In this episode of “Going Out With Jake Cornell,” host and former NYC hospitality pro Jake Cornell chats with friend and sommelier Erica O’Neal. The two discuss the ins and outs of the restaurant industry, from working together in fine dining to the nightlife that goes with working in hospitality. O’Neal shares her career trajectory in wine and how she ended up at some of the most highly rated restaurants in the country. Plus, the two share how to take advantage of New York’s food and drinks scene to experience everything the city has to offer. Tune in to learn more.
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Jake Cornell: Hi, my love.
Erica O’Neal: Hi. I’m proud of you.
J: Oh, I’m so proud of you. I was thinking about this earlier today, when I knew we were recording. I was like, “Erica is one of my most fascinating friends.” You’ve lived multiple lives in terms of a career.
E: Oh, my God.
J: It’s like you’re a jack of all trades and a master of all. You’re so good at all things. It’s kind of wild to me. To give context to the listeners, Erica and I worked together at my first restaurant job in New York. Erica was a sommelier there and went on to have a very impressive career as a sommelier. She was someone I leaned on enormously when I first was in New York. I showed up in New York knowing literally that there was red and white wine. That’s it. I did not know anything and really depended on Erica for knowledge and learning and surviving. And Erica leaned on me when they made her work floor shifts and she needed a server. So it was a really symbiotic relationship in a lot of ways.
E: I still don’t understand. No one told me when I, of course, accepted the job, like, “Hey, FYI, you’re going to be serving a couple of shifts.” And I was like, “Come again?” I’m going to need your best support team. And of course, you’ve been a server before and could have done my job eyes closed. Panic attacks the entire time, like, “Jake, fix this!”
J: I would be like, “Someone just said a word that I don’t know the meaning of, can you go get whatever they asked for?” And you would be like, “What did they say?” And I’d be like, “Nebbiolo?” It was just such a different time and I look back on it very fondly. There were a litany of reasons I wanted to interview you. One is, I realized as I’ve been doing this show, I haven’t talked to anyone who has really been involved in fine dining. At this point, that is something that would be an area of expertise for you. You really did the fine dining thing.
E: Yeah. And it’s kind of crazy because I’m so not fine dining.
J: Erica, that’s specifically why I wanted to talk to you about it. I want to talk to somebody who has been in fine dining and done it and worked it and really mastered it but didn’t drink the Kool-Aid on it. What is your sign?
E: Leo, I mean it’s kind of obvious.
J: Tying back to the jack of all trades master of all things, you are someone who I very much can see that when you’re like, “Oh, I like this thing, I will become greater at it than anyone in the world.” That is kind of how I feel like you approached the task.
E: Yes, I have Plan A, and that is it. It doesn’t matter what it’s going to take for me to get to that point or achieve said thing. I’m just going to do it because I just know I can do it. It’s not like a “why,” it’s just so “why not?” in everything I’ve done.
J: You ended up going on to be on the sommelier team at Eleven Madison Park, which some would consider is the highest achievement you could get if you’re playing the game. You f*cking did it?
E: Yeah, absolutely.
J: EMP is the big leagues. That’s the majors for sure.
E: It’s no one’s first rodeo there. It was such a large team, but all of us were f*cking pros. Sorry, can I swear?
J: Oh, my God. Swear as much. Erica, they hired me. Are you joking?
E: Actually, it’s funny. Just in a quick summation EMP. They had been asking me for almost a year and I was like, “Guys, thank you. So flattered. I do not type A. I cuss on the floor. I do my own thing.” And they’re like, “No, no, this is what we want.” And I’m like, “OK, but are you sure?”
J: Do you get what you’re actually signing up for with me?
E: Yeah, exactly. My approach is a little bit more like, “Everyone calms down. It’s just wine. It’s going to be fine.” Shut the f*ck up about aspects of the vineyard and the name of the horse. People just want to know if the wine is delicious. Are they going to like it? Full stop. That’s it. All the other stuff that’s going on in your head and that you know and that you’ve learned is extra. It’s the cherry on the top. But people don’t go out to learn that necessarily.
J: I think that is exactly why I went on you so hard when I was trying to learn about wine and figure out how to work in a restaurant that sold really expensive fancy wine. I just remember one time being in a wine class. The restaurant we worked at together, and many New York or high-end restaurants have mandatory wine classes for the servers and the bartenders to learn about the things they’re selling. Which is great.
J: I remember being in a wine glass that you were not running and someone was like, “So I think when you’re approaching this wine to a table, the story really starts with a barn they erected in 1606.” I was like, “I’m f*cked. What are you talking about?”
E: I’m never going to remember all these details.
J: Also, what are they talking about?
E: I know. It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry for all of you young sommeliers who might be listening to this. Believe me, it doesn’t matter.
