Mackenzie Parks is the head sommelier at the iconic steakhouse, El Gaucho Seattle. She has a culinary arts degree from Johnson & Wales University and had worked in fine dining from Miami to Seattle. Last year she completed her Level 3 Sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers and she aspires to someday be a Master Sommelier, one of the highest distinctions in wine (219 of them in the world!).
I recently had the chance to interview her about her background in food and wine and she had some wonderful and candid responses. Having known her for more than a year, she has made some excellent wine recommendations for me and her experience in the industry really shows. She helps craft one of the best wine by the glass list in Seattle (list: http://www.elgaucho.com/Menus/EGT-Wine.pdf), a list that is particularly strong with Washington Red and White wine selections, and she always finds the perfect wine to compliment some great steakhouse favorites. A visit to El Gaucho Seattle is a must for food and wine lovers. Here is my interview with Mackenzie Parks. #elgaucho
WWB: Can you talk about your journey in the food and beverage industry? How did you end up at El Gaucho Seattle?
Parks: When I was very young, I would cook macaroni and cheese (yes, from a box) and set up the dining room table with our finest china- I would look up how to fold napkins and make fancy napkin folds for everyone and serve macaroni and cheese to my family in the fanciest way you could ever imagine- I have always been fascinated by service, food, beverage, hospitality and the restaurant industry in general. I have worked almost every position in a restaurant- busser, expeditor, dishwasher, server, hostess, line cook, manager, beverage director, bartender and Sommelier… I have never been a General Manager, been a Chef and I have never owned a restaurant- that’s all just a bit too masochistic for me. I became fascinated with the food production side of things when I was a hostess- I was a terrible hostess, because I was always in the kitchen. I attended Johnson & Wales University where I attained a degree in Culinary Arts. I was lucky enough in my final year at Johnson & Wales to be sent to Germany to learn about wine. At the time I was happy to be getting a chance to drink in Europe and earn credits at the same time- but it ended up changing my career path altogether. We travelled throughout all of Germany’s many vineyards, visited Alsace, Switzerland, Austria, Burgundy, Champagne and the Rhone Valley. It was nothing short of the most epic introduction to wine ever, and I absolutely fell head over heels in love with wine- the many stories behind it, the many appellations and lands that it originates from, the endless possibilities of flavors, aromas, terroir, its ability to pair with food and make a truly unique and memorable experience- and the fact that I could study this world every day for the rest of my life and still not know everything. I immediately came back the US and got a job as an Assistant Sommelier at Emeril’s in Miami Beach. I moved on to work at Michael’s Genuine as their first head Sommelier, then went to Sushi Samba as their Miami Beverage Director for their location in South Beach as well as their offshoot restaurant, Sugarcane, in the Design District in Miami. I moved back to Denver to be closer to my family and get to know my niece and worked for Frank Bonanno while I was there. While working with all of these amazing people and getting a very well-rounded experience career-wise, I was working towards my Advanced Certification with The Court of Master Sommeliers. I had been through the test several times and not passed- and not passing was just not an option any more. I looked at cities that I could move to where I could be in a community of sommeliers that would help me to attain the goal of eventually becoming a Master Sommelier, but first passing my Advanced- and nothing made more sense to me than Seattle. It was a quick decision, and I moved up here without even having a job secured. As luck would have it, Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue was hiring for their Sommelier Team and I landed a Lead Sommelier position with them a week and half after I landed in Seattle. It was great being able to sell more First Growth Bordeaux than I had ever sold before- but Cooper Mills (The General Manager of El Gaucho) had sat down with me when I first landed in Seattle and told me that he was very interested in hiring me at El Gaucho once a position opened up. A year later, a position happened to open up and I was able to start working at my favorite restaurant job I have had to date. All of the restaurants I have worked in before were wonderful, the people all taught me things that I will forever hold dear, and the many personalities I have had the pleasure of knowing will never be forgotten- but I feel that El Gaucho is truly the culmination of all of my experiences in this industry.
WWB: Can you talk about the differences between the level 2 and level 3 sommelier exam? What did you find to be the most difficult part of the level 3 sommelier exam?
Parks: The difference is huge. The first time I went through the Advanced Test with The Court of Master Sommeliers, I was amazed at how much more intense and detailed the knowledge they required was. It also inspired me- I went through the test four times before I passed, and even though I did not get a pin the first three times I always came out a better Sommelier. The best way to really understand in detail the differences, you can reference their website- but I look at it like this- Level Two is something that both industry folk and folks who are passionate and interested in wine should take and pass. The Advanced is something that unless your career is involved with wine intimately, you might not have the endurance to get through it- unless you are gifted with photographic memory and you think that enduring days of intense amounts of stress and anxiety is an appropriate part of your hobby. The tests are ever-evolving to keep up with the growth and change in the wine industry itself- the things that people tell me are being asked in Level Two these days are way above the level that I experienced when I went through that test.
WWB: El Gaucho has crafted one of the best wine by the glass lists in all of Seattle. Can you talk about crafting that list and some of your favorite selections by the glass?
Parks: James Parsons is really the man who crafts our list of wines by the glass. I very much agree with him on how he goes about selecting what goes on that list- we have a few wines on there that we personally really enjoy, we have more wines by the glass that we know that our demographic will enjoy, and we have a few that we were able to work out some great deals with our suppliers that fit into both of those previous categories, but also offer some great value to our guests as well. First and foremost, we are a steak house- so the Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet/ Merlot based blends dominate our selection both by the glass and by the bottle. These are wines that folks tend to want to enjoy with steaks, and we are happy to supply a variety of choices suited for every type of palate out there. If you look through our selections, you will also notice that we carry more wines from the Northwest than anything else by the glass- we are huge supporters of Washington and Oregon wines and are happy to take advantage of the plethora of wonderful and delicious wines that are produced around here.
WWB: There are some fantastic new Washington wineries. Can you discuss some of your favorite up and coming Washington wineries?
Parks: I’m a big fan of Avennia- great Syrah and Bordeaux blends. W.T. Vintners is really exciting as well. For summer I am really enjoying some fine roses as the temperature warms up- one being Coral Wine’s rose which is delicious. II Vintners is something I always enjoy letting people know about- their wines a big success whenever I sell them on the floor, and their “Some Days are Stones” Syrah is a terrific value.