Whether it’s creating savory cocktails with avocados and mushrooms, or eyeing diners’ main courses so she can swing by and pour the best accompanying wine, Amy Racine’s passion for food and beverage all stems back to her Cleveland upbringing.
Dinner was served at 5 p.m. sharp and always included generous servings of veggies, many of which she experiments with in her cocktails today. Sundays were spent grilling, whipping up Caesar dressing and cooking Calabrian tomato sauce for family feasts that kicked off in the late afternoon and stretched into the evening.
“Wine was always around that table and the kids were allowed a taste,” recalls Racine, 33. “My parents were really tuned into the world of wine. They were teaching me what Montepulciano was when I was a preteen.”
By the third grade of elementary school, Racine dreamed of becoming a chef — her ambitions bolstered by Food Network programs such as “The Rachael Ray Show” — and as a driven high schooler, she worked at restaurants to help her college applications.
She got into and attended Hyde Park, N.Y.’s Culinary Institute of America, and was captivated by a winemaking course. “The running joke was that everybody dreaded it and failed because it was the most difficult class, but I enjoyed it,” Racine says.
Her love for wine and food merged once she headed to California and became immersed in fresh produce while spending time in Napa Valley, then becoming wine director for San Francisco restaurant Sons & Daughters. “It’s part of the culture in California to be vegetable-forward and I loved that,” says Racine, who began gravitating toward vegetables and fish as she grew older. “I felt like nobody else in the U.S. was growing produce like California.”
Racine eventually hit New York City to gain experience in the culinary mecca. She met John Fraser and instantly clicked with the vegetable-centric, Michelin-starred chef’s values. She’s now beverage director for John Fraser Restaurants, overseeing spots including Ardor at the West Hollywood Edition, and New York’s The Loyal and North Fork Table and Inn.
Racine chatted to VinePair about breaking winemaker stereotypes, how the pandemic is evolving the beverage industry, and why veggies are great in cocktails.
1. At 25, you were one of the youngest females to pass the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Exam in the first pass. What were some of the challenges as a younger person entering the industry?
There was and still is a running joke that a sommelier’s an older, white male wearing a tastavin around his neck, who’s snooty and rude. There’s been many instances where I’ve approached a table and people say, “We’d like to speak to the sommelier. Is he available?” It’s sad, but we’ve come a long way. I’ve gained experience and competence in approaching a table and people have more awareness about gender equality, so it’s not happening as frequently.
2. What do you bring to the industry as a younger female?
A fresher mindset. That person who sticks their nose up to guests is no better than I am. Knowing I’m not what somebody’s expecting is something I’m grateful for because it gives me a different perspective and appreciation.
I also have a fresher mindset coming from a super-traditional and structured home life, and then moving to bigger cities in California. It opened my eyes to how things don’t have to be a certain way, and how people are doing great things in the industry regardless of background, gender, or race.
3. What prompted transitioning more into restaurants and cocktails [from wine]?
I remember doing my externship at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. I was this sweaty, scared student watching the beverage director speaking with the chef and the way they interacted during this big event made me go, “I want that guy’s job.” It was a defining moment of seeing somebody interact with both front-of-house and back — being involved in the food, cocktails, and service seemed really cool.
When I started with John [Fraser, of JF Restaurants], I said, “I’d love to be wine director of multiple units,” and after that happened, I said, “I’d love to be beverage director of multiple units.” It was five years working towards it, but I knew the ins and outs of his company and of beverage, so it made sense.
4. John [Fraser] is known for his vegetable-forward food and you’ve created a menu to reflect this at Ardor. People don’t commonly associate vegetables with cocktails. Why is it a good combination?
Vegetables are fun! If you say “vegetable cocktail,” most people imagine green juice with a shot of tequila; but in my mind, people are in a restaurant for food, so beverage should complement that rather than [serving] a green juice with booze, which is a meal in itself.
It’s like making a Martini with an olive garnish — you can do little twists and go, “What if it was a pickled mushroom instead?” We want to make different moves, but show restraint and not make a meal of it.
5. What’s the process of creating cocktails to complement John’s dishes?
John will share his vision for the property he’s opening and we’ll go through tastings for the culinary menu, then I’ll tell the head bartender, “We want a cocktail that fits this, which is vodka-based, has mushroom in it, and echoes a Martini. What do you suggest?” Then we’ll fine-tune and tweak. There’s many people and talents involved!
6. That explains the Martini-style “Clear” cocktail with its pickled pioppino mushroom. Ardor also has the “Green” vodka cocktail with avocado. How does avocado fare in cocktails?
The avocado’s shaken with ice, so it’s adding texture. It’s not a big sludgy, green drink. It adds texture and some fat — like how fat-washing was big in cocktails not too long ago.
7. Have there been any vegetables you’ve experimented with that didn’t work in cocktails? And which vegetable has surprised you most with how good it is in drinks?
I have a hard time with beets! We’ve done some beet cocktails, but they always feel very earthy and aren’t my favorite. Artichoke’s a good one. They’re not for everybody, but we used Cynar, which is artichoke-based, in the “Black” cocktail at Ardor.
8. Why do you think vegetable-forward cocktails will take off in Hollywood?
I think people in Hollywood, and California, are very conscious of what they’re putting into their bodies, and knowledgeable about sustainability and how products have gotten to a place. I think they’ll do well because we’re using ingredients that are sourced and grown thoughtfully.
And, nearly all the cocktails are based off of classic cocktails, so when you see tequila and grapefruit, you think of a Paloma; or when you see espresso, you think of an Espresso Martini. They’re cocktails people can link to something they’ve had before, but we’re using ingredients in ways they haven’t experienced.
9. Society’s so much more conscious about eating meat these days. Do you think that makes using vegetables in new ways even more appealing?
Yes, but I also think after being at home over the past year, everyone’s making their own cocktails. Someone who might’ve gone out and had a Manhattan all the time learned how to make one. People were already becoming more knowledgeable about cocktails, wine and culinary through social media — you can get recipes from Thomas Keller or read about somebody’s new wine label so easily — but they were forced to do it at home last year.
Had that not happened, the world of cocktails and culinary would be in a different spot right now. It has pushed the food and beverage industry to be an extra step ahead, because if everyone’s learning the basics, it’s like, “How do we make a Martini different again?”
10. What do your parents think about you inheriting their love for food and beverage and turning it into a career?
The alcohol part made them nervous at first! Now, they love it because we’ll go to wineries together. They were like, “I didn’t realize how much you were paying attention at the dinner table.” I didn’t realize myself how impactful those moments of wine being on the table were until recently. I never went through a crazy teenage phase of abusing alcohol, because I learned to respect it and view it as part of a meal rather than a drug, from an early age. As for the culinary side, my parents are very happy about that!