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Meet Sarah Thomas, Sommelier and Kalamata’s Kitchen Creator

Meet Sarah Thomas, Sommelier and Kalamata’s Kitchen Creator

Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas is a veteran sommelier who has worked on the floor of some of New York’s most prestigious restaurants. She’s made appearances in a handful of features on SOMM TV, including the SOMM 3 film. Shakera Jones had the pleasure of speaking with Sarah recently on an episode of A Glass for Every Palate podcast. 

You can listen to the episode on iTunes, Spotify or online. Or read the conversation below and learn how Sarah made it into the wine industry and how her new passion, Kalamata’s Kitchen, was created. 

Shakera: Welcome to this week’s episode of A Glass For Every Palate. You guys know if you follow me on social how big I am about energy and people and things that spark joy. Well, our guest today has one of the brightest auras and smiles and energy. You just want to be around her all the time! Our guest today is Sarah Thomas, hey Sarah! 

Sarah: Shakera that is the nicest intro I’ve ever had for anything. Thank you. I’m so happy to be here. 

Shakera: It is so true! You are a joy. You’re so tiny, but you take a big space and I love it. I love it. I love it. Not only with your personality, but just with the amount of knowledge you have and the things that you’re doing. I’m so excited to have you. 

Sarah: I’m so excited to be here. Thank you. 

Shakera: This is one of those backwards narration stories. Like, I bet you’re wondering how I got here. So, we know where you are right now. But we’re going to go back in time a little bit to see how you got here. So you are a woman of South Asian descent. 

Shakera: Were you born in India or were you born here? 

Sarah: No, I was born in Somerset, Pennsylvania. 

Shakera: Okay. So you are a U.S. foreign girl, but from your physical appearance, it is clear that you have some cultural or ethnic makeup that is not just from the United States. So take us back. 

Sarah: That is right. My parents are both from Kerala. 

Shakera: Oh, okay. Is that Southern India? 

Sarah: Yeah, that’s the Southwestern most state in India, a coastal state. 

Shakera: Okay. Have you been? 

Sarah: I used to go every year actually. Until my last grandparent passed, I went every single year. I loved it. We spent whole summers there. 

Shakera: That’s the story of so many immigrant kids, as soon as school is out, you’re out. 

Sarah: Oh yeah. We came back right before it started. 

Shakera: I love that. And I think that it’s a great way to keep the next generation still kind of rooted and grounded in their history and who they are. So Sarah’s in Pennsylvania and she’s growing up and she’s… let’s start at college. 

Shakera: Did you know what you wanted to do, study or what you wanted to be?  

Sarah: Oh my gosh, no. I mean, I thought I did. I went to college young and I have a lot of doctors in my family. My grandparents on my dad’s side were both physicians and it was very uncommon for a woman to be a physician, my grandmother was a powerhouse though. My father’s also a physician. So I said, “that’s what I’m going to do”.

I started as pre-med, even though I knew that I didn’t really have a head for numbers and hard sciences; those were my hardest subjects. And I still went for it, but I very quickly realised that I couldn’t do it. So I switched. Like you, I’m very attracted to energies and I had this great professor who inspired me. She was my freshman comp professor, who was also an expert in Renaissance literature, so I switched my major to Renaissance literature. Well, English literature and then Politics as well. And that’s what I ended up doing with the intention of maybe being a professor, maybe going to law school.

So the short answer is no, I really had no idea. Obviously I didn’t do any of those things! 

Shakera: So let’s start with how we got into hospitality before, how we got into wine. 

Shakera: How did we go from studying lit and politics to hospitality? 

Sarah: That’s a funny story. So I actually continued along the literature track for a little while. I got my Master’s in English Renaissance literature, I was living in the UK for that. And at some point I decided to switch back. I’m going to go back to pre-med because – I can’t remember exactly what it was – but I knew this wasn’t the right track for me, I think I was right the first time. I’m service oriented. I think I have to go back to this.

So I decided to come back to the States and restart basically and do a post-bac for med school. But while I was doing that, I realized I’d been in solid academia for so many years and I needed to do something else. And in a funny, nexus of things, I happened to have written my dissertation on a metaphysical poet who was also a physician. He had all these crazy medicine books that he came up with that were basically just alcohol, like every medicine in the Renaissance. So I had this overly romanticized notion that if I’m going to have a job, let me connect it somehow to what I’ve been doing.

So I decided I was going to make cocktails, I’d be a bartender while I studied. That’s literally what it was, it’s as silly as that. I had a real ‘fake it till you make it’ attitude. I walked in and I said that I had tons of experience, and I didn’t. Obviously I had no idea what it was like to work in the industry. That showed pretty quickly, but I was really tenacious about learning. There was something about the lure behind cocktails and spirits that really attracted the academic side of me.

