It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Singh

One of the downsides of writing for pay, or for other publications, is you’re always forced to have some angle or reason for coverage, like a chef is opening a new spot or Israeli food is hot. This is fine, but sometimes you just want to cover someone because you find them fascinating, generous, infectious, or exciting. The good news is because of your generosity and this newsletter, I get to do exactly stuff like that. And when I think about someone who ticks all those boxes, I can think of no one better than Alpana Singh, partner at Terra and Vine restaurant in Evanston, Check, Please! host, and sommelier extraordinaire. 

Singh was one of my first interviews when I started out as a food writer, and I’ve known her a long time. It’s been incredibly exciting to see her evolve as a writer, a television host, a restaurateur, and a speaker. But, what I didn’t see coming was a recent stint as an Instagram personality. Because I’m a social media whore, as in I spend more time with my phone sometimes than my own family, I’ve gotten a lot of joy out of Singh applying pumpkin spice face masks wrong while whipping up a mind-boggling assortment of food, all which make me wish I lived in her kitchen, on her feed.  And, so I reached out to see how she was doing in quarantine times.

We’ve known each other for a while. In fact, the last time we did a podcast together was this exact day fourteen years ago, which is kind of a crazy coincidence. This is sort of a way to say, because we’ve talked in the past and I’ve already asked you lots of questions, I kind of want to focus more on your evolution. Like everyone knows the story now, youngest Master Sommelier at 26, etc., but I wonder, when you passed that exam and arguably you could do anything, what was your plan?

I’d be lying if I said I had a deliberate plan. It’s not until recently that I’ve become more intentional. The Masters exam took so much energy I couldn’t think beyond my immediate goal at hand. I spent seven years studying, and then it’s like, what’s next? You almost need 5, 6, or 7 years to figure out the next thing. Master sommeliers are people who are intense, driven. They really a go down rabbit hole and focus. Once that’s over, and you reach the goal, you wonder what the next carrot to chase is, like what will give you the same sense of purpose and drive as studying for that test? For seven years, I didn’t read a fiction book, it was always wine related, there was no time for that or hobbies.

I remember you once told me you were hanging out with other master somms and you asked them, well, what else do you do beyond wine, and the answer was kind of “What else is there?”  I guess my point is you probably could have done anything, but why did you choose owning and running restaurants? Do you miss being a sommelier?

Back when I passed, the exam was not nearly as popular. There was no Somm documentary, and Vice News wasn’t doing segments. I remember back then, some guy at the airport asked me what I did, and I had to explain. The other day I told someone what I do, and they knew about it automatically.

I still do a lot of mentorship, proctoring of tests at the intro level. I have the Trader Joe’s wine list on my website, so I still do a lot of it. My goal has always been to make wine approachable. Running a restaurant gave me a chance to train a team. Almost everyone from the staff at The Boarding House now runs a wine program somewhere. Some of them tell me that my teaching was useful, and I’m like “OMG, you actually listened to me! If you only knew.”

Another thing you told me a long time ago, is that as a sommelier you build a sense bank and that every year the sense bank gets deeper and deeper. Fourteen years later, I wonder how that sense bank is, or how you’ve seen wine evolve?

It’s funny. If you’re around long enough, you start seeing things that fell out of fashion fall back in to fashion. Like Australian wines were big and then they weren’t, but now they’re hot again. But there’s also an evolution of styles, Australia 2.0 is more subtle, not 1999 big shiraz, but more subtle like pinot noir. I find rose’s popularity so funny, because back then you couldn’t sell it. Now I’m meeting winemakers’ children. The industry grows with you.

As far as restaurants, I don’t know how to do anything else. I can’t sit still. I can’t do the office thing. There’s not enough stimulus. This quarantine is the longest I’ve been out of restaurants since I was 15. Also, I find I’m an entrepreneur. I can’t work for other people, and don’t like to be told what to do.

What was it like to go from being a restaurant employee to an owner?

The funny thing about owning vs being a worker is that what you quickly learn is you become your toughest boss. Owning your own restaurant is like turning in to your mother, or in my case, turning in to [Jean] Joho [who Singh worked with at Everest}. There’s no room for failure. You sign those personal guarantees. If things don’t go right, you’re on the line. That’s scary, and it’s not the server’s job to understand that.  But, also you don’t understand how your parents fear for you until you have kids. Until you get in the position of owning your own place, it’s tough to understand, but now I have so much empathy for restaurant owners. You can identify them by the complete look of exhaustion. The barrage is endless. Everything, when you see the toilet paper, the salt and pepper shakers, that was a decision point.

How did you settle on Italian food with Terra and Vine?

The restaurant was already Italian, plus there was a Chili’s up the block.

So contractually, you couldn’t do fajitas?