J: I think they had you take over the wine education programs at one point. But I remember you being like, “OK, so here’s the thing. This is day one. I’m going to teach you what acidity feels like in your mouth.” And then you told me and I was like, “Oh, I’ve been lying this whole time.” I will never forget showing up to that restaurant on the first day of work and it was at line up where they poured everyone a wine. And they were like, “All right, so what are people analyzing?” And I remember looking over and Aly McManus had the glass tilted. It was looking out to the light. And I was like, “I’m f*cked. I don’t even know what she’s doing.” There were just so many moments.
E: I promise you, Aly was also probably like, “I think this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” Nothing gets Aly. She’s amazing and so great. And I love her story about having to ask the specs of a Negroni as she was a bartender.
J: I know, she’s so funny.
E: What an incredible class we had.
J: Truly. But I just remember so many moments like that. Funnily enough, it’s Aly again. But I remember one time they put up a new rabbit dish. And I was sitting next to Aly and she went “Oh my God, I’m obsessed with Taggiasca olives.” Oh my God, there are names for the different kinds of olives. I’m f*cked. It kept on going. I would have told you, “little brown.” But you were great. The practical approach is really powerful. I think that people don’t know that, and I think that’s probably one of the biggest tools you have.
E: Before New York, the first restaurant I worked at was Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colo. They don’t have Michelin ratings in Colorado, but if they did, it’d be there. It’s the best restaurant in the state, let alone one of the best restaurants in the country. It was just such a masterclass of understanding and appreciating service and hospitality and the fact that there are differences. Service is about executing the basics. Hospitality is about how you make people feel. Having that kind of be the first real eye-opening experience, talk about not drinking the Kool-Aid. Bobby looked up to Danny Meyer so much. Our first chef takeover was chef Hugh and Will, they came in 2012. It was right after they had taken over the restaurant, opened The Nomad, gotten their four-star write-up, and then just decided to scrap it all and change their menu. Cool, restaurateurs from New York are coming to Colorado.
J: They were like rock stars at that point in time.
E: How crazy that I was like the fly on the wall.
J: Wait, no offense, but how did you get that job as your first restaurant job?
E: This is a good story. So I have a mechanical engineering background.
J: On f*cking oil rigs, right?
E: On oil rigs. Exactly.
J: This is what I’m saying, guys. Erica is the most fascinating person.
E: Once you’re an engineer, you’re always an engineer. Being an engineer and being a sommelier are actually incredibly similar in a lot of ways. You’re a problem solver. So I grew up in Atlanta, went to school at Tech, graduated, and moved to Louisiana. Yes, to work for an oilfield service company. Which is kind of cringe to say, because I had actually focused on renewable energy my senior year. But I graduated in 2008.
J: Beggars can’t be choosers.
E: Yeah, exactly. I was like, “Oh, this is like the energy sector. I guess I’ll do this.” Plus, the headquarters were in France and I had studied abroad in France. In college, my boyfriend was half French, half English. I was like, “Cool, cool. I’m still going to travel. This sounds great.” I moved to Louisiana not understanding that I was actually signing up for an incredibly physical labor job. The technology is from the ’70s and hasn’t changed. It’s just giant mechanical pieces of equipment that you attach a 50-pound pipe, hammering together flanges, and that kind of thing. But honestly, I loved it because I love working with my hands.
J: We’re not desk people.
E: Yeah, exactly. My last job was helping clean up the 2010 oil. I was on a rig about 50 miles from it. So I’m deep sea in the Gulf. Once you open a well — FYI — communication is limited for about 36 hours. After the oil spill happened, I’m on the deck. When I finally go home, my parents are freaking the f*ck out. They knew I was on a Halliburton job, this whole thing. So I very quickly turned around and my job sent us out to the cleanup site. You had to take a helicopter. I will never forget coming over to the site and seeing the massive oil spill. Jake, being on the deck and seeing the small breaks, the waves were brown. And I was just like, “This is not OK. I’m dying.”
J: I’m crying-laughing right now because I’m fast-forwarding to when I met you three years later and someone would be like, “Table 37 was served anchovies and they don’t like anchovies,” and everyone would be like, “Fuck!” And you were like, “I was at the BP oil spill.” I didn’t know this context but it’s so funny.
E: I’m glad you’re doing this. I’m sorry, this is not exactly what you asked.
J: I don’t care, this is heaven.
E: So I get back on here and I literally go to one of my superiors and I was like, “Yo, dude listen. I think I’m f*cking out.” By that time, I had already been cut out a little bit early to extend my lunch break to go home and watch Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” at my house. Do you know what I mean?
J: You were finding a passion.
E: It’s just not what I wanted to do. I had a really great exposure first to food and wine and wining and dining through dating my college boyfriend. Because the first time I had wine was with his family and it was a five-course meal experience. I had never drank in high school, so I showed up to their house. His father’s like, “Gin & Tonic, but with a lemon because it’s the English way.” I was like, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” We had a ’97 Semillon, I remember that specifically. I don’t know the producer.
J: Your first glass of wine was a ’97?
E: Well before this, I did tell my parents like, “Hey, you guys, I’m going over to Alastair’s parents’ house. I’ve never drunk alcohol. What do I do?” So my mom goes to f*cking Kroger, picks up K.J. Chardonnay off the shelf, not even chilled, and brings it home.
