Wine and Steak: An Interview With Tucson’s Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse
Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar is nationally acclaimed for its prime meats, chops, fresh fish and poultry. Offering a contemporary yet warm environment with sophistication and engaging ambiance, Fleming’s always seems to get it right. The service is warm and friendly, the setting delightfully relaxing yet there is an air of sculpted perfection and professionalism. We recently sat down with Chef Jason Gray and Wine Manager Susanne Johnston of the Tucson Fleming’s to get their take on pairing steak and wine.
WI: Jason, I imagine that it takes a prolonged period of study and experience to become a chef. Can you trace for us your history leading up to becoming a chef at Fleming’s?
Jason: I worked for a local mesquite broiled steakhouse called the Silver Saddle for three years, first as a busser and server and later as a line cook. While that experience was valuable as a foundation, I knew that I wanted more responsibility as a chef. When a position opened up at Outback Steakhouse, I jumped at the opportunity. I started as a sauté cook and after some time moved up to grill cook and finally house manager over a ten year period. Eventually, I was offered a chef position at the new Tucson Fleming’s where I have been ever since. Playing a pivotal role in such a prestigious steakhouse is the culmination of my years of restaurant experience. It offers me the opportunity and challenge to provide our customers with the finest cuts and preparations of beef possible.
WI: What is it about steak that makes it such magnet for full bodied reds?
Jason: The two characteristics of beef that draw a wine are its density and texture. A steak can vary so much in marbling and tenderness, that it opens the door to a wide range of full bodied reds. While I personally enjoy the popular pairing of a well marbled steak such as a Ribeye with a Cabernet Sauvignon, there are other alternative options, such as a Prime New York Strip or Porterhouse.
WI: Are there any steak and wine pairings that have surprised you?
Jason: I recently paired a rare Filet Mignon rubbed in an herb and garlic infused olive oil with a Pinot Noir. While I enjoy a Pinot Noir on its own, I was shocked at how well the wine’s up-front fruits paired with the steak.
WI: What cuts of beef does Fleming’s use?
Jason: We serve USDA Prime corn-fed beef wet aged beef, prime being the highest grade with the most marbling and tenderness.
WI: Why do you prefer corn fed beef and could you clarify the difference between dry and wet aged beef?
Jason: In my experience corn fed beef produces a more consistent and flavorful product supported by the marbling of the beef. Dry or wet aging is simply the process by which enzymes in the meat break down the muscle tissue, producing a more tender product. This takes place before cooking and allows the flavor components to mature. Dry aged beef hangs in a temperature controlled cooler for at least two weeks allowing the moisture to escape. This process shrinks the beef, concentrates the flavor and softens the meat. Wet aging beef is vacuum packed in plastic and is refrigerated for approximately one week.
WI: When preparing the steaks for cooking, do you have any preference of dried spices versus sauces or marinades?
Jason: Usually, I can just go with a little salt and pepper but a little oil or butter is a nice touch as well. It adds some richness to the flavor.
WI: How do you cook the steaks at Fleming’s?
Jason: We gas broil the steak at very high temperatures, sometimes approaching 1600 degrees. This allows for a quick sear and a better opportunity to seal the flavorful juices. We garnish all of our steaks with kosher salt and black pepper and then finish it off with a little butter and parsley. We remove the steak from the grill before it reaches the customer’s desired temperature because it will continue to cook for a bit even when cooling. We then place the steak to rest on a warm grill before allowing it to be cut. The resting period allows for the steak’s juices to redistribute.
WI: Susie, welcome…………could you share with us what led you to become a wine manager?
Susie: I worked for a wonderful restaurant in Maine in 2002, run by a James Beard award winning chef. Surrounded by such fabulous cuisine and wine, I became fascinated with the process of pairing the two. I knew that I had a lot to learn, but I found that the more I explored the world of food and wine, the more I wanted to learn.
WI: Have you developed a personal preference in wine?
