There is the front of the house, and there is the back of the house, and you are either one or the other. Like Republicans and Democrats, Yankees or Red Sox, Seahawks or Cowboys, you pick your party and you never deny the tribe. Few ever cross that line, and fewer still do so at the top of their game.
Steven Geddes was thirty years old when he passed the Master Sommelier test in 1995; he shortly created the famed wine program at Aureole and won a Wine Spectator Grand Award the next year. He humbly takes no credit for the “wine angels”, those ladies on ropes retrieving bottles in the sky (it’s Las Vegas, people); they might be better known than the wine list or the food at Aureole. But he was fully immersed in an exploding wine scene crowding out the buffets and strippers, fashioning a reputation as a world-class restaurant destination.
I knew Geddes well before then; he and I were classmates in the Advanced Sommelier class of 1990, sitting beside future MS’s Bob Bath, Michael Bonacorsi, Tim Gaiser, Peter Granoff and the like. Though Geddes and I were a thousand miles distant from each other, we were fast friends and the next year at the Masters exam, we were together every walking hour, drinking, studying and quizzing each other nonstop. Maybe the drinking took precedence but we all passed portions of the test, each of us finishing within a handful of years.
So when we heard that Geddes was leaving Aureole, we all figured he had something really big up his sleeve. What could outdo Aureole? I for one refused to believe it when the rumors hit: he was a line cook at Wolfgang Puck’s. I knew him well enough to know there was no drug crisis; maybe he was just messing with us all.
It turns out that I didn’t know him as well as I thought.
We all have an origin story; those of us in the food and wine business have a moment when something strikes us: a flavor or smell like Proust’s madeleine, jerking us to our senses, quite literally. For Geddes, it was holiday meals “that were giant grand affairs where my grandfather (he was larger than life) would cook.” Geddes remembers “…the carving ceremonies, and my first wine. It was Cold Duck, red sparkling swill that was emblematic of the holidays.”
As a kid, he loved cooking, and helped can and jar the foods too. After his parents’ divorce, he worked at the school cafeteria though he was only thirteen: “It was like a fast food restaurant more than anything.” At fifteen he started fulltime work at a high end Vegas steakhouse, “we would stay open twenty-four hours and all the hospitality people would be there, maître ‘d’s and chefs, captains in their tuxedos. I’d change the ice for the bartender and I saw the party going on out there.”
He was turning 17; he started working for Andre Rochat, “I felt like I was working in France, wooden beams, stucco walls, old French memorabilia everywhere. I didn’t care how much I made; I wanted to work there.” The staff was mostly European and “I’d stand in the back in the bus station and they’re talking about Sancerre.”
A few years later, his mom moved the family to Seattle and he got a job at Fullers and fell deeply into wine alongside a staff dedicated to the subject; he studied, tasted, he was obsessed. He recalls a tasting with Francois Faiveley: “He had wines back from the 60’s and 70’s. That day I knew that wine would be a major part of my life.”
Moving back to Vegas, Geddes took over Rochat’s wine program. Thereafter he was the opening sommelier at Coyote Café and after that Charlie Trotters at the MGM. Then he got his MS; then Aureole. But “I felt empty. I didn’t know what I could do next. The only time I was happy was when I was cooking.” He had never cooked professionally. So he started as a line cook at Wolfgang Puck’s Lupo, then at Andre Rochat’s Alize and later at RM Seafood.
He was worried the chefs would think it’s a lark. “They made me fight for my ability as a line cook”, he says, “and cooking is a contact sport; it’s dangerous, hot and miserable. It’s a different mindset.” But the other cooks knew his background: the chef would ask him to taste a stock and, “It made me realize how important my other studies had been. I think chefs should learn more about beverage service and sommeliers should learn more about food and beverage professionals should learn more about wine and food.”
In 2009, he surprised us all again by moving to Cincinnati to open a new restaurant, Local 127, working as both the executive chef and general manager. There he got to put his ideas into action: “I trained all my cooks to taste wine, to know the numbers of the tables in the restaurant. We took the doors off the kitchen to break down that wall between the kitchen and the house. I had the chefs do an orchestrated drop; it was emblematic of trying to tie everything together.”
“It’s hard to tear that wall down and it does some damage; it’s such a different culture with different skills sets, no wonder that they’re completely opposite personalities”, he says. But his waiters were learning more about food than before; if the kitchen was behind, they would help, washing parsley or picking strawberries. His cooks were encouraged to come to tastings and visit other restaurants. “Cooks with better palates make better cooks.”
Today he’s working for Charlie Palmer, opening restaurants and helping to guide the existing establishments, “overseeing construction in some places, and then I cross over to a suit, handling opening, training and hiring, then I might need to pop on a chef coat, and help straighten out some areas where we have issues,” he says. “Each role is a little different…it allows me to keep these skill sets honed and balanced.”
“Like with any art, you go through stages of interest in certain disciplines in arenas that drive you. It’s about the evolution of you as a person. Why I got in the business was because I like good food and the conviviality I saw when my grandfather was cooking. Our profession stimulates more than just your palate. That’s how I’ve always felt, even in the jobs with drudgery. We’re pretty lucky in what we do.”
Image credit: Art Culinaire