J: It was liquid butter.
E: I was like, “What the f*ck is this? People drink it?” No, I can’t do this. I’m going to fail. Of course, going under that circumstance to a European household, we finish the night with Cognac and cigars. It was such a crazy experience. So I’ve just been very lucky along the way of being aligned with the right people. So I get onshore, I basically walk into my manager’s office and I was like, “I can’t do this. I’m done. I’m sorry.” He’s like, “Well, what are you going to do?” And I was like, “I don’t know.” When I lived in France, I went to this restaurant and there is someone there specifically just to serve wine with the dinner and that’s kind of f*cking cool. And I think I’m just going to do that. Very early on, this is like 2010, I was just like, “I just want to be a sommelier.” I had no idea what it actually meant.
J: What does that look like on a day-to-day basis as a job?
E: Right. I found a course in California, drove myself out to California, and studied under master sommelier David Glancy — who now opened a school in San Francisco. It’s basically wine prep. It was an 11-week intense course to get you ready to pass your first two exams. And I was like, “This is my way in.” Because I had never worked in a restaurant, I knew how to study. This is going to be my entry. Maybe I’ll pass these two exams, the certified exam and the intro exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers and then I’m a somm. I was so f*cking naive. I had met someone in Louisiana who was from Colorado originally, and we were doing long distance when I just decided to blow the whole thing up. We were getting serious about each other and it was like, “All right, well, let’s figure this out. Let’s find a home base and decide what we want to do.” I’m from Atlanta. I didn’t want to go back to Georgia. Sorry, mom and dad. And he’s from Colorado. I’m like, “Well, cool. I’m outdoorsy. Sounds great. I love living in different places.” So we moved to Colorado, to this town called Greeley, which is north of Denver by about an hour and a half. Before I left, I talked to the master sommeliers I studied with and I said, “Hey, I’m moving to Colorado. What should I do? What’s my next step?” All they said was to find Bobby Stuckey. Go work for him. I was like, “Cool, you got it.” I made a reservation. I showed up at the restaurant half an hour early and they were like, “We opened at 5:30 p.m.” And I was like, “Fine, I’ll just wait here and I will sit down.” I asked for him immediately and he comes over and I just stand up and shove my hand in his face. I said, “My name is Erica, and I studied with these people and I’ve never worked in a restaurant. I will do whatever it takes. I’ll wash dishes, I’ll clean the floor. I just want to learn.” Bob and I have talked about this a few times, and he’s recalled it, too. I just don’t know why he even took a chance with me, honestly. He just kind of smiled and gave me his card and his cell phone number was written on and he was like, “Just call me in a few weeks.” And I did. We had a great conversation. He very much explained to me, that it doesn’t matter if I had walked in that day as a master sommelier already. Everyone starts with the basics. You start in the polishing room, you start at the dish station. For me, my journey started in reservations. He hired me a couple of months later answering phones and making reservations, and then I quickly got promoted to reservations manager, front of the house manager, yadda, yadda. I basically created a junior sommelier position at Frasca.
J: Just kind of elbowing your way in.
E: Yeah. Look, no one’s going to hand things to you. You have to make opportunities for yourself. It’s how we do it in the restaurant about anticipating guests’ needs.
J: Yeah, exactly.
E: You do the same thing for a restaurant, right? You noticed that this task isn’t getting done. We had a red wine cellar and a white wine cellar. In the red wine cellar, I’m sure it’s not the case anymore, but there was mold growing on the ceiling. I casually suggested to our wine director one day, “Hey, why don’t I just come in one day a week and clean the wine cellar?” And he was like, “Why not? As long as it doesn’t interfere with your other job here.” It’s honestly what I did. Once summertime came, we opened a patio. There were two new sections in the restaurant that we needed another person out there for wine service. And I was just like, “I’m here.”
J: That’s so much of what it is in any career path. It’s true in the restaurant industry. And it’s also true in any industry that I’ve worked in. I say any industry I’ve worked in, which is entertainment and restaurants. In both, you have to kind of hustle and do what you’re good at, but also do what’s needed and then see opportunities. Oh, I think there’s an opening for this and if I do this, it’s going to work. I kind of have to just play that game. I love talking to you and I loved talking to Charlotte about the restaurant industry because it’s so nice to talk to people who worked in it and loved it and they are all in. You get to know restaurants and the restaurants specifically that you are working in so intimately. Restaurants are such a beast, especially like big fancy restaurants, and are such a beast and such a machine. It becomes this thing that you become a master of. You know how this restaurant works more than anyone, and there’s such a power to that.
E: Yes. It’s the 10,000 hours thing, right? It’s a craft. I chose to be in the service industry. In some ways, I consciously did know what I was getting into. Even though all of the other stuff that no one really tells you about, like the double-doubles. The crazy 20 table sections. The type of people you’re going to serve. I just loved it. I just ate it all up right away.
