After winning season four of Hell's Kitchen, Christina Machamer became sous chef at Gordon Ramsay's restaurant at the London West Hollywood. But these days, she's traded the rapid-fire kitchen life to become the wine educator and resident chef — albeit one with limited kitchen opportunities — at B Cellars in Calistoga.
After her contract ended at the London West Hollywood, Machamer took some time off to study wine at The Culinary Institute at Greystone in Napa Valley, where she passed level two (known as the Certified Sommelier exam) in the Court of Master Sommeliers' four-level educational program. She returned to L.A. as part of the opening kitchen team at Bouchon in Beverly Hills, but soon found her way back to wine country, where she's shaking up the high-end wine scene with a little Fruity Pebbles tasting fun. Get her back-of-the-house perspective on the wine industry and her Mad Libs take on food and wine pairings after the jump.
Squid Ink: When did you leave L.A.?
Christina Machamer: I've been here almost a year. I stayed at Bouchon for about 2 years. I definitely wanted to move north to the area, the traffic is much better up here. [Laughs] I used to live in downtown L.A., and actually, the air is better too.
SI: Your title at B Cellars is “wine educator and chef,” a somewhat unusual title as those are often separate jobs at wineries. Do you have a full-service kitchen, like at J Winery in Sonoma?
CM: Napa is interesting on that. You need a permit in Napa to serve breadsticks, you need another one to serve cheese. Literally. So yeah, I don't have a full kitchen in that sense. I run the private tasting program [at B Cellars], and everything there comes with a food component, like our library tasting that comes with cheese. But even if we can't do the full deal, I've done it all up here for tastings: Vegan pairings, pork product pairings, chocolate pairings, you name it.
SI: Gotta love how pork has become its own tasting category like chocolate. We've heard that the winery's co-founder, Jim Borsack, is big on the food pairing side. And you've got this food and wine pairing class in which you talk about how childhood “sense memories” affect the way we taste wine. Tell us more about that.
CM: Well, I think there's that chef side that comes out in me sometimes that people don't always expect. So here I am going through my sommelier training, and I'm sitting at the table with my fellow snobby soms. And they're smelling a wine and saying, “This is bell pepper, this is beef, there's a spice,” all these things. And I'm smelling the same wine and looking at them and saying, “Guys, really? That smell is totally fajitas.” It's just the way my palette has developed — through food, the kitchen, every food memory. Tasting wine is like that.
SI: So tasting anything, even wine, inherently brings back that “childhood sense memory” side.
CM: Right. Like say you are remembering your mom's cookies. Your memory might be chocolate chip, and mine might be oatmeal raisin. They're both cookies, but they're very different, and what we each think is very different. I tell people, forget what our PR company told you about the wine, what do you really think it tastes like?
SI: Ha. Wouldn't it be nice if we could get away from all the PR and wine critic jargon in wine tasting descriptions, just get down to basics.
CM: I'll watch someone at a tasting read that the wine they're about to taste is supposed to taste like sweet tobacco. They'll taste it, and they'll say, “I don't taste tobacco.” And then they say they hate the wine. There's something we're doing there that's causing that.
SI: Yeah, all that coddling and leading people with select information rather than letting them figure it out can backfire. So how do you prefer to conduct a tasting?
CM: We've got a private table in the back, in our wine cellar, and some days there's a lot of action. First, we taste through the wines by themselves. To get the creative juices flowing, I use real world examples for the flavor components – Dr. Pepper, beef jerky, Lucky Charms – these things are so common but we forget what they smell like. But people really relate to them, they understand them.
I like to then give an obvious example of opposite flavors [in a dish], like an apple, which is of course sweet and a lemon for sour. And I ask them which of those do they think the wine will pair best with? And it's not always the “right” answer that I get back, but that doesn't matter to me. I could tell you a certain wine goes great with a leg of lamb, but if you don't feel like roasting lamb for four hours, then you go home and that pairing isn't going to happen. So saying this wine goes with lamb doesn't help you. You don't learn anything about the wine.
SI: And you don't even open the bottle simple because now you're not making lamb.
CM: Yes, that's why in tastings I like to do things like that are set up like Mad Libs instead. People can make their own games with the wine based on that — fill in the blank with the flavor you like. Everyone is different. That's what's fun about wine and food pairing.
SI: That's funny. And great. Sort of like cooking, just jumping in and experimenting. Do you miss being in a fast-paced professional kitchen, that energy?
CM: Sometimes. But right now, this is what I need to do. I love it up here. And by the end of the tastings, we're usually just as loud [laughs], having just as much fun, as we did in the kitchen.
Squid Ink Note: We asked Machamer for a few food/wine pairing suggestions. Our favorite? The 2009 “The Cult” Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) from Napa Valley's Beau Vigne, which she calls a “punch-you-in-the-face Cab” that recommends with a bag of kettle chips. Sounds like a pretty perfect Saturday night dinner to us.
If you're up in the Napa area, B Cellar's 90 minute “Sensory and Excitement” tasting with Christina Machamer is offered on a limited basis, advanced reservations required ($55 per person). See the winery's website for details.
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