But then I just really started to thrive in a service situation. I loved curating these experiences. I had this very romanticized look at what I was doing in the restaurant. It felt like theater, it felt like teaching. It felt like I was really gathering all this knowledge and being able to share it. And it really felt like a light bulb was going off for me. And at this point I still didn’t know anything at all about wine. 

Shakera: That’s such an interesting parallel. I was on a clubhouse chat and we were talking about missing things, simple things like walking into a really good cocktail bar and being able to have that conversation about what your day was and what it put you in the mood for. I love that you’re going to get a good cocktail when you walk into a bar and it basically looks like an apothecary when you walk in, there’s all these bottles of things and it feels like a potion is being made for you. 

Sarah: That’s literally what it felt like. 

Shakera: I see that parallel and that makes so much sense. Okay, so the whole trajectory is making sense. 

Shakera: How do we move from cocktails to wine?

Sarah: It was another energy thing at the restaurant where I started. It’s this amazing restaurant in Pittsburgh called Spoon which sadly closed last year. There was a sommelier there. I literally didn’t know that a sommelier was a thing until I met this woman who was a corporate lawyer who left her job to be a somm. I was just thinking, “what is this job? Why are you so cool? How do you know all this stuff?” It was the same thing with the professor in college. I just thought, I want to impress you. And so I just started learning about wine. I still didn’t think I had the spark for wine itself. I think I still just wanted to impress this person.

But then a friend was opening up a restaurant in Pittsburgh and saw that I really enjoyed it. I didn’t know it at the time, but he and his partners and I hung out a lot and he’d been opening really great bottles of wine for me. And I had no context for them, no idea. So I was just really experiencing this wine very honestly and very naively. And I loved it. And one night he said to me, “I really don’t feel like working this dinner that we’re doing. It’s a private event. I know that you know how to do service. If I just tell you what these wines are, can you learn something about them and can you do this dinner?” And I said, “yeah, absolutely”.

So I went in and the two wines that I remember were Arianna Occhipinti SP68 Bianco and Marie-noelle Ledru, her non-vintage Champagne. The Marie-noelle is a lot harder to get now than it was then, but the Occhipinti is still pretty readily available. I remember diving into both of those, learning about them before I ever tasted the wine. And then I tasted the wine and I just had this whole, fall into the glass moment, where something clicked. I just thought, “I love this.” I didn’t know anything, technically, about tasting wine, I was really just experiencing it. That’s the honest moment where I just thought, “I love this. I want to do this forever.” 

Shakera: There’s so much in that. I think that if we can bottle and sell those moments where something just clicks to you and that spark ignites, that would be hands down the most world changing product ever that we could sell. What you described is so important, I think today, even with getting more people and a different group of people into wine, there’s a difference between academically tasting wine and then experiencing wine. And I think that all too often professionals and the culture makes it more about tasting wine than it does experiencing wine. And that’s where the joy is. You don’t have to try to entice anybody to enjoy the experience. You just have to give it to them once and they’ll want to go back for more. So I love that. 

Sarah: You’re so right about that. 

Shakera: I think we need to add that. It needs to be about experiencing wine, because that’s what you’ll remember more than anything else. You can remember facts about it, but you can always Google the facts. But that feeling when you’re experiencing it is very, very different. Okay, so then you decide you want to dive into this. I know this about you and your story tells that you’re just a person that likes to study. And I love meeting my fellow people that enjoy constantly studying and learning about stuff. 

Shakera: Did you immediately start looking into how you were going to do it and what academic background was needed?

Sarah: That’s exactly right. I basically wondered how I could make this official and to me, that meant having some sort of certification or degree. Right away I found the Court [of Master Sommeliers] and I started studying and I thought, “I’m going to just pass all these tests.” Because that’s how I measured success for myself. I’ve evolved in that thinking, I’m not really pursuing any of those accreditations anymore. But at the time it really felt like that’s what I needed to do, and honestly, it’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to feel like I earned the space that I was in. I felt that having these academic accreditations would give me some sort of authority that I didn’t know I deserved otherwise. If I didn’t have something formal behind it, I didn’t feel like I had earned that authority. So that’s what I did, I studied a lot. 

Shakera: It’s so interesting how culture has shifted, right? If you go back 60 years and, you don’t look like us, so let’s put that little asterisk in there. But if you go back maybe 60 years; bachelor’s degree or no degree, you could work your way up from the mailroom to the C-suite. And then something happened where that was just no longer possible. There were steps ordered that, to get to this level, you have to do this, this and this first. And we convinced people that exact thing, that it doesn’t matter what you know, if you don’t have this piece of paper or this accolade or these letters behind your name, you are not in a position to teach anybody about it.