J: Yeah, I’m sure. What was the draw for you? Was it the wine nerdiness of it and your love of wine or service? Like working with wine and people.
E: Yeah. Wine isn’t my passion. I know how crazy that sounds. I grew up throwing dinner parties for my friends in high school. I made us all wear black dresses in suburban Atlanta to my house. I think I just really loved the fact that sitting around a table brings people together. Obviously, my experience of traveling really hit that point home. Our culture, I think, in some ways is so behind. How important food and family and all that meshing well together is. The wine was so great because it’s something that you’re never going to know everything about. I just love to learn.
J: 100 percent. And it can surprise you, even if you know it so well.
E: Yeah. You can be confident and humble at the same time. Confident to know that you know your sh*t. Humble enough to know that the sh*t you know isn’t half of the sh*t to know. Honestly, that’s what I really liked about it. It was kind of freeing in a way. Going through the grueling examinations, it was like, “Who cares?” Who cares if I didn’t remember the aging Saperavi. Which I’m sure you know since you worked at Kindred and Ruffian. For me, I think service is actually really addicting as well. There’s nothing better than being a part of someone’s life in a very short span.
J: It’s addicting because when it’s good, it’s good. And when it’s bad, it’s bad. But when it’s good it’s so good.
E: Right. Totally. I think being a sommelier is actually easier in a lot of ways for a few reasons. Because it’s like a sprint, right? You go to the table. You’re an amazing, charming person for 30 seconds. People think you are a genius. You make the host look like a f*cking boss, and then you go away and you come back and you serve it. And you’re like, “Oh, my God, this is amazing.” All right, server, here you go.
J: Being a somm is like being an uncle or an aunt. When the baby starts to cry you give it to mom.
E: Totally. Even though I do 100 percent believe that if you’re going to be a sommelier, you should be the best service person on the floor. You better know how to do everyone’s job and be very f*cking good at it.
J: There are moments when the somm maybe doesn’t have much to do. If the somm is able to do anything else, that’s really a f*cking lifesaver.
E: 100 percent.
J: I haven’t thought about that in a long time because I haven’t worked in a restaurant that had somms specifically on the floor since the one you and I had worked at. I remember the difference between the two shifts where I knew, Erica is a somm and can help me. You could either be like, “Actually, I can’t right now” or “Yeah, I got you.” The somms who would be like, “That’s not my job” were night and day.
E: What are you doing? The most important thing is running hot food. I don’t know how many times I have to tell this to people. If the table’s not set, then the food can’t drop, and then you can’t do your job.
J: The wine’s been waiting for 75 years. It can wait two more minutes.
E: Exactly. There was this one time at EMP, I kind of got into it with my favorite captain. We had captains there who would run the section. He is such a f*cking superstar and had been there for so long. He and I worked together a lot because we were great. We had very similar energy and vibes and he didn’t take himself too seriously either. There was this one time when we had a bunch of VIPs in our section. Daniel Boulud showed up to an eight top and we brought him a chair. I was like, “F*ck me, I got to get this table’s wine.”
J: I think about this a lot. Do you think when you’re a food celebrity, you know you’re kind of ruining everyone’s night by showing up at a restaurant? Does Pete Wells understand that if shows up at a restaurant, everyone’s like, “F*ck my ass.”
E: All of a sudden.
J: Obviously, they love the industry, they work in it. But there’s that echelon of people where, if they walk in the door, everyone’s like, “Motherf*cker.”
E: Totally. I’ve served so many celebrities that I don’t get starstruck. The only person I ever got starstruck by was President Barack Obama. I don’t know if you were there for that shift.
J: I missed it by two weeks.
E: Oh, my God.
J: I was there for Kim and Kanye. That was good.
E: Oh, yeah. I was there, too. It was closing time. And I remember them walking downstairs at 11:30 p.m. and I’m like, “We’re closed.” But anyways. He comes in and as you mentioned, he’s a pro. He obviously knows the restaurant industry. And I am like, “OK, Stephen, I have to go get this wine because I hand-selected these pairings for this table.” And he’s like, “No, I need you to amuse this table for me.” And I was like, “Stephen, I have to go to the cellar and get this wine.” And he was like, “This table needs to be mised.” I was like, “Stephen, the server can mise the table.” I’m the only one who has keys to the wine cellar. It was this crazy moment because again, we had never had any conflict. At EMP, when you’re on the floor, it obviously can get intense in high situations. You never argue on the floor, especially with guests facing. You just say “yes” and you move on. Maybe at the end of the shift, you talk about it. Something. Yes, I hear you. We’ll talk about this later. But after a service, neither one of us was willing to give up our position about who was right. No, Stephen, come on, man.
J: Yeah, totally.
E: We literally lock our cellar. So who has the keys to go get this wine? He’s like, “Ask a manager.” The manager doesn’t have keys. Like. The manager is not going to go find this bottle in a 20,000- bottle cellar.
