Cassandra Brown is the Divisional Beverage Manager with Hakkasan Group, an international entertainment, dining, nightlife, and hospitality company. This group has locations across the United States, Europe, Middle East, and Asia. The name of the group is taken from its Michelin-starred restaurant that builds dining, nightlife, day life, and soon-to-be hotel concepts. Hakkasan restaurant has 11 locations worldwide, as well as Yauatcha, HKK, Sake No Hana, Herringbone, Searsucker, Yellowtail, Stack, Fix, Red Square, Kumi, Citizens and Ling Ling restaurants. A recent visit to Searsucker in Las Vegas at Caesar’s Palace impressed. The food quality was exceptional, considering the price. We ordered more than five bar menu items, including the excellent steak tartare and burrata. The wine list offers some great new world selections (http://searsucker.com/las-vegas-menus/#), including the 2013 Groth Sauvignon Blanc (WWB, 91 points) and 2013 Landmark ‘Overlook’ Pinot Noir (WWB, 91 points). These wine prices are reasonable and won’t break the bank. I recently had the chance to sit down with Cassandra Brown. Cassandra, the Divisional Beverage Manager with Hakkasan Group, which also manages Searsucker, has worked extensively in the food and beverage industry. She was certainly a candid and insightful interview, with a wealth of knowledge with regards to wine, wine training and education, as well as restaurant management. Here is my interview with Cassandra Brown, CS, CSW
WWB: Can you talk about your background in wine and how you came to the Hakkasaan group?
CB: I have been with Hakkasan Group for almost three years, and Divisional Beverage Manager for well over a year. Even though I came to Hakkasan with a plethora of knowledge and experience, I started as a floor Somm at Hakkasan San Francisco. I came into the job with extensive management and other experience. With regards to restaurants, aside from being a Sommelier, I’ve been everything from a back-waiter to a Director of Operations, and I’ve worked with 5 Michelin Star Chefs in different stages of their careers. I earned my Certified Sommelier credential in 2007 through the Court of Master Sommeliers and was actually one of the first persons of color to become a Certified Sommelier through the Court. It’s very well possible that I could have been the first black female to complete this, so I have been doing this for a quite some time. Soon after I completed my Certified credential, I was able to complete my CSW (Certified Specialist of Wine) through the Society of Wine Educators. I also became a professional wine judge the very next year. I’ve also earned the CWAS credential (California Wine Appellation Specialist) with honors from the San Francisco Wine School, and I’m currently pursuing my Advanced Certificate with the Wine and Spirits Education Trust of London. I currently managing the wine and beverage program for the ‘Fabric of Social Dining’ restaurant concepts, founded by celebrity Chef Brian Malarkey which encompasses Searsucker, with other locations in Del Mar, downtown San Diego and Austin, Texas, as well as its sister restaurant, Herringbonewith locations in La Jolla, West Hollywood, Santa Monica and soon to be Las Vegas at Aria Hotel and Casino.
WWB: I am impressed with the small but excellent wine list at Searsucker, Las Vegas. Can you talk about creating the wine list at Searsucker?
CB: When I came over to the ‘Fabrics’, I inherited five restaurants and wine lists at once, which was not an easy task. One of my previous positions was Wine and Beverage Director for the Left Bank Restaurant Group in the San Francisco Bay area where I worked with Michelin Star Chef Roland Passot, and I managed the wine and beverage program for 5 locations. And it’s funny, because a little while after I left, they brought in a Master Sommelier to oversee that program. In terms of the different restaurants that I work with currently, each restaurant has its own demographic and what I call a different ‘energy’. In San Diego, those guys surf, and everyone is more laid back, and wine isn’t a big focus down there, but you still want to represent the culture. Most of the people tend to be more into craft beer and cocktails, but the observing the differences gives you the opportunity to do tweaks here and there. I found it very important and valuable to listen to the people who work in the restaurants, especially those who were there before me. It’s a good way of understanding what’s best to pour in each location. I am in the process of developing a ‘signature wine’ program for the ‘Fabrics’, a core list of wines that can be shared across all the Searsuckers and Herringbones, and I would like to launch it early next year. The Hakkasan branded locations have signature wines as well, and I would like to extend that principal over to the ‘Fabrics’. And even though there are lots of similarities among the restaurants, there are a ton of differences, and I want to try and consider everything. For instance, something that will work at Del Mar and down downtown San Diego might not work in La Jolla. La Jolla is very wine savvy, and they are willing to spend a little bit extra on their wine. And in Del Mar, there is a lot of money, but people might not want to spend as much of their money, and it’s good to know that. You must always keep in mind the location of the restaurant and the people that come in there. The downtown San Diego Searsucker location tends to be a mixture of all types of people, including locals and tourists. In the Austin, Texas location, we sell big and bold wines during Formula One … the Formula One wines I call them… wines like Opus One and such.
