As a kid just out of high school, one who had already worked his way up from dishwasher to sous chef, Chris Tanghe knew culinary school would be his next step. Then, his introductory classes at the Culinary Institute of America taught him how much he wanted to know about wine.
There was just one problem. He wasn’t yet legal drinking age. He had to wait a few years to start the introductory classes of the Court of Master Sommeliers, an international organization with a notoriously grueling, obsession-fueling, years-long series of study. (The “massively intimidating” process even inspired a new documentary film playing at SIFF this weekend.)
Only a few experts make it through the final invitation-only level of the exam, where candidates have three years to pass the required three sections of theory, blind tastings, and wine service. The effort paid off for Tanghe this year, when he was one of the four people awarded the Master Sommelier certification when the test was held in Aspen earlier this month. Sixty-three candidates from three countries made the attempt. (Thomas Price of the Metropolitan Grill, who shares a study group with Tanghe and James Lechner of Bastille, was one of the 11 Master Sommeliers named last year.)
Practically, it shows that Tanghe — who just left his position at vino-centric RN74 to become wine and service director for Jason Stratton’s in-the-works Aragona — can discern the origins of just about any glass of wine after a single sip, and can expertly handle, discuss, and pair different vintages, as well as running other practical aspects of a restaurant’s wine service. Emotionally, it’s a jubilant win for Tanghe and the rest of Seattle’s tight-knit sommelier community, where regulars meet up for intense weekly study groups, memorizing obscure facts and teasing out the subtlest distinctions between their drinks.
While plenty of candidates spend every free moment glued to flash cards, Tanghe took a two-week volunteer trip to Australia before taking the final exam for the first time last year, where he passed two out of the required three sections.
“It was actually a really beneficial thing, to chill out in the city and collect my thoughts and have some clarity,” he said. There were other advantages. “You never know the (competition) wines for sure, but it seems as though there was an Australian grenache in the lineup.”
Passing the final section and receiving the certification “is not the end of the line, it’s just a stop along the way — a significant one for sure, but I want to continue studying. There’s always more to learn. You learn so much through teaching,” Tanghe said. The most gratifying part of the whole experience, he thinks, may still be ahead, when he sees someone he helps mentor himself reach the same goal.
Tanghe’s own course of study began as a kid in Cape Cod, talking his way into a summer job where he washed mountains of dishes and scraped burned food off pots at a country club whose chef seemed worse than incompetent. He was close to quitting. Then, “that chef was fired and a new one was hired who was fantastic. He taught me all the basics of cooking. I wound up becoming a prep cook, then line cook and sous chef before going to culinary school.”
Opening classes at the Culinary Institute of America “opened my eyes to wine in general — but more, being a cook, how wine and food could elevate one another. That was pretty cool to me at the time, and still is very cool to me.”
He spent time after graduation exploring all aspects of restaurant work, especially at a Denver restaurant where the owner allowed him to work various positions both in the front and back of the house, giving “the big picture training of how a restaurant works.” His interest in travel brought him to Seattle, where he started off at The Herbfarm, worked as a food runner in the opening crew at Crush, where he could see owner Jason Wilson was “on the cutting edge,” and eventually worked his way up to general manager and wine director. He went on to Canlis and Matt’s in the Market and RN74 (plus development work at Marx Foods). A class with examination director Shayn Bjornholm had initially helped set the Master Sommelier goal in his mind; “he’s very outgoing, very positive, just a great guy.”
A few other cities have strong contingents of candidates who study together, but “I think that Seattle, it’s more of an entire group effort,” he said. Probably 15 people are working hard on preparations, who have either taken the test recently or plan to within a year or so. It felt good just to take the test with others from the “tight community,” he said. “We’re all really supportive of each other regardless of the outcome. We all realize the time it takes to prepare…I’m so appreciative of everyone that’s helped me along the way — my wife (Lauren Acheson), my friends, the other Seattle sommeliers, the Seattle diners. We wouldn’t be here without Seattle diners!”
After fielding congratulations and working his final RN74 shifts, Tanghe’s now working on preparations for Aragona. He’s a fan of Stratton’s cooking and “thoughtful and deliberate” approach to food, and found his spin on a contemporary Spanish restaurant appealing. “It’s something Seattle doesn’t currently have. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there to give the Seattle diner an experience that’s needed and will be fairly unique.”
And, we can be fairly sure, the wine service will be certifiably good.