J: It’s also so industry that you’re getting worked up about this right now. It still lives in your bones, and you’re getting mad. It’s so industry.
E: It’s so funny. I hope he hears this and is just like, “F*ck you, Erica.” I’m still right.
J: This is why you’re such a f*cking bomb somm. What you love is service. You love wine, but what brought you to the job is service. Because I feel like I worked with so many somms who were wine nerds and viewed service as the sh*t sandwich they had to eat at their job. That’s the thing I have to do to work with the thing I love. Every single time those people were like, “You know what? I’m going to go work harvest.” And they would quit the restaurant industry. God bless you. Go work in wine somewhere where you don’t have to deal with guests, because it’s not serving anyone for you to do this. It’s the wrong job for you.
E: No matter how high you climb, even if you’re the owner of a restaurant, you’re always going to be cleaning the toilets.
J: It’s part of the industry.
E: It’s part of the industry. You don’t work as a sommelier, just be a sommelier. You work to be a service professional. That’s just your niche, your little specialty. No offense, social media and whatnot, but with the surge of the celebrity sommeliers, the last few times I was a manager and hired young somms, it was frustrating. Because again, I came from the school of Bobby Stuckey of just being like, “No, you need to master everything.” If I need you to come in early to help the chef set up tables for a photoshoot, don’t give me any lip about it. You chose to work in the restaurant. You can’t just pick and choose if you’re a team player.
J: You’re not a freelancer showing up on a contract for a specific thing. And if you are, God bless. But if you’re not, this is part of the job. I’m curious because I don’t think we’ve ever talked about this, about your feelings in terms of somms and credentials. Your feelings about the Somm Guild and taking the test and getting the certifications. I’ve worked with some amazing sommeliers who only have their resumes. There are no certifications, they haven’t done the process. As someone who has done it but also has the resume and has worked with both those people and has respect for both people, I’m just curious about your thoughts on it.
E: As I already mentioned, for me, getting involved with the guilds and the courts and stuff was a way of entry. It’s such a small craft niche, because outside New York, Chicago, or L.A., the job kind of doesn’t exist in a weird way.
J: It’s like being an actor, and I never thought about that. You only have a couple of cities.
J: Right, totally.
E: I don’t live and die by the facts in the books. I think that being a good sommelier is getting that real-world life experience and working the floor. It’s funny because there are a lot of really great sommeliers who kind of pushed their way through the exams. Even if they get to the third level and you put them on the floor, they’re just like deer in the headlights. That’s not really helpful either. Some of the most well-respected somms, even in NYC, don’t have those certifications. You don’t need those certifications by any means, whether it’s WSET or CMA or whatever, to be a sommelier. To be a sommelier is to be a good listener, first and foremost. Because it’s not about the wine that you’re excited about or that you like or that you want to sell that evening. It’s about what the f*cking person in front of you wants.
E: Having the knowledge in your mind is obviously incredibly important as a sommelier. There’s no faking it ’till you make it, unfortunately. People are going to be like, “What’s Burgundy?” And you’re like, “Oh, it’s Cabernet Sauvignon.” That’s not cool. So you have to have that knowledge. But how you get there is less important as long as you keep seeking out the education. I know that there’s been a lot of ups and downs with the main testing group in our country right now. Because, again, it was something that originated in Europe and the U.K. But I think that with their core values, they’re good people. Well, they are now. Not to get into it. You have to keep your eye on the prize of why you’re doing this. If the reason you’re taking these exams is that you think it’s the cool thing or you’re going to get invited on that wine trip, then you’re not in it for the right reasons, honestly. You should be doing it to push yourself.
J: I know. I feel like when you and I met seven or eight years ago, that f*cking “Somm” documentary had just come out.
E: Oh, my God.
J: There was sort of this cult of worship around master classes. Just an idea that if you are a master somm, you are this f*cking God who has superpowers. I feel like I was really seeing — and I’m sure you were, too — that was permeating the restaurant industry in NYC. People were thinking about it in a really intense way and I think in a really bad way. There was this thing where somms were becoming celebrities in a way that a chef could become a celebrity. And that’s always bad.
E: Somms are assholes, OK?
J: When someone’s like, “I’m working at a restaurant and it’s a celebrity chef,” I’m like, “You are going to need to quit or get on Lexapro real quick.”
J: I remember getting asked tableside, “What level is that sommelier?” At the restaurant we worked out, I had to be like, “let me go get them and ask.” Now I’d be like, “They are absolutely incredibly qualified and they’re going to get you wine you love, so shut the f*ck up.”
E: I’m such an anti-somm somm. I would always tell anyone I worked with or when I was managing, “Do not say that the sommelier is going to be over.” Use my f*cking name. Say, “Erica’s gonna be over and she’ll help you select something.” Of course, if people want to know and they want to ask, they’ll ask. Repeating the word over and over again feeds into this persona of the sommelier.
