and whether their perceptions change when it’s paired with a cheese. If you’re feeling stumped for conversation, don’t be afraid to simply ask, “Do you like this wine?”
Guests may start off reserved but, after sampling a couple of wines, people relax and get to know each other. And spittoons are a staple so guests can taste without getting sauced.
“There may be [designated drivers] who want to try the wine,” says Henderson, which is why each pour is small and it’s key to have food to balance the alcohol. While it’s your duty to ensure guests don’t get inebriated, go easy on them if they do while making sure they’ve got a safe way home.
For guests who want a souvenir, ask your sommelier if premium bottles can be purchased: a first-growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru from Burgundy or Super Tuscan, for instance. Ask for a few lots to be set aside should a client decide to buy a case or two.
You can also bring clients to the wine. Consider a private dinner at Trius Winery at Hillebrand in Ontario’s Niagara wine region, or a private cooking class and chef’s table at Mission Hill Winery in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. Out east, dinner at the award-winning Domaine de Grand Pré winery in Nova Scotia is sure to impress.
At Trius, the night combines wine appreciation with a little competition. At the pre-dinner reception, an expert gives guests tasting tips. Then everyone sits down to a four-course meal by chef Frank Dodd. The twist: the wine is in opaque glasses, and guests must guess what they’re drinking. The savviest diner wins a bottle.
“It’s a good way to have people who don’t know each other interact in a lighthearted, fun way,” says Sherri Lockwood, spokesperson for Andrew Peller Ltd., which owns the winery.
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But if you want a culinary star, look to Chef Jason Parsons.
He, along with chefs Massimo Capra and Michael Bonacini, is one of the Three Chefs, a trio who cook on City’s lifestyle show Cityline. Parsons’s home base is the kitchen at Trius’s sister winery, Peller Estates, also in Niagara.
You can book a private dinner most Saturdays that starts with Parsons hosting canapés in kitchen. Dinner’s in an adjacent room, where he’ll serve some of his best-known dishes, such as lobster linguine. He and staff discuss each food and wine pairing.
And guests can come into the kitchen at any time. “If you love those cooking shows and what happens behind the scenes…you can watch it all unfold,” says Lockwood.
A seven-course meal costs $165 per person. You can add a private cellar tour and tasting to the evening, starting at $10 per person. The winery is accustomed to handling Hollywood actors, hockey stars and heads of state, she adds. “We’ve had helicopters land at Peller Estates and Trius. We greet them with sparkling wine.”
Sassafraz also sees its fair share of celebrities and ultra-rich regulars, but the restaurant keeps the chef’s table laid-back and social.
At two hours, these dinners are longer than a typical meal. The evening costs $100 to $150 per person, depending on how much you customize the menu, explains Kocovski. Capacity is flexible, though 12 diners is best.
Jessica Bruno is a Toronto-based financial writer.