If you come to John Howie Steak in Bellevue, ask for Chris Lara. Chris has served as John Howie wine director for more than three years and has some of the best wine service that I have seen. This includes dinners at Eleven Madison Park, Daniel or any Michelin star rated restaurant I’ve dined at. Just a wonderful guy, Chris has an incredible way with his guests. An Advanced Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, Chris is currently working hard to gain his master somm pin. He is dedicated, down to earth and I think you will very much enjoy hearing more about his story in wine. Here is my interview with Chris Lara, Advanced Sommelier at John Howie Steak.
WWB: What were your first restaurant jobs and how did you get interested in becoming a sommelier?
CL: It is funny but Erik Liedholm, who is my current boss, was the first person who influenced my wine knowledge. Erik was at the Hyatt Hotel and he blew everything out of the water for me with regards to wine. He was gracious and funny with guests, just the kind of person you want in service. Shortly after opening 727 Pine at the Hyatt John Howie whisked Erik Liedholm away to open Seastar. I was at the Hyatt for four years. There were other opportunities there to help or learn about wine, I wasn’t sure that I would wanted to have as serious wine job yet. After the four years I then went to Crush which was a small restaurant, ten tables total. That wasn’t a lot and the owner, Jason, was impressed with my passion for food and I wanted to help him out, so he let me do the wine ordering. At the time I was just ordering what Chef Wilson wanted. It wasn’t until I made a bold move and put on Tempier Bandol by the glass that anyone took notice. Everyone raved about that wine and from that moment on I became the wine guy at Crush. This was a large undertaking as the wine list grew from four pages to 17 pages and I was learning as I went. I met my good friend Chris Tanghe at Crush, we would study together as we both moved up through the Courts levels. Chris Tanghe achieved his Master Sommelier certification a few years ago and as always been an inspiration to me. I would also say that as Shane Bjornholm, Erik Liedholm and Nelson Daquip at Canlis have always been beacons of inspiration as well.
WWB: You are one of relatively few (there are 44 in the city, while that is a low number it is super high for this area) Advanced Sommeliers in Seattle How challenging was it passing your advanced sommelier exam? What was the most difficult part for you (deductive tasting, theory or service)?
CL: For me and it still is, theory is a great challenge I don’t do well with numbers and it isn’t who I am. I am service oriented, that comes naturally to me. The test keeps getting harder every year and there are more areas to learn about as time passes. Thankfully the court as moved slowly away from rote memorization to connecting the dots and “why” this or that is done. I do much better learning the how’s and why’s. In the end theory is my Achilles heel.
WWB: I have always been highly impressed with your level of service which is truly best in the Seattle area?
CL: Connecting with the guests is all about listening and paying attention. Having good service is finding out what guests love and giving them what they want. Guest will often ask what is your favorite wine or steak. I don’t like this question because it focus on me and really its about their wants and desires. I will try and ask them in return what are some of their favorites. In the end this helps me guide them to the best choice. In the end its about their dining experience, For me I don’t know how to say how it comes naturally, its just something that I’ve learned over 30 years in service. The Court of Master Sommeliers has given us the guidelines and using the small wine tables was my boss, Erik Liedholm’s brilliant idea, instead of larger guerdons typically used. Its funning but when watching Downton Abbey some of my favorite scenes are the dinner service scenes. Something about the phenomenal attention to detail they had to have, everything had to be perfectly placed, speaks volumes to me.
WWB: You’ve been diligently studying for the coveted master somm exam. What is the most difficult portion of this incredibly challenging exam for you? Leading up to the exam where is your head at in terms of bringing all the parts together?
CL: It took me three tries to pass the Advance exam, again theory was the killer for me. I still feel the same for Masters. Cara de Lavallade the Wine Director at Willows Lodge and Barking Frog is my study partner. She is brilliant and pushes me each week. I sat Masters theory last year and failed. For me this year, it is about getting all the parts together. Having Cara to bounce ideas off of or having her tell me that’s too geeky helps.
WWB: You have a wonderful wine list and some really thoughtful glass pours at John Howie Steak. What are some of your favorite unusual wine and steak pairings?
CL: A classic and perfect pairing to me, for an A5 Japanese Wagyu Filet mignon is aged Bordeaux. Matching the rich concentrated flavors of a cabernet blend, that offers a harmony of savory and earthy components, with a layered and silky texture. An unusual pairing, one that I offer quite often, is California Pinot Noir. This pairing is all about understanding the guests’ palate. Our average guest enjoys a wine that is dominated by fruit, yet shies away from tannin and structure. A wine like Sea Smoke Ten from Santa Rita Hills offers exactly that. And is still loaded with enough fruit and character to stand up to the richness of a steak with that much flavor.
Our guests here at John Howie Steak are very classic. We sell a lot of California and Washington wines. Funny for some of our out of town guests, California is local. We structure our wine list for our guests. My motto is: “We are here to serve our guests and not our egos”.