J: I worked at Kindred. For context, Kindred doesn’t have sommeliers. But every server at Kindred is expected and also really fostered to f*cking know that list. They do an amazing job of getting you to drink everything on the list and taste everything on the list. It’s a really safe learning environment and you learn a lot about the wine and the region that you’re serving and the kind of wine you’re serving really quickly. Another thing I had to learn there was kind of throwing an elbow when people would be like, “I need a sommelier.” I’d be like, “I’m your f*cking somm.” I’m your server, but talk to me about what you want.
E: I’m the person you’re looking for.
J: There’s not another person. But that’s not a lack. That’s not a thing this restaurant doesn’t feature. I’m also that, it’s a new feature of me. So tell me what the f*ck you want. One of the owners is a sommelier, and she just does design the list. I’d have really busy nights where people would be like, “I need to speak to Alexis.” I’d be like, “Alexis is incredible and I love her and she will get you an incredible piece of wine. But she’s also doing payroll right now and is not on the floor.” It’s my job. I’m telling you, I will get you just as good of wine. Like. It was always people who needed someone with the title of sommelier. That is an allusion to you.
E: It’s so frustrating because I think it just goes against the core of what a somm is. Honestly, they should be like an ally. Not just for the guests, but for the other parts of the team on the floor. I had a hot stand at Ruffian, I don’t know if you actually knew that.
J: I actually fully did not know this.
E: It was when I was opening Italienne and it just kept getting delayed and I needed to make money.
J: Oh, this is now ringing a bell.
E: I texted Moesha, who’s one of the owners of the group, and I met with Pat and Alexis pretty soon after.
J: They’re the best.
E: They’re just so amazing, and I just absolutely loved my time there. It kind of reminded me of when I used to work at this wine bar and it was just so much fun. But they so humbly and so sweetly were like, “But you’re like a real somm.” I’m sorry. First of all, you both worked at Leyla Bar and had already had so much wine experience. Listen, I don’t know anything about your wine program. I’ve never worked with these kinds of wines. I think it would be really fun and exciting for me. I have a lot to learn, you know? On my literal first day, I got a call from Wine & Spirits. I was nominated for Best New Sommelier after I was trying to explain to these genuinely beautiful, wonderful people that I’m not like that.
J: And then you’re the headline.
E: Damn it, you know? I’m obviously very grateful for everything that I’ve done. For me, I just want to sell the juice. I just want to sell wines. I don’t care how you are doing it or where you are.
J: Is the draw to fine dining, basically just the access that it gives you to the coolest wines in the world?
E: Listen, after Frasca and moving to New York, every restaurant was so much easier.
J: Even EMP?
E: 100 percent.
J: Wait, whoa. Can you elaborate a little bit? Why?
E: Yes. I know that some of my EMP colleagues are going to roll their eyes at this because I have said this before.
J: My God, I’m obsessed with the idea of EMP being mad at me. Keep going.
E: It was honestly the easiest job I’ve had in my career. This is why. As I already alluded to, everyone was already a f*cking pro.
J: A well-oiled machine.
E: All of us had already been managers before and ran our own wine program. It wasn’t the managers that were managing us. Everyone holds each other accountable there. And it is a well-oiled machine because everyone does care so much. When you work in the service industry, whether you work at a diner or a fast, casual, or whatever, If the person you’re working with doesn’t care as much as you do, it makes the job harder. It makes it less enjoyable. The hours seem longer. It was just like walking into this weird enigma and doing our thing. That’s why I think I was successful there. Even though I was like, “Listen, I really don’t think you guys want me.” They’re like, “No, we do.” Because as we already talked about, you know who you are. You know your thing, you know your weaknesses, you know your strengths.
J: And that’s a testament to their hiring acumen, to see that specific trait in you and not really value anything else.
E: That’s what they’re looking for. It sounds crazy, but they’re honestly not really looking for the resume. They’re looking for the person. And someone to mesh with their culture. I really thoroughly enjoyed my time.
J: What was so hard about Frasca?
E: In a lot of ways, it was similar to EMP. You got to understand, I was 24 and I didn’t know the rules of the game. I had been promoted to the scheduling manager after being there for six months. Rose is now the general manager that’s been there for 17 years or however long it’s been open. We’re closed on Sundays. I just remember her coming up to me and she was like, “Hi, Erica. I hear you’re doing the schedule now. Fantastic. So my days off are Monday. I am the closer on Tuesday and I’m the opener on Saturday. OK. Thank you.” And then she just walked off. I was like, “Oh my God.” You’re furiously taking notes.
J: I’ve been her, where you got the email that’s like, “Hey, a new person is doing the schedule,” and there’s no actual documentation of all the things that you’ve earned with the previous scheduling manager. All right, let me put my f*cking armor and go get a gun and hold it to their head and be like, “This is what I need.”
E: I also loved how much trust you got in such a small mom-and-pop restaurant. Even though my title was this, I wore so many other small hats. When I started, there were only three or maybe four managers on the team. It was kind of stepping up to that expectation and there were really high expectations. You don’t go in and work with the best in the business and it is a cakewalk. I’m still just in awe of everyone at that restaurant and their work ethic, and all of them that I worked with are still there.