WWB: What did you like about their wine program at Hakkasan?
CB: The Hakkasan wine program is very impressive. There is a lot that goes into constructing the wine list. The Hakkasan wine program is something that has manifested over many years. Our Group Head of Wine in London, Christine Parkinson, is very well respected around the world, and I get to work directly with her. There is a great benefit to having personal time with her and drawing from her experience. She has been with Hakkasan since the very beginning, and her work in wine is excellent. Working with her greatly enhances what I offer not only to the company but to the profession as well.
WWB: Can you talk about the wine list at Searsucker in Las Vegas?
CB: Vegas was very new to me. I would come here from time to time for work, but I never spent a tremendous amount of time here. Vegas is very pedestrian. That got me thinking about what I call ‘creature comforts’. We wanted a program that would appeal to the masses and wine that the servers and the other staff would be comfortable selling. We wanted to choose wines that would appeal to many types of people, and all types of tourists. Everything is a collaborative effort, and you draw valuable information from your team, but it is my job to also oversee the program as well as execute corporate initiatives, grow vendor relationships, tasting, and so on.
WWB: I saw that you have the Landmark wines on the Searsucker Las Vegas wine list. Can you talk about the Landmark wines?
CB: Landmark wines tend to be very consistent and very popular. The Landmark wines are extremely approachable and being from Sonoma, they offer great structure, drinkability and are food friendly. They seem to appeal to a variety of palates, regardless of what people like to drink. Aside from Searsucker Las Vegas, I’m currently pouring the Landmark wines at Herringbone Santa Monica, which is our most recent opening for Hakkasan group. Herringbone Santa Monica came swinging out of the gate, and we were pretty sure that this restaurant was going to be a hit. Over time, I have learned to consider all types of wines that work well with a variety of foods, from spicy to savory. When we opened Searsucker Las Vegas, we thought that the Landmark wines would complement the menu very well, and they will also be part of the Fabric’s signature wine selections as well.
WWB: What are some of your career aspirations in the world of wine?
CB: I really enjoy working in a corporate environment. I like being a wine buyer and working on the corporate side of wine. I have also been on the consulting side where I’ve helped restaurants develop their wine programs as well as trained their staff. I also enjoy judging. I currently judge the LA International and the California State Fair wine competitions. Wine judging is hard work, but it can be a lot of fun, and I like doing the fun things in our business. I’ve also taught wine classes in the private sector for enthusiasts. My take on wine is that wine should be fun, not intimidating. I was recently given some amazing feedback that one of my blind tasting classes at the LA County Fair went extremely well and was very popular. My approach was to take people through what leads up to the actual blind tasting process…What we look for…what makes one wine different from the one next to it…how to look for, smell and taste the differences...and how those differences help us draw certain conclusions. It’s all about the practice and prep work that leads up to taking an actual exam, not to mention all the stuff that you have to do before you even pick up a glass. The documentary film ‘SOMM’ has had a major impact, and there is a sequel that is soon be released. ‘SOMM’ showed the masses the good, the bad and the ugly of what we do as sommeliers. Our preparedness is all for our guests’ benefit and to heighten the guest experience. I am happy with whatever and wherever wine takes me, and I absolutely love working with Hakkasan Group. I would love to move up in the company, and I’m also interested in other side projects. I’m currently in the middle of the opening of Herringbone at Aria [Hotel], and I just finished the list for that venue. We’ll have some of the same things as Searsucker, but I will sprinkle in quite a few more things, like more Burgundies and Bordeaux, large format bottles, but make it fun and approachable. This list has around 120ish wines whereas other lists have around 80ish. The Fabrics are and have always been very cocktail and craft beer focused. But now with our expansion into other demographics, we are taking wine out of the shadows, finally putting more of a spotlight on wine which of course, makes me very happy!