Sommelier of the Month - Charles Ford of S.K.Y. Chicago
Charles Ford is one of those guys when you first meet him, you might ask him to do your taxes. Maybe defend you in a white collar crime trial. At first glance he doesn't appear to give off the vibe of Super Somm. Then you get to chat with him and see not only is he passionate about wine, but about service and about hospitality.
We celebrate Charles as our first Sommelier of the Month in concert with the recent opening of his new restaurant with Executive Chef Stephen Gillanders called S.K.Y. Restaurant in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Go check out his amazing ability to pair wine and food and enjoy one of 2018 hottest Chicago neighborhood spots.
Here is a little back and forth with Charles and Second City Soil about his new program!
Second City Soil - How did you come to be the G.M and sommelier of S.K.Y.?
Charles Ford - Quite a question! What started as a simple get together between Stephen Gillanders and I, a year later materialized into full blown restaurant. Since day one we started knocking down tasks, it’s been a constant chase to the next challenge. Doing the GM & Somm thing is hard, no doubt. But, it also helps because there’s no go between when it comes to decision making, you just make things work and that’s the bottom line. You answer to You at the end of the day haha.
SCS - Your list seems a balance of Old/New World classics with some "whoa, never heard of that" bottles - what was the driving force behind putting together such a unique, thoughtful list?
CF - The list is all about exploration for our staff. At the end of the day if our staff is as curious and excited about each item as the guest, then we’ve achieved our goal. There are just as many bottles I know deeply on this list as there are bottles that I’m just getting to know, and that’s the point. Totally educational, not afraid to admit it.
SCS - In the first few weeks you have opened, what have guests been responding to in the wine program? What has been a surprise?
CF - Here’s the skim, we’re still waiting on that liquor license (due by the end of January), so to answer that question truthfully we haven’t been able to test that out quite yet. That being said that wine/beverage list is locked and loaded, it’s been combed over a dozen times. The entire staff is chomping at the bit to get into the program.
SCS UPDATE - Today, February 21st - S.K.Y. is launching their wine program with their freshly minted Liquor License!!!
SCS - Pretty cool to see a tasting menu with pairings in a neighborhood restaurant, was that always part of the plan? What has been one of your favorite pairings thus far?
CF - Honestly a wine pairing has been part of the plan since day one, but wine won’t be the only pairings going on. Cocktails, sake, and anything else funky and fun will be part of the tasting experience, we’re willing to pair whatever works with each dish, that’s the most important part: The satisfaction of the bite. Can’t say regarding any guests’ opinions. But the pairing we have on deck for our Faroe Island Salmon is out of bounds good. Funaguchi’s Ginjo Genshu is luxurious, so is the Salmon. The whole dish and pairing is sensational. Also, don’t count out the beer that this City has to offer. We’ll only be pouring beer from Chicago and it’s surrounding neighborhoods and suburbs. We’re going to go pretty hard into the beer exploration this City has to offer.
SCS - Pilsen has never really been thought of as a "wine neighborhood", how has that reputation affected your wine service style?
CF - Oh contraire! Being BYO for the last few weeks has only proven with solidarity that Pilsen IS most definitely a wine neighborhood. We have been overwhelmed with wine lovers from all over this neighborhood and it feels so good. These folks have some serious bottles that they’d been saving! I don’t think the wine drinkers in this neighborhood have been represented fairly over the last five years of restaurant openings in this neighborhood. The openings in this neighborhood in the past have been cocktail and beer heavy (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). We’ve never really thought about it, but we’ve become this beacon of wine exploration on the South Side.
SCS - Coming from a place like the Bristol where you had some heavy hitter wines and clientele, how did that shape your opening philosophy with this list?
CF - My training at The Bristol was instrumental for this role, from tasting to purchasing to pricing and you get the point. People can say what they want about the BHCO Group but they taught me a lot about restaurants, and life in general too. At The Bristol I was able to see what wines do and don’t work in a neighborhood setting à meaning: What do people want to drink after work and what do they want to drink on the weekends before and after they go out. You HAVE to have a list that satisfies those needs, that’s it. The role of a neighborhood restaurant is being everything else but prime time. Be there for the guest. Be there when no one else isn’t, so you have to tap into your wine mentality a little bit to dig for those wines that have always delivered for you. If they’ve delivered for you they’ll most definitely deliver for others.
SCS - Saké is always a tough sell in a non-Japanese concept - why did you decide to make it a feature in your list and how has it gone so far?
CF - Sake is so haaaard haha. The origination of the sake pours was actually to educate ourselves. It’s something that selfishly in my career I haven’t been able to properly explore. I know little about it, so it’s going to be a learning experience for the entire staff. We’re really going to dive into the Sake! The entire Sake section is for learning!
SCS - What can we expect in the wine program at S.K.Y. in the coming months?
CF - This wine program is going to be ever changing and explorative. There will ALWAYS be a huge amount of glass pours that are ever changing, from sparkling all the way to dessert you can expect around 50 consistently. It’s hard to maintain, and it varies day to day but it’s so worth it.