Susie: My first serious wine tastings began with lists heavily influenced by Old World wines, such as those from France and Italy. Like first loves, they have always had a special place in my heart (or should I say my palate). I became fascinated with how these regions name the wine such as Chianti or Burgundy. You immediately know which kind of wine you’re drinking if you know which varietal is grown in a particular region. That being said, I have used the last 8 years to broaden my wine knowledge and tastings from around the globe. The more I understand and appreciate the wines from various regions, the better I can guide our guests with their wine choices. With so many New World wine regions having come on line, it’s amazing how many choices you have in pairing foods with wine. Whether shopping at your local fine wine shop or dining here at the restaurant, you can always reacquaint with an old friend or sample a new wine.
WI: How do you and your staff stay current on wine?
Susie: We take our wine program very seriously. When any applicants are accepted into our wine program as servers, they are required to pass a wine exam. We also enroll the servers into our internal food and wine program. By completing these criteria, we feel assured that our servers have acquired the most thorough information necessary in order to offer our guests the very best service. In addition, we have biweekly wine tastings. Let’s face it, there is just no substitute for sampling the wines that we may recommend. Everyone must have a certain level of familiarity with the aromas and flavors of our wines before we can make a recommendation for our customers.
WI: Can you describe your wine inventory at Fleming’s?
Susie: We usually carry 100 reds and 100 whites in our cellars. They are temperature controlled according to whether they are red or white. Our wine lists tend to be more “new world” driven with many from the United States and Australia but we also have our collection of wines from Spain, Argentina, Chile and Italy as well. In addition, we offer our signature 100 wines by the glass program. We feel that this is a valued option to offer our customers who may not wish to order a full bottle of wine or wishes to sample an untried wine. This program also offers me the opportunity to rotate wine on and off of the list. My goal is to try to add one new wine each week. The other advantage to this program is that it allows me to more easily test our associates on many varietals and style of wines simultaneously.
WI: Do you have a favorite steak and wine pairing?
Susie: This a hard one. There are so many choices here depending upon my whim. At this time, I have to say that I am taken with Brunello di Montalcinos. The wine offers an earthiness and flavor that work so well with a steak. On a variation of the traditional steak, I love a beef tartare paired with an older Brunello. The wine cuts through the richness of the tartare without overwhelming it.
WI: How does the cut of beef, the cooking style and seasoning influence what you go to for wine?
Susie: I think all of these are going to influence the wine you choose. A New York strip with marbling may demand a full bodied Cabernet Sauvignon or a Cabernet blend, the marbling content of the beef cutting through the wine’s tannins with precision. A Filet Mignon, on the other hand, with almost no marbling will do better with a less tannic wine such as Syrah or Pinot Noir. Style of preparation is just as important. If you are cooking your steak at home on a barbecue, there are several wine choices such as Zinfandel, Syrah, Sangiovese or a Cabernet Blend. Seasoning, of course, is a key to blending aromas and flavors. If it’s just a little salt and pepper, then you have many choices. One of my favorites is a rich Super Tuscan. On the other hand, if you are choosing a sauce to accompany the steak, that may influence your choice of wine. For example, a Bernaise sauce may steer you toward a Merlot while a more traditional barbecue sauce will steer you toward a Zinfandel or a Rhone Blend.
WI: Pairing food and wine can be a daunting task for many. How do you work with your customers to sort through the process?
Susie: That’s a great question. My experience has been that most customers have some idea of what they like to drink. One of my jobs is to inform the customer about the structure and diversity of our wine list. We offer many varietals at different price points from regions around the globe. As well, all of our servers are well educated in assisting our customers with their wine choices. That being said, I think that the key to a successful wine and food pairing experience is to listen to the customer. Let me explain. If the customer knows what she/he likes, I may offer alternatives but if she/he is more at ease with a wine in their comfort zone, I am there to accommodate them. My job is to make their dining experience the best possible. On the other hand if a customer has a conversation with me about wine travel and varietal characteristics, I would probably feel comfortable in suggesting a variety of wines. They portray themselves as more of an explorer. In both circumstances, I have catered to the specific needs of each, the comfort seeker and the explorer.
WI: Jason and Susie, thank you so much for your insight. I look forward to dining with you in the near future.
And visit our Wine Pairing Guide for more information on pairing wines with beef.