The New York Minute

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The Sommelier

Paul & Vince would like to welcome to the conversation Christopher Struck of Ilili Restaurant.
…there’s an art and a nuance to it all. When it comes to choosing a bottle, it’s all about treading lightly and graciously. Sometimes I will try to coax a number or a range out of someone euphemistically. But it’s tricky because often someone just says, “something reasonable.”

Christopher Struck has served as the opening sommelier at Racines and Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe. He is currently Beverage Director for Chef Philippe Massoud’s restaurant, Ilili, in the Flatiron District. 

Chris holds undergraduate degrees in Culinary Arts & Food Service Management from Johnson & Wales University and also earned an Executive MBA in Food Marketing. He has gained industry certifications from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine & Spirits Education Trust, Society of Wine Educators, and Deutsche Wein und Sommelierschule in Koblenz, Germany. He can also be found teaching classes at the Hospitality Management Department at New York’s CUNY CityTech Campus.


Paul & Vince: How did you come to be in New York City and get into the wine world?

Chris: I’m originally from Northwest Florida on the Gulf Coast. My mother loves to tell people that I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up since I was four – I think I said I wanted to be “a cooker.” I haven’t deviated too far from that…I was a professional cook for about a decade and then moved into the wine side about ten years ago.

Paul & Vince: Did you always want to come to the city?

Chris: Absolutely. I grew up knowing I was a big city guy – I interned here for a summer at [celebrity chef] Tom Colicchio’s restaurant Craft. As soon as I finished my formal education at school, I knew I had to return to the city’s energy.

Paul & Vince: So, what was involved in the education to become a sommelier?

Chris: I chose to get a formal education and a lot of on-the-job training. There are certifications for sommeliers, and there are different certifying bodies that offer diplomas and certificates and things like that, and I was accredited by several of those. But I think it’s important to remind people that working as a sommelier is a job, and there’s nothing like learning on the job.

Learning about wine is very much threefold. One is tasting purposefully, which is very different from drinking for fun. The other is reading as much as you can about wine, and then the third is traveling to where the wine comes from. That’s the best — you have this epiphany when you visit a place and experience the wine in the context of the people that made it, the people that drink it, and the kinds of food traditionally consumed with it.


Paul & Vince: Some people may imagine a sommelier as simply the person who recommends wines that pair well with the restaurant’s food…but it’s much more than that, right? Can you take us through what a typical day looks like for you?

Chris: Yeah, absolutely. There are documentaries out there that romanticize the role of a sommelier. Most of my workdays at the restaurant are ten to twelve hours, and I usually rise as early as I can to attend to client business for a few hours in the morning before heading into the restaurant, where I tackle some combination of meetings, ordering, and updating menus and beverage lists before dinner service.

My scope as beverage director currently at Ilili is to manage the spirits, beer, and wine — anything you drink in the restaurant — in addition to the people who serve those beverages and training and hiring staff.

My favorite part of the job is being in front of guests, recommending wine, serving wines, and educating the staff. The objective is to match the customer with what they are looking for based on what you know you have, within their budget, and ideally to complement the cuisine…and to serve as many people as possible.

Paul & Vince: Wow, to find out someone’s budget…Is that something that they tell you specifically as a response to a question, or do you size them up in other ways?

Chris: So, it’s 2022 in New York City. I think it’s important to be on the forward-thinking end of many things. And so the very traditional, old school French service model of serving a taste for the person who ordered the wine, then pouring clockwise around the table, from oldest woman to youngest woman, the oldest man, to the youngest man, and back to the host…that’s not always applicable in today’s world. That said, there’s an art and a nuance to it all.

When it comes to choosing a bottle, it’s all about treading lightly and graciously. Sometimes I will try to coax a number or a range out of someone euphemistically. But it’s tricky because often someone just says, “something reasonable.”

So it’s best for all parties if you’re just forthright. You can tell us if it’s a special occasion, you’re with your fiance, a special client…Certainly, the more information you can convey about what you want, the better the experience will be for everyone.


Paul & Vince: That’s interesting. Your job seems to involve psychology, sociology, and all the training and experience in wine. What other parts of your job would come as a surprise to us?

Chris: Well, a big focus of Ilili’s beverage program is seeking out wines, spirits, and beers produced by underrepresented people in the beverage world, whether female, people of color, or in the LGBTQ+ communities. This is a full-time job in and of itself, as it involves ensuring the product is delicious and compelling from a sensory perspective, fits our concept, and offers value.


Paul & Vince: Your passion is obvious. As a New Yorker, what are some of your favorite things to do in the city on your day off?

Chris: Hmm…I love the theater and discovering new art exhibits. But to tell the truth, I still love to cook; I love bringing people together, especially colleagues who work as hard as I do. I mean, one of the reasons I chose my apartment in Brooklyn was because it’s large enough to have a huge dinner party. I usually host an orphans’ Christmas or Thanksgiving here. I think the record is, like, 78 people.

Paul & Vince: Wow, that’s a full house for a Brooklyn apartment!

Chris: Yeah, we had hotel pans of food, and the NYFD even showed up one morning because, you know, you can end up setting off fire alarms, trying to get a good sear on a piece of meat.

…and one more, Just For Fun

Paul & Vince: Now it’s time for the Just For Fun question. So, here’s a tricky question: What’s a question you’ve always been dying to answer?

Chris: Oh, that’s easy: Why don’t more places serve corndogs? They are delicious!

Paul & Vince: Ha! That was not what we were expecting!  [Laughs]

Chris: Well, my sister and I spent a lot of time with our grandparents growing up, who were very kitchen-centric, one being French and the other from the deep south. My grandmother was a French duchess who came over when she was 17 and married my real Texan grandfather.

It’s been fun when our French relatives come for various family reunions because they want to partake in southern cooking. So, watching an uncle who is, you know, actually a French count eat a corndog is a fulfilling experience.

Paul & Vince: Wow. What exactly makes a corndog?  It’s a hot dog with fried batter on it. Is that essentially what it is?

Chris: Yes, corn batter. But you can make a lot with that as a starting point. There’s a place in the East Village called Sydney’s Five that makes their corn dogs, and they use andouille sausage…they’re outstanding. It’s arguably a breakfast food because it’s like a sausage dropped in pancake batter on a stick. It’s so versatile. We don’t give corndogs enough love in this country.

Paul & Vince: You think so?

Chris: Yes! Corn dogs are delicious and unique. They could be our national dish!

Original artwork by Jolisa Robinson, Gavriani-Falcone Team Marketing

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