J: That speaks to a lot, more than anything.
E: Volumes. It is Bobby. I remember telling this to them when I left, like, I only had three Saturdays off the entire almost three years I worked there. I was never going to be the person who could get off a plane from Italy, go straight to the restaurant, work the floor, have a manager meal until 2 a.m., and then get up at 5 a.m. and run two miles. I just never was going to do that. But he had that kind of bar that we all were trying to live up to. In some ways, it’s not like he was really honestly demanding it. It’s like Dad, you want to make him proud.
E: So I feel like I just put my head down and blinked and three years went by.
J: It sounds like he created an environment where the window is open for you to work super- f*cking hard here and make a life for yourself in this way. But it’s not like you have to like it’s taking it or leaving it.
E: What you put in is what you get out. And it’s up to you.
J: I have friends that live in Boulder that I need to go visit, so I’m going to go to this restaurant.
E: Oh, please do. It’s like my alma mater.
J: It’s your baby.
E: It’s my baby. They opened up a few spots in Denver that I have to go to.
J: Oh, cool. We’ve been talking for like 45 minutes about your career. I asked all the questions. What’s funny is this show is all about how you like to go out which is what I want to talk about. Because honestly, this is another thing we love to do. I love going out with you and now that we don’t live in the city we don’t get to do it that often.
J: As someone who is a fine dining badass, how do you like to go out?
E: I thought about this because obviously, I knew you were going to ask me. I was like, “I don’t know why the f*ck is asking me.” I don’t go out. But the thing that I love and loved about living in New York is that you can have it all. Look beyond Manhattan. I and my best friend Natalie would go to f*cking Coney Island at 10 a.m. And spend three hours at the beach and then the F train only takes 30 minutes to get home. We’re texting all of our other friends, “Meet us at this place for cocktails.” Everyone goes home. Everyone gets changed. A little afternoon delight with the husband, he comes over and you barbecue out and then play games till 2 a.m. That to me was the community that you find in NYC. Obviously, it didn’t happen until year two, but that was one of my ideal situations of going out. But the spontaneity, too, of NYC is magic. You kind of have to lean into it sometimes and have those experiences. My favorite time of the year to go out in NYC is actually around the holidays just because no one’s really there.
J: It’s quiet.
E: Brian and I are East Village kind of people. We’re not really Manhattan people, but if we’re going to go, it’s East Village. I really wanted to take him to this cookbook shop that I had visited five years prior on my first trip to New York. We went in there on Christmas Eve and got rare cookbooks from the ’40s and ’70s and stuff. I got this potato book that had a foreword by Truman Capote. It was so bizarre, but potatoes are my favorite food. I had booked our tickets to The Comedy Cellar.
J: Oh, fun.
E: Yeah, the 7:30 p.m. show. We’re like, let’s just walk across and hit stuff up on the way. We just walked into McSorley’s and it’s all decorated. I would never go there any other day of the year. But it was cool because those were New Yorkers there on that day. We go to the comedy show and get there early, we’re in the front row and Chris Rock ends up surprising and closing the show. We get out and we go to Mamoun’s for falafel. Just let it happen.
J: The meander of going out is sort of the vibe.
E: Because for me, I obviously love to go out to restaurants. I am that person. But it’s different. I don’t equate it with going out. For me, going out is more like you’re going out to have an experience and just letting it happen.
J: Part of it is because you’re encountering amazing food and amazing drinks at work constantly. So the thing you’re chasing when you go out is more about vibe and energy.
E: And experiences
J: It is about the things that you kind of have constant access to. It’s funny because a lot of the people I’ve interviewed for this show talk a lot about late-night go out. We talk a lot about dancing and clubbing. Now that I don’t work in the restaurant industry, that has become a part of my life in a way that it used to not. If you’re going to have a functional life and work in a restaurant, being out at 5 a.m. is just really not conducive. You will just start to wither.
J: Now it’s a little bit different. I can sleep in or whatever.
E: I’m also not 25 anymore. I just couldn’t do that anymore.
J: There’s very much that. So much of my adult life, all of my adult life, was in the restaurant industry until recently. What you described are my favorite days, starting at 11 a.m. and kind of seeing where the day goes and the spontaneity of it and just shooting a text and everyone meeting up. That slow roll of it is such a lovely, leisurely way to experience a day in New York. And that’s how you have those surprises of catching Chris Rock at a comedy show. New York has an opportunity for that.
E: It’s so true. My family would always be like, “Oh, you’re going to become a New Yorker and blah, blah, blah.” Everyone’s just so focused on Manhattan, but there’s so much more to New York State. The beach is a 30-minute train ride. If you want to go hiking, it’s an hour train ride. You have the city if you want. You have wineries if you want. There’s just so much more to offer.
J: Then it also expands to when your friend, like you, moves upstate and now you can go visit if. It expands your New York experience and the expanding area.
E: It does.
