Talking tableside: Jackie Cooke of Calgary's Avec Bistro

The restaurant owner and sommelier chats about the importance of wine in our front-of-house column

Jackie Cooke Avec Bistro

Intimate contemporary bistro, Avec Bistro, has won awards of best new restaurant, best French food, and best service, and behind them all is Jackie Cooke, proprietor and sommelier.

Cooke fell into the restaurant industry at a young age and continued serving through university before progressing to more renowned restaurants in Toronto and Whistler, but it was a very impressive and ambitious girls trip (52 wineries in three weeks!) that made her really fall in love with wine. Paired with her restaurant background, sommelier training seemed the reasonable professional move; not to mention, she’s a natural.

During her humble education at Bear Foot Bistro in Whistler, she tasted all the wine. She was able to capitalize on the best wine list in Canada, soak up incredible real world education and develop her palate, all at the same time. Not everyone can say they’ve enjoyed a 1945 Mouton Rothschild. At a time when few sommeliers were women, likely a reflection of the restaurant industry being male dominant, being able to speak to a wide-range of wines was empowering for her.

Naturally, we wanted to pick her brain about ordering wines in restaurants, her approach to wines and just why people tend to like sweet reds.

Is there a “bro culture” in wines as there are in kitchens?

Not really. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work for people who just wanted the best candidate and cared less about whether I was male or female. When I moved to Calgary in 2006 to open my own restaurant, people were welcoming and encouraging. It was easy to find your group, develop friendships, and see opportunities when they popped up.

Is there a growing acknowledgement for sommeliers, much like chef fame?

In Canada, we are so far behind the U.S. in terms of the number of sommeliers we have in restaurants and the press they get. Having front and back concepts that overlap and embrace each other is integral to the restaurant; a well-built wine program is a reflection of the food. It’s odd that we don’t talk much about somms and wine programs, especially since Alberta has the luxury of having one of the best wine selections in Canada. It’s on par with international culinary destinations, like Portland.

What is your current favourite Canadian wine?

Meyer Family Vineyards from Okanagan Falls; it specializes in small case lots of single vineyard chard and pinot noir.

Why do you think people like wines like Apothic?

The price point and the sweetness make it very easy to drink. It’s like a gin and tonic on a hot day, you suck it back. The palate likes sweetness; the residual sugar in Apothic balances out those harsher tannins that some people shy away from. The technical analysis of Apothic notes that it has 15-20g of sugar; that’s as much as a white wine. Oddly enough, if you had a white wine with similar sugar, people would feel it’s too sweet.

Is it worth spending $100 on a bottle of wine? I heard that tastebuds cap at $50-75. Is that true?

I would never suggest someone buy a bottle of wine based on the price. So many articles have been written about blind tastings between $15 and $100 bottles of wine. Can they tell the difference? You should be able to tell the difference between those two, there should be a difference if someone is charging $100 a bottle. With the technology and advances in viticulture, there has never been a better time for quality and selection. There are countless bottles at that $25 mark that are great, it’s the sweet spot.

I hand pick every single wine that goes on our list. I always choose wines that are amazing for their price point. Particularly in our current economic climate, people appreciate true value. Knowing you’ve turned someone onto a wine they’ve never had and they want to go out and buy it; that’s the best compliment I can get.

Food and wine has the ability to transport you. If you wanted to catapult me somewhere, what would you pour?

Champagne. I’ve always had this love for champagne. It doesn’t have to be a celebration to open a bottle but it always feels celebratory. There’s a joyfulness in the bubbles, especially pink bubbles. It’s also probably the most versatile in pairing with food; it goes with salty and weird, pickled or cured, or game meats.

Sabering is a pretty fun distraction if the kitchen is running a little slow too. Anybody can do it, even kids, but whatever you do, don’t do it like this.

What’s one of your biggest pet peeves around the front of house?

Serving temperature of wine is something that drives me crazy; I hate being served really warm red wine. It shouldn’t be dictated by price, all wines should be temperature controlled. You can be really excited about opening an expensive bottle of wine and if you get it and it’s warm, it ruins the experience and it also changes the quality, structure, and flavour profile of the wine. If you want to support a good wine program, there has to be some thought to where the wine is stored.

Do you have any diner pet peeves?

Cell phones. We understand necessities like checking in with a babysitter or taking an important business call, but there has to be some etiquette around phones. Don’t just let it ring or talk loudly next to another table.

What makes a great diner?

It’s always a pleasure when people come in and are surprised when you hang their coat or pull their chair out for them, or when they express how much they’ve enjoyed the food and experience. I love hearing people’s happiness around the little details we offer.

What’s your least favourite thing a server can do?

Over-service and under-service can both make for a negative experience. There’s nothing worse than needing a top up and there’s no one to be found, or being interrupted by an overly-pushy server. Not being able to read a table is a big negative.

Hiring chefs can be challenging. What’s your approach?

We’re a small, independent business so we experience hiring challenges in terms of the salary we can offer to entice chefs. Saying that, we’ve always only hired young chefs who we feel have a lot of talent and a bright future that just need a little bit of exposure and the opportunity to develop. We had a chef at Petite that did a scallop dish with black pudding and the description sounded super weird, but it was fantastic. I think that you really need to expose the young talent to the opportunity of running a kitchen, learning from their mistakes, and showcasing what they can do. It’s the only thing that keeps this industry alive and keeps the talent in Calgary too.

What is your favourite restaurant in Calgary?

Blink is wonderful; the food is consistent and delicious, and the wine program is really well thought out.

For people who are not wine nerds, can you recommend an approachable wine resource?

Wine for Dummies. It’s so straight forward, basic, and easy to understand. Make friends with someone at a wine shop. Gather with friends and be adventurous with a few different bottles. Surround yourself with like-minded wine lovers.