Cheers, Chef

Tagliata at Ai Fiori has prime dry-aged strip loin, endives, potato terrine, cacio e pepe, and bordelaise.
Tagliata at Ai Fiori has prime dry-aged strip loin, endives, potato terrine, cacio e pepe, and bordelaise. Noah Fecks / Ai Fiori

From crêpes Suzette to fondue, dishes with alcohol have been on tables for centuries. Today, chefs continue the tradition, giving food a boozy boost with beer, wine, and spirits.

Just as alcohol can liven up any social gathering, its presence can also work wonders on a dish, giving it unexpected new dimensions. Traditionally, alcohol has been used as a component in well-known specialties like French coq au vin, in which the chicken is braised with red wine, or Italian salsa alla vodka, where the spirit potentiates the tomato’s flavor and gives the pasta dish an upgrade. 

These classics are mainstays in restaurants and home kitchens, and over the years, have been joined by dishes like Daniel Boulud’s signature crisp paupiettes of sea bass in Barolo sauce, which the French-American cuisine master developed in the late ‘80s for New York’s landmark restaurant Le Cirque.

These days, chefs are still looking to the bar for inspiration, making the most of boozy combinations to create exciting new flavors.

Wine is a widely used alcoholic ingredient, and both professional and amateur chefs live by rules like, “don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink”—or, in the case of PJ Calapa at Ai Fiori: “don’t burn your eyes!” Calapa is the executive chef at three restaurants in chef Michael White’s Altamarea Group (the aforementioned Ai Fiori and Italian steakhouse Costata in New York City and Campagna at the Bedford Post Inn in Bedford, New York), so he knows a thing or two about the dangers of wine-fueled flames coming from a hot pan.

On a more serious note, the Texas-born chef explains the role wine and spirits have in the three kitchens he helms. “When I think about it, it’s like, when do we not use wine?”

Most pasta dishes at the Michelin-starred, Riviera-inspired Ai Fiori start with shaved garlic and white wine, which cools down the pan but also adds sharpness to the dish. “Reduced white wine brings a beautiful acidity to a rich pasta, much rounder than the kind lemon juice could bring,” Calapa says. “It gives the dish more depth, and can also it cut through the rich flavors.”

Calapa cites a duck-and-mushroom risotto as one of the best examples in which white wine works well against the fatty duck confit, and the seafood pasta as one of his personal favorites, which, he says, “would be nothing without wine. It would be flat, rich, and buttery, and not in the best of ways. Wine adds acidity and brightness.”

Salads at Ai Fiori are dressed in the house vinaigrette, made with 50 percent reduced sherry vinegar and 50 percent sherry wine. “When we were developing the recipe, I thought the sherry vinegar was a little harsh, but the wine brings flavor and cuts the minerality,” explains Calapa.


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