Exactly, we could not do a fajita joint. I love Italian wine. This is also the first restaurant I’ve done that’s not a destination. At the destination places, you have more leeway, you can charge $36 for some nice protein. Neighborhood spots are more difficult. They require more consistency because people are always coming back. In some ways messing up a Wednesday dinner vs. special occasion has the same consequences. You can’t miss the mark for an anniversary dinner, but a bad day for us has just as much pressure.

We see a lot of chefs opening up restaurants that speak to their voice or their heritage. I’m not trying to pigeonhole you, but I wonder if you’ve ever wanted to do like a Fijian or Indian restaurant?

I’ve talked about it. But it’s tough to find the right chef who can execute my vision. If I do a South Asian concept, it’s almost easier for me if I can do it, control it, and set the imprint. And that’s hard. The toughest balance for chefs is balancing their creative vision vs the margins and fiduciary duty to the restaurant. The chef’s not an owner, so they want to create their own thing. They’re artists, so what’s the incentive to own food cost and margins? You have to find a way to motivate that.

You almost ran for public office a few years ago. Tell me about that?

Almost, but I decided not to. What turned me off was the fundraising part of it. Just to run for Cook County Commissioner it’s like $400,000. How can you can make that happen without making some kind of concession?

Right, it makes me really appreciate someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who seems so principled.

I just couldn’t do it and be my authentic self. I find that I can still be active and get my fulfillment behind the scenes. I work with Choose Chicago, and I’m on the finance committee. I still get my political fix. My wish and intent is to help the community and I can still do that in other ways. 

You’ve also really taken to Instagram. I really dig watching your videos and stuff. How did you get into that?

Janet Isabelli [owner Isabelli Partners media consulting firm] asked me to do an Instagram take over for the International Restaurant Show. I liked it but had never thought about it. I thought, this is kind of fun. So, I started doing the cooking videos. My business partner says you have this persona, people think you’re a snotty wine person, but you’re actually a lot of fun. So, it’s been a good way to connect with people. I love sharing recipes and information and discovering all things delicious.

You did not find the Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spice face mask delicious, though?

I did it incorrectly.

Right, I remember that.

I mean I think I am funny, but I always laugh at my own jokes. My partners daughter, Penny, is always like ‘Alpana, you’re not supposed to laugh at your own jokes.’

Ok, so this might sound weird, but I read this piece a couple years ago where you maybe suggested to you were an “enfant terrible” at one point? I mean I know people have public and private personas, but I feel like you’ve been so gracious as long as I’ve known you. I’ve never heard bad stuff about you. Is this possible?

I know what you’re talking about. I mean I guess when I lived back in Monterrey, when I was really young, maybe. I was 18-19 and passed the advanced sommelier exam when I was 21. I was a little arrogant, maybe, but nothing too bad.

Was this when you were a waitress at Baker’s Square? Did you sneer at customers who ordered French Silk pie?

Ha. No, it was after that. When you’re young, you have an attitude, you want to stake your claim, but as you get older, you get mellow. On the other hand, it was a different time too.  I stayed quiet sometimes when I shouldn’t have. It’s so incredible what’s happening now with younger people. We were unaware of it. If someone made a bad joke or the chef yelled, in my day, you went into the walk-in cooler and cried, or ate and drank your feelings after work.  

Now I have servers tell me they’re not working Thanksgiving because they have to spend it with their family, and that’s great. I didn’t think I had a choice back then. We still have a long way to go, but what’s happening now is amazing. Now, I look back and I’m like, you mean the chef’s not supposed to yell at you? If I was stuck in a walk-in cooler, I always felt lucky if I didn’t get grabbed. At the time, I just thought that’s how it was.

There’s also the layer of being a woman of color in a male dominated industry too. Did you find being a Master Sommelier, one of the few in the world at the time, mitigated that at all?

It did. It was a platform that gave me confidence that I belonged at the table. It was a psychological token. There was a level of respect. But, also, look at what’s happening now. Some people are talking about Sohla [El-Waylly] as the next editor of Bon Appetit and Khushbu [Shah] is at Food & Wine, and there’s Priya [Krishna] and I mean modern food media is now dominated by South Asian women. I didn’t see that coming. If you told me that 20 years ago, I would have said whaaat? I wonder what opportunities I may have missed out on.

Would you still advise a young wine professional to pursue the Master Sommelier title?

I think so, but if you’re asking me for advice, I’ll ask you if you’re the kind of person who’s already ordered fifteen books on a subject when you start a project. You have to be intense. So many people want to do this now, that it often takes ten years. It took me seven years and I was considered fast track. It takes an incredible amount of focus. I mean I can’t just test one pie recipe. I have to test ten pie recipes, research the history of pie, and study the best flour, etc.. You have to be like that if you want to do this.

You’ve talked about this a little bit and I don’t want to belabor the point since it’s been in the news for a while, but I wondered if you had any comment on the Master Sommelier cheating scandal of 2018?

