Customer Spotlight: Chef & Somm - Bespoke Dining Experiences
We met with Eyal Liebman and Rebecca Meïr-Liebman of Chef & Somm Bespoke Dining to discuss the symbiosis between chefs and sommeliers, and how food and wine are connected arts.
Eyal Liebman and Rebecca Meïr-Liebman are a chef and sommelier duo (and married couple) who together run Chef & Somm Bespoke Dining, a private service that creates unique, intimate dinners tailored to individual groups in and around Toronto. Eyal is the chef and Rebecca is the sommelier, but their work is very much a collaboration; although Eyal creates the menu and is “in charge of the spice rack,” the two work together to ensure the wine and food are perfectly harmonious and balanced. They both come from serious, respected restaurant backgrounds — Chef Eyal was trained by French Master Chef Didier Leroy and worked at Harbour Sixty Steakhouse, Böehmer Restaurant and other top Toronto restaurants; Rebecca’s resume includes Canoe and Luma — and it shows in their commitment to service, high-quality ingredients and artistry.
We sat down with Eyal and Rebecca to discuss the importance of communication between chefs and somms, egotism in the kitchen, the fundamental difference between fast food and fine dining, and more.
How did you get into the food and wine industry? What’s your background?
Rebecca Meïr-Liebman: I was one of those kids who loved smelly cheese. My parents called it the “grown-ups’ cheese” because the other kids liked yellow cheese, but I liked brie, camembert, the sophisticated cheese you can find in Europe. I always liked grown-up food as a kid, but I had no idea I would end up becoming a sommelier and working with wine. My passion just took me there. I started tasting and discovering wines, and I loved to learn about them, and I got better at what I did. It just happened.
Eyal Liebman: I wish I had the same story as so many other chefs: “My mom’s food inspired me to cook.” But sadly, my mom comes from a heritage of food extractors. She could make anything taste terrible. Anything. I remember the first time we went to a restaurant and the food actually had flavor. And I said, “One day. One day I will do this.” And that’s why I cook. I want to save the world from old Polish ladies who extract flavor from food. That is my mission.
How did you get from a broad interest in flavors to actually becoming a chef? What sort of training did you go through?
EL: I went to culinary school, and I discovered that every minute I spent there was a minute I wasn’t learning how to actually cook. You don’t learn how to peel potatoes unless you actually peel a potato. So I found one of the biggest chefs in Canada, and one of two Maîtres Cuisiniers de Frances in Canada — Didier Leroy — and I became his potato peeler, carrot peeler and dishwasher. I learned from him.
When I run a kitchen, I’m a chef — that means chief in French. That’s important. In other industries, people respect managerial titles, but in the food industry, every cook is suddenly a chef. But that’s a title other people give you. Didier and I both consider ourselves cooks above all. I am a cook.
"They should tell people in culinary school: if you’re not happy being a cook, if you don’t see that as glorious, then this is the wrong profession."
How does that preoccupation with being called “chef” affect dynamics in the kitchen?
EL: We’ve become an industry obsessed with titles instead of achievement. You get young people coming out of culinary school now and asking, when do I get to create my own menu? Show me what you can do first! Show me your plate, your flavors. Learn to butcher a chicken. Can you peel six potatoes in under an hour? You need to learn to control your medium before you create your own menu. They should tell people in culinary school: if you’re not happy being a cook, if you don’t see that as glorious, then this is the wrong profession. These young graduates come into your kitchen and they’re frustrated being the person who just does salads. But salads are fun!
As a chef, you have to enjoy taking bones out of an animal or cooking vegetables. I love cooking. I don’t care about the title or what you call me. As cooks, we’re constantly learning. We’re artists: we’ve never finished our work or achieved catharsis. You must know there is always more to do.
Is that true for sommeliers, too?
RML: It is. You must see the joy in opening a bottle of wine, the privilege in tasting wines you’ll never be able to afford. You meet young sommeliers who say, “I did all that schooling and now all I do is open bottles of wine.” But you’re pouring something that’s connected to an artist! You’re pouring an art form. That’s not something you should be frustrated about. Sharing your knowledge, your thoughts, your philosophy is a privilege.
Being a chef or a sommelier is a practical job, too. How good are your pairings? How do the somm and the chef connect to bring that amazing experience to a guest? Are you bringing your guest something interesting, something unique? There are the technical aspects of it, too. Can you open an imperial? Can you open a magnum? Can you lift it? Can you carry 20 flutes? And do you have a personal touch with people? You must have more than just an academic knowledge of wine: you need a front-of-house personality, too. A sommelier is a person on the floor moving wines, suggesting wines, making the connection between the food and the wine. As a sommelier, you can’t just immerse yourself in the wines and forget about the food. They must be connected. You are creating a relationship. Sommeliers used to come from the kitchen and start as cooks. They would understand flavors.
