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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.

By Cristina Alonso October 2014 Wine

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.

As for the meat sauces at Costata, they all start with some kind of stock—beef, lamb, or pork—but get their dose of booze at some point in the sauce process. “If it’s dark veal or lamb, we’ll use red wine, and for chicken or shellfish, we use white,” Calapa says. Each day, the saucier will fortify the sauce with more alcohol, such as port to make it sweeter. What makes an alcohol-spiked dish successful, says Calapa, is balance. “Most of the time you don’t even know why, but you can taste it with all points of your palate.”

Over at midtown Manhattan’s The William Hotel, Jason Hicks agrees. The chef and co-owner of the hotel’s two eateries, The Shakespeare and The Peacock, seeks to maintain balance while exercising his creativity in the kitchen. “You have to use alcohol as a component,” he says, “and as long as you have a good palate, you should use it accordingly.” 

The Peacock and The Shakespeare both serve British fare, and while the first one brings to mind an old-school gentlemen’s club, the latter is a more relaxed, pub-like setting, inspired by Hick’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. Naturally, these concepts both bring to mind alcohol, which is present not just at the bar but in the kitchen as well.

Spirits have played an important part at Hicks’s restaurants since they opened at the end of 2013. At The Peacock, he served a whiskey-based tasting menu in June, using the drink to glaze a salmon, and adding it to traditional sticky toffee pudding, which normally has rum. “We use a very peaty whiskey, which makes the pudding very smoky,” he says. “When it comes out of the oven, still hot, we spray it with it, and then finish the sauce with a different whiskey.”

The rum-spiked pudding is actually the restaurant’s best-selling item, but changing it up every once in a while is a risk worth taking. “When you try the dessert you obviously don’t get drunk, but you’re getting that taste,” Hicks says. “If you’ve got a good palate, you’re going to detect the whiskey—and you need to be subtle, because whiskey is strong.”

The surprising effect alcohol can have on dishes inspired Hicks to experiment with vodka-infused sorbets and an ostrich carpaccio with gin, as well as tried-and-true items like British trifle. “That’s an example of when you do want to taste the alcohol,” he says, explaining how the sherry-soaked sponge cake at the bottom of the layered trifle gives the creamy dessert a nice kick.

And what would British-inspired restaurants be without beer-drenched dishes on the menu? When it comes to meat tenderizing, beer is one of a cook’s best bets. “It’s the perfect liquid to marinade or braise meat in, especially tougher cuts,” explains Jackie Dodd, cookbook author and creator of beer blog The Beeroness. “It’s also great to brine chicken and turkey in, helping the bird stay juicy and tender even in higher heats.”

In June, Hicks’ team was incorporating Old Speckled Hen British ale into the classic steak-and-mushroom pie. “Pies are a staple of British cuisine, and we use the beer for the braising of the beef and mushrooms,” Hicks says. “Normally, you use red wine, which gives it a very particular finish, but this way, the dish takes the characteristics of the beer.” Another plus is creating a synergy between what is poured at the bar and served at the table. The menu at the Shakespeare also includes a warm Scotch egg with Guinness-mustard sauce and, of course, beer-battered fish and chips.

While cooking with wine, beer, or spirits is hardly a trend, it’s refreshing—pun slightly intended—to see chefs who push the limits to incorporate them into their food. And that’s something to raise a glass to.

This story will run in the winter 2015 edition of RestaurantBev magazine.