It’s difficult to know everything for sure, or even to talk about specifics, because of attorney client privilege. I only know what info the board of directors has shared. I will say this, what’s most devastating is the betrayal. There are Master Sommeliers who passed that test and their results were invalidated, and they may never come back to this organization or take the test again. They’re so brilliant and we’ve lost them, like Jane Lopes, this incredible woman. It’s not fair and so incredibly heartbreaking. I still have nightmares that I have to go and retake the exam. There’s a trauma. The fact that you thought you passed for months and were riding around in celebration and to lose that is haunting.

You mentioned chef Jean Joho earlier. I read something where I think it was Master Sommelier Joe Spellman told Joho he needed a sommelier at Everest, and he said he didn’t because he knew everything about wine. But then he met you. Any idea what changed his mind?

That’s true. I think he liked me for some reason. I mean when I started, he really didn’t need one. He had a good wine list. What I will say is Joho has a hoarding problem. Joho loves wine. I’d go down to the cellar and there’s all these stacks of crates and I’m like what is this? And Joho just shrugs, and says, “I bought a closeout. It was a good deal.” I’m like what am I gonna do with all this? He says, “I make a menu! You do a pairing.”

I learned a lot of discipline from him. He’d always say, ‘Your cellar looks like a bordello! Are you gonna clean it?’ I’d clean it, but then that would just make more room for him to order more wine. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t keep a diary when I worked there. It would have been MFK Fisher, wait, no, more like Bonfire of Vanities. There were so many stories. Now, I call everything a bordello at my restaurant.

Do the people who work with you even know what a bordello is?

No, they just look at me and wonder what’s wrong with her? But, yeah, I think like Joho now. He was so funny. One time he made an entire policy change because he saw too many iced teas on the floor, so he bumped the price of iced tea. That guy taught me so much, a kid from Monterrey. He’d take me out to dinner. It was like An Officer and A Gentleman. He broke me down and built me up again. He taught me how to negotiate, get a good deal, or complain with a purveyor. I went to the Joho school of business and finance. So many people did. Paul Virant, Thomas Lents, Mike and Pat Sheerin worked for him. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Even Charlie Trotter has been forgotten a little. We definitely don’t talk about Louis Szathmary of The Bakery or Jovan Trboyevic of Le Perroquet whose shoulders the Chicago restaurant scene was built upon.

The memory is very short.  Now that there’s no fine dining, we’re losing the art of good service. Without the funnel effect of fine dining, there are no standard bearers. No one is trained to carry that legacy and without that, it’s harder to get good service. It’s like that Miranda Priestly…

LOL. I was just gonna quote Devil Wears Prada!

Right, without high fashion, there is no trickle down to the masses. Nowadays everyone thinks they invented service.

So you wrote this book a while back, Alpana Pours, where you suggested ideas like if a guy orders Champagne on the first date, he’s a Casanova, etc…I wonder do those ideas still bear out, or is there some new anthropological behavior that you’ve observed around wine consumption that’s interesting?

If I were to write that book today, it would be so misogynistic. I’m a little embarrassed by it today. It was horrifying that it was based on assumption that women were looking for a husband or in courtship mode. As for new social behaviors, I mean the popularity of rose is so funny. Consumers are more sophisticated now.

I guess it’s easier to hire for wine teams now because there is so much talent and interest in wine?

The good news is I’ve never had a problem hiring good people. I don’t take that for granted. I mean sometimes you get a couple of goofballs. That’s a Joho word, goofballs.

You’ve had an incredible life so far: master somm, speaker, restaurant owner, author, TV personality. Where do you go next?

I’d love to write another book, and I still want to win a Beard award. I haven’t done that yet.

What was it like returning to host Check Please! on PBS the second time around?

It was like I never left. I had a couple people say I seemed much more comfortable, but that’s the difference between being 26 vs 42 [years old]. It’s also easier for me to be part of the conversation now that I’ve run three restaurants. The guests are a lot more prepped because of Yelp and social media and that didn’t exist back then. Because of Instagram, people already go into restaurants knowing a lot. This generation is about empowerment and feedback and believes everyone is entitled to an opinion.

That makes sense, but what I really want to know is do people describe dishes as “to die for” as much now as they did then? It’s the one thing that always drove me nuts about the show.

It’s hard to say. What drives me crazy, is when people tell me they didn’t like something, and I ask them to elaborate, and they say, “I don’t know, I just didn’t like it.” It’s like a Larry David sketch.

That’s so funny. When I interviewed you fourteen years ago, I asked if you could invite anyone, who would you want to invite over for wine and what would you drink?  You told me Larry David, Bill Clinton, and Ellen Degeneres for a bottle of sparkling rose.  Has that changed?

The sparkling rose still holds. I think Larry David still for sure with Eddie Murphy. I wonder why I said, Ellen, that’s funny. I think now I’d also invite Lizzo. We can revisit this in 10 years, I’m sure Lizzo will still be there.