"I’ve heard master sommeliers say there’s a certain amount of luck when a wine is paired. But it isn’t luck: it’s the chef."
How do you navigate that connection of flavours between food and wine?
EL: The practical use of a sommelier’s wine knowledge is how a wine pairs with food. Will the food and the wine work together? If I came to a cook and said, “I’ll take a hazelnut chocolate cake and put capers on it,” how would that sound? It’s the same with wine and food pairings. All your notes are irrelevant if you can’t pair them.
RML: 95% of the time, if there’s a bad match, the taste of the food won’t suffer, but the wine will. The food will change the flavor of the wine, not the other way around. And that’s why the onus is on sommeliers to know, understand and respect food. And chefs must engage more with wine. But it’s the somm’s responsibility to share their knowledge with chefs and encourage chefs to taste. Because if a sommelier doesn’t communicate with the chef, the wine is more likely to be ruined than the food.
Eyal always tastes the wines, or he knows what the notes are because we communicate about them. He knows the flavors and he sees them as another ingredient in the dish. I register him in wine seminars, too. I’ve heard master sommeliers say there’s a certain amount of luck when a wine is paired. But it isn’t luck: it’s the chef. That is the communication between chef and sommelier.
What’s your process around creating dishes together?
EL: To be honest, when it comes to creating dishes, I have more of the power. Rebecca’s done pairing the moment she buys the wine. Then it’s in my hands. So I need to know the wine, and I need to treat it like it’s part of the dish. We can work around someone’s wine collection, too, in which case Rebecca becomes even less of a sommelier, because someone else has bought the wine and aged it. But Rebecca still needs to explain that wine to me in my language, and to guide me through it even though she doesn’t have the control. The customer aged the wine; Rebecca likely hasn’t even tasted that exact vintage. She can research and give me information and let me taste right before we serve, but I need to be responsible enough to come with an open enough plan that can incorporate that wine.
Can I do it without her? Probably not, because she knows how to translate the wine into my language. That’s key. If we’re the ones buying the wine, then we can work it into the dish from the beginning. But not when the guest provides the wine. The balance has to be correct. We have to understand how they taste together. In our industry, we try to make taste exact, but in art, there are no absolutes. And there are also cultural considerations; those change the way you taste. If you hate certain foods, would a certain pairing still work?
RML: That’s why we start with a consultation. We don’t have set menus. We start by asking clients questions about themselves. What do they like, what don’t they like, what’s their palate like? We need to understand them, what culture they come from, what ingredients they’re used to, what ingredients they enjoy, how artistic and crazy they want the meal to be. Are they open to trying, say, lamb testicles, or would they want us to keep the meal more classic?
In those consultations, what’s the most difficult thing to explain to clients about what you do?
RML: The trickiest part is explaining to clients that the meal is about them and their palate and what they like, but that they don’t write the menu. The chef is the artist, and the menu is his art. The understanding that a chef is art is key. Why, in France, is a Michelin-starred restaurant so much more expensive than a local bistro? Because what’s served there is art. And because of the dining: silver cutlery, china, the servers having more knowledge. There’s more presentation. But the food should always taste excellent.
How do you find and source ingredients? Do you work primarily with local ingredients?
EL: It depends on the dish. If there are peaches grown in Ontario, should I buy them in Chile? No, unless the ones in Chile are better for the dish. Terroir is important. It changes the flavor of an ingredient. We accept that when it comes to wine, but it’s true with food, too. There are also a lot of great ingredients that aren’t grown in Ontario. Chocolate, for example: cocoa beans like the equator. And pineapple.
RML: I agree about terroir. People here think, for example, that the expression of the chardonnay in California is better, so they tend to drink it more than Ontario chardonnay. But when it comes to food, people are obsessed with the idea of food being local. They’re very curious about the terroir and the grape varietal in their wine, but there is no interest in a certain breed of pig or cow and how or where it grows.
Do you encourage that curiosity in your clients?
EL: It’s important for our clients to have fun and also learn something. The two are not mutually exclusive. You can teach people something new about food and wine while they’re enjoying them. That’s why we hire wonderful front-of-house staff.
RML: When I dined at At El Celler de Can Roca, the restaurant named the best in the world in 2013 and 2015, the sommelier served the VIP table. He was the one who told the VIP clients about both the food and the wines. You could tell from the pairings that the chef really understood the wines and the sommelier really understood the food. The sommelier conveyed that connection between wine and food expertly. And that’s what front-of-house people do: we engage our clients and we make meals fun and exciting, but we also share our knowledge and experience.