J: I have friends who bought a beach house in Asbury in New Jersey. Oh my God, if you want a fun night, go to Asbury Park for a weekend in the summer. It’s the f*cking best. But it does expand your New York experience because as you just are here for a longer and longer time, that starts to happen.
E: I have to give a shoutout to my friends and my crew who have already come and visited me and stayed with me. It’s always scary to move out of a place where all of your friends are. I’m only like a couple of hours above the city. It’s not like I moved out of the state.
J: And you’re on the train line, which is the key.
E: The Hudson Amtrak is so beautiful. I suggest it to everyone.
J: It’s so beautiful. Is it Ethan Allen?
J: Because I think Ethan Allen runs on that. That’s the one I take home to Vermont.
E: Oh, I don’t know. Amtrak does run from Vermont all the way down to Virginia. So you could hop on it at any point.
J: It’s so beautiful. It runs by a bunch of lakes and mountains. It looks like “Lord of the Rings.”
E: Totally. But going out up there is so different.
J: I’m sure. Is it like a nice farm-to-table restaurant, and then one of you has to drive home?
E: Yeah. The driving sucks. It was really nice just slumming it on the train, you know?
J: I know. Or even just walking.
E: Or even just walk.
J: My friend and I went to Miss Ada, which is one of my favorites.
E: Yes, I love that place.
J: Yeah, David and I went to Miss Ada two nights out ago. We ate ourselves to a medical issue. Then I was like, “We have to walk home. I know it’s cold out, but we have to walk or it’s going to really not be good for me.” And we did, and the luxury of that is so nice.
E: On our first anniversary we went to Le Coucou. It was styled out, very lovely and glee. And I was like, “I cannot breathe,” even at Andre. So we really walked across the f*cking Manhattan Bridge at 1 a.m. We literally walked all the way back to Bed-Stuy.
J: Walking across the bridges is one of my favorite things to do in New York. Walking across the river is so good and when it’s warm out, do it. I mean, if you want to do it in the cold, God bless. But in the summer, it is truly heaven. OK, we’ve come to the end, which is sad because I could talk to you for 100 hours.
E: I know.
J: As someone who’s worked with wines and stuff, what is something you wish that more people understood about getting wine out in a restaurant setting or something? What was a thing you realized about wine? Leave the folks with something, I’m curious.
E: From a guest’s perspective?
J: I guess from a guest’s perspective or also how a lot of people think this thing about wine, but it’s actually this. Or they think they like this, but it’s actually this.
E: Oh, yeah. There’s no such thing as you, you like dry red wine. All red wines are dry unless they’re from California. Dry is residual sugar in the wine. When you say that to a wine person or sommelier, dear listener, they are thinking in their head, “This doesn’t mean anything to me.” Everyone you know is so intimidated when they go to a restaurant and a somm’s like, “What do you want.” And you’re like, “I like a dry red wine with a medium body.” Cool, do you like something more fruity or spicier? Do you like something that’s fuller-bodied or lighter-bodied? How much money do you want to spend?
J: That’s something you really taught me about working with wine. A big thing that you’re working against is innate intimidation. The more you can break down the intimidation and be like, “Don’t be shy,” it’s not your job to know about wine. It’s mine. Literally, just say words, give me anything, and I’ll take care of it. You need to give me something, but don’t be intimidated.
E: Also, ask simple questions as a service person. And as the guest, don’t be afraid to say what you want. It’s almost like a little algorithm in your head that you’re going through these yes/no answers to narrow it down. As a guest, please tell me how much money you want to spend. Don’t say, “Keep it reasonable.”
J: It’s so subjective.
E: That could be such a wide range of numbers. When I go out, I want to spend $50 on a bottle. I actually hate going out with other somms or telling people I’m a sommelier because they immediately think I want to spend $200 on a bottle. No, I don’t know how much money you think I make, but no.
J: Conversely, a good time is not going to judge you for being like, “I don’t want to go over $80.” What was fun was being like, “Ooh, they want this, this, this, and it’s under $80. Let me go look at the fridge and see what we have.” It was like a game. Granted, every once in a while someone would be like, “I want a bottle that’s $30.” OK, the cheapest bottle we have is $45. So you need to work with me a little bit, but that’s a different conversation.
E: That could be an improvement.
J: I think that is incredible advice to leave on. Erica, you are a f*cking star and the greatest sommelier I’ve ever worked with and known.
E: Oh, my God, you’re going to make me cry.
J: Well, you’re Leo, I got to give it to you.
E: I love it.
Thank you so much for listening to “Going Out With Jake Cornell.” If you could please go and rate and review us on whatever you’re listening to this on, that would be really gorgeous for me in a huge way, so thank you.
And now, for some credits. “Going Out With Jake Cornell” is recorded in New York City and is produced by Keith Beavers and Katie Brown. The music you’re hearing is by Darbi Cicci. The cover art you’re probably looking at was photographed by M. Cooper and designed by Danielle Grinberg. And a special shoutout to VinePair co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for making all of this possible.