World Class cocktail competition tackles food pairing

Cayman finals set for mid-June

Jacques Scott’s Simon Crompton, left, with visiting Diageo chef Alejandro Cuellar. – Photo: Alan Markoff

With a spot in the Cayman finals of the Diageo Reserve World Class competition at stake, 14 Cayman Islands bartenders prepared drinks that were not necessarily meant to be the best tasting cocktails, at least on their own.

“The goal of any bartender is to make a delicious cocktail, except when you’re pairing it with food,” said visiting chef and competition judge Alejandro Cuellar. “Then you might have a cocktail that you’d never [prepare] alone.”

The second phase – or “wave” in the jargon of Diageo Reserve World Class – of the competition was specifically about cocktails and food pairing, a growing trend in the restaurant industry in which cocktail dinners, as opposed to wine dinners, are becoming more popular.

To prepare the bartenders for the challenging competition, Cuellar led a seminar, playfully named “Cuisine meats Cocktails,” on May 3 in George Town Yacht Club’s meeting room, where he explained the principles behind pairing cocktails with food.

Pairing system

Originally from Colombia, Cuellar was engaged by Diageo – the world’s largest producer of spirits – to develop a system for pairing cocktails with food.

“It took me four years. It’s very simple; I just didn’t know how to do it,” he said with a laugh.

The system basically works on the premise that ingredients that complement another specific ingredient, will, in most cases, pair well with each other and with ingredients that pair well with those secondary ingredients.

“If A goes with B, and B goes with C, then A goes with C,” Cuellar said. “So if lamb goes with mint, and mint goes with rum, then lamb goes with rum.”

However, since the exercise requires exponential thinking – something which Cuellar says the human brain cannot do – the system requires people to write it down.

One key to using the system is to first identify the main flavor of a dish. He said that even if a particular dish has many ingredients, it will have only one, two, or at most three, main flavors.

“Always pair the main flavor,” he said, adding that the only real way to know the main flavor or flavors is to taste.

When used, the system brings into play pairings that most people would not think of, but which can bring innovation to cocktail and food pairings.

For example, when looking at a central ingredient like beetroot, two ingredients that generally pair well with it are goat cheese and oranges. A spirit that pairs well with oranges is tequila, and an herb that complements oranges is mint; an ingredient that pairs well with goat cheese is honey. Using Cuellar’s system in this example, a dish in which beetroot is the main flavor would probably pair well with a cocktail that featured orange juice, honey and mint.

Using Cuellar’s system could lead to almost unlimited combinations of cocktail ingredients that pair well with specific dishes, allowing innovation in the craft of mixology.

“The idea of World Class is to give you the tools to establish your professional identity,” Cuellar told the bartenders. “The way to do that is through innovation.”

There is no accepted formula for figuring out which secondary ingredients complement other secondary ingredients because everyone has a different sense of taste, Cuellar said. He told the bartenders that they must first develop their own list based on their tastes.

“Develop your own scale and then start changing it to meet the global tastes,” he suggested.

When pairing cocktails with food, Cuellar told the bartenders to think of the drink as “a liquid part of the dish” rather than a separate entity.

“They should think about putting the whole dish inside the drink,” he said. “It might be weird, but will it taste good? If the answer is no, it’s not a good food pairing.”

During a seminar for bartenders at George Town Yacht Club, Chef Alejandro Cuellar demonstrates his system for creating cocktails with ingredients that will pair well with specific food dishes. – Photo: Alan Markoff
During a seminar for bartenders at George Town Yacht Club, Chef Alejandro Cuellar demonstrates his system for creating cocktails with ingredients that will pair well with specific food dishes. – Photo: Alan Markoff

Meats and fats

Although bartenders often use fruits and vegetables in cocktails, the use of animal products is less common. When Cuellar asked if the bartenders used any animal products in their cocktails, only a few – eggs and egg whites, milk and cream, and bacon – were mentioned.

“Do any of you make Bloody Caesars?” Cuellar asked, and when several said they did, he reminded them that one of the ingredients in Clamato juice is clam broth. He also pointed out that Worcestershire sauce – another ingredient often used in Bloody Marys or Bloody Caesars – has fermented anchovies in it.

Cuellar challenged the bartenders to think about how they could use other ingredients made from animal products in their cocktails, especially when pairing them with meat dishes. Naming a few examples, he said beef stock, bone marrow stock and butter can also make great ingredients that will not only add flavor, but also texture to cocktails, allowing them to pair better with meat dishes. What’s more, Cuellar said fatty meats in particular will give cocktails a longer finish of flavor.

“Fat is … the most lasting flavor,” he said. “If you have bacon in a meal, that flavor will stay with you longest.”

It’s the same with cocktails, Cuellar said, using as an example a cocktail that has foie gras or brown butter as an ingredient with lemon and sugar.

“You can taste the lemon, you can taste the sugar, but when everything else fades away, you’ll taste the foie gras or the brown butter.”

The competition and beyond

In the actual competition on May 5, the participating bartenders were each given 10 minutes to prepare two cocktails that would pair with two of four dishes prepared by the chefs of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. They had two savory dishes – lightly seared tuna with bok choy and soy-ginger vinaigrette, and tomato gazpacho with local seasoning peppers and croutons – and two sweet dishes – foie gras praline with chocolate, hazelnuts and mango chutney, and lemon grass crème brûlée – to choose from.

In the end, the judges gave Simone Pagnozzi from Agua Restaurant & Lounge the top score, with Laurie Eaton from the Bistro French Restaurant & Lounge coming in second place. Josh Wludyka from Agua placed third.

Pagnozzi also finished on top in the first wave of the competition in February, and Wludyka finished third in the first competition as well.

The top three finishers of the second wave, along with nine others, advanced to the Cayman finals, which will take place on June 14-15.

The winner of the Cayman final will travel to Miami to compete in September against 58 bartenders from around the world in the 2016 global finals of the Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition.