Water for Chefs—Chef Erling Wu-Bower, Nico Osteria, CHICAGO
The diaries of chefly oenophiles.
February 16, 2016
Chef Erling Wu-Bower of Nico Osteria is creating some of the country’s most skilled interpretations of Italian cuisine; surprisingly seafood-focused in a Midwestern city, his food is a refreshing step away from the red sauce contingent. Nurtured into culinary bad-assery by Rick Bayless, the darling loyalist to Paul Kahan’s One Off Hospitality has lived a sort of chef’s Cinderella story. Starting as a line cook at avec, Wu-Bower bounced up the ranks at One Off as Sous Chef at The Publican, Exec Sous at Publican Quality Meats, back to avec for a go at Chef de Cuisine and finally CDC/Partner at Nico, where he earned a Best Chef, Great Lakes nomination from the James Beard Foundation in 2015. With a CV like that, it’s no wonder Wu-Bower likes to unwind with a glass of something good.
“Beer is incredible with food,” he says. “But wine is better."
Would you call yourself a wine drinker?
I'm a drinker first and foremost, so I don't tend to be that choosy — I think Miller High Life is delicious. But, if I had to choose a preferred vehicle for my booze, it would be wine. It’s the pinnacle of alcohol production and the best friend of food.
Paint the whole picture of your bangin'-est wine experience REAL or IMAGINED.
My dad taught me more about wine than anyone else. He started letting me taste wine when I was little, thinking, “If I give it to you when you’re young, you’ll get used to it and won’t abuse it." He was wrong with that assumption, but those are still my best wine experiences. I would be sitting around the family dinner table with my dad, drinking one of his “stinky" Châteauneufs, eating chocolate and arguing about life. I spent six months in Rome in college, and my dad spent the same time working in Munich, Germany. When we both got back to Chicago, our views of the world were SO different. To him I was an indignant, ignorant little shit. I thought he was too set in his ways. We would argue for hours, through dinner and after my stepmom went to bed. The two of us would pull out the dark chocolate, open bottle after bottle of Rhône wines and question each others' sanity for hours. Sounds miserable, right? But we loved every second of it. It really helped us define each other — and our fuel was the red wine of the Rhône.
If you could choose the ultimate wine mate for the food you specifically cook, what would it be?
I cook Italian seafood at Nico Osteria. We do a lot of raw fish and a lot of pasta. There is no better wine for raw seafood than grower champagne (though the Japanese might have an argument), and our wine director, Bret Heiar, has really awakened me to the beauty of that product.
Have you experienced a wine pairing that you felt truly elevated your food?
Absolutely, all the time. I think that frequently people are so obsessed with a good dish that they forget to drink the wine next to the plate while they eat. Wine so often elevates even the most basic food. The most recent transcendent moment with food and wine came at my parents' dinner table. They roasted some duck legs and we were drinking a 2003 Château Frombrauge Saint-Emilion Bordeaux. I was obsessed with the duck leg. It was so good! Then I tried it with the wine and nearly fell out of my chair — the two were made for each other. It felt like they were raised together. It just made sense.
What makes you like a wine? What makes you not like a wine?
Balance makes me like a wine. Complexity makes me like a wine. I think that you can taste wines that were made without care and intellect. Care makes me like a wine.
If you could drink one wine RIGHT AT THIS VERY MOMENT, what would you want?
I'm all about wines from the Jura right now. Stinky and complex, yet light and refreshing. Tastes like the bottle itself was buried underground with the vines. It's really cool stuff. If I had to choose one bottle of it right now, I would go with Jacques Puffeney’s Poulsard.
Jacques Puffeney Poulsard, Arbois, Jura
Welp, here’s the thing: There ain’t much of this wine left in the world. In fact, if we wanted to be super cliché, we might say something about it being like the Holy Grail of wine or whatever. It’s maybe kind of weird, then, to suggest it here. HOWEVER. There are some wines that are worth the crusade, and this is one of ‘em.
Jacques Puffeney (aka “Pape d'Arbois,” or "the Pope of Arbois) is one of the OG producers in this Eastern Alpine appellation of France. A subzone of the Jura, the village of Arbois is home to insane Jurassic soils (hence the moniker), sherry-like vin jaune and rustic reds made from native grapes like trousseau and poulsard. Though the region’s popularity has exploded in recent years, historically, there ain’t no poulsard like a Puffeney poulsard. The 71 year-old winemaker worked with the grape for over five decades, and his ethereal expressions of the finicky vine have been known to send even the chillest wine hipsters scrambling. Thus, when le Pape announced his retirement in 2014 (and the subsequent sale of his vineyards), the hoarding commenced. But it’s out there, friends.
This is your quest: If you come across a bottle of this mineral-driven, brambly, pepper-and-roses gift from the gods, BUY IT. Then find the hardest saucisson available, climb a mountain, eat, drink and reflect quietly on the fleeting nature of all things.
BY LAUREN FRIEL | ILLUSTRATION BY AMANDA LANZONE
BY LAUREN FRIEL | ILLUSTRATION BY AMANDA LANZONE