I love to see that culturally we’re shifting away from that again, because access to all those things is a privilege that we all benefit from in some way, shape or form. But it’s extremely restrictive to a lot of people. So I applaud you for recognizing that and for speaking truth to it. Particularly being women, it’s almost been instilled that in order to get respect, you’ve got to have this, this and this which we bought in to. So I’m happy to see that we’re shedding a lot of that. Okay so now you’ve studied and been certified,. 

Shakera: What was your first job as a sommelier? 

Sarah: So that group of friends who opened a restaurant, Bar Marco in Pittsburgh and asked me to do that private dinner, asked me to be their sommelier. I then became the Beverage Director, which was a pretty quick jump and a very steep learning curve. I’m still not sure how that became a thing, but it did. And that was my first somm job. That restaurant had a very different ethos of having all natural wine, which is, I think, a lot more commonplace now. But it definitely was atypical in Pittsburgh in 2011 or 2012, when I started there.

Shakera: Really? 

Sarah: Yeah. That was my intro. I mean, we drank a lot of what we now refer to as classic wines, but the wine list was super natural. And at the time, there really wasn’t a lot of that. There wasn’t any of that in Pittsburgh so it felt like we were ahead of the curve a little bit there. Knowing what I now know about wine and having worked at Le Bernardin for so many years, it was a very weird, backwards entry point into the broad world of wine. I couldn’t have switched harder when I moved to New York. 

Shakera: Yeah. Wow, okay. We have to talk about that change. So, you are at this restaurant with a super funky wine list that is funky ahead of its time. And you decide, do you just want more? 

Shakera: What brings you from Pittsburgh to Le Bernardin? 

Sarah: It was as simple and as complicated as ever. So, I can’t take a vacation without feeling like I got something out of it. So I was taking a long weekend where I was visiting friends in New York City. And I thought well, since I’m going to be there, let me reach out to some somms and see if I can get some advice and maybe stage somewhere. So, I had reached out to our good friend, Dustin Wilson, who at the time was at 11 Madison Park. And I asked him if I could stage at EMP, because I didn’t know anything. 

Shakera: I love that part of your vacation plan was to stage at a restaurant. I just want to point out that working for free in a restaurant is not normally a part of anyone’s vacation itinerary, but that was on your mind. 

Sarah: I was just all in on trying to be better. And I couldn’t stop. I thought, “this is an opportunity. When am I in New York? I have to ask.” And obviously I could not stage at EMP. But Dustin was kind enough to meet with me and he gave me some great advice. And on the same trip I happened to meet Aldo Sohm, which was completely unplanned.

My cousins actually took me to Le Bernardin for dinner, which was the nicest thing ever. We sat at the bar and I didn’t know that they knew Aldo. But he came over to chat and I was starstruck. So I wasn’t speaking. I was kind of drunk too, because we had a bottle of Champagne before coming to Le Bernardin. And then my cousins told him that I was a sommelier in Pittsburgh and he said, “oh really?”  He poured me blind tastes for our whole dinner, which was terrifying.

You know Aldo, so we know that he’s just the most lovable dude. But when you first meet him, he can be pretty intimidating. He has a very steady gaze. And I thought, “oh my god, why is this happening to me?” But at the end of it he said, “alright, what are you doing with your career? What’s going on?” And I said, “I don’t know, maybe I’m going to move to Philadelphia.” And he said, “okay, if you’re going to move, why wouldn’t you move to New York?” I had never considered living in New York. The city sort of scared me. And he said, “if I offered you a job, would you move here?” I just thought he was humoring me but he wasn’t, he said, “I’m serious, email me.”

I emailed him the next day and I said, “are you serious?” And he said, “yes, come in for your interview.” So I did, and then I got a job. So I came for a vacation and I ended up getting a job and deciding to move to New York within 24 hours of all of that. And that’s what I did. I just jumped in. 

Sarah Thomas and Aldo Sohm

Shakera: That is awesome. And I think that it’s really important to recognize that you never know when opportunity is going to knock. So it’s really important, no matter what we’re doing to just keep some flexibility to what you’re doing. I have a podcast! If you asked me this question last year, I might have laughed at you because, what do you mean? No, I’m not having a podcast. No one’s going to listen to it; I’m going to have one subscriber and it’s going to be my parents. But when someone presents an opportunity to you and even if you don’t know what you’re doing, just do it and see what happens. 

Sarah: Oh yeah. I had no idea what I was doing. 

Shakera: I love that spirit. So for people not in New York, Le Bernardin is on this street and there’s a little plaza in the middle. It begins where Le Bernardin is and where Aldo Sohm Wine Bar is.

Shakera: So, you started at Aldo Sohm Wine Bar?

Sarah: Yeah. I was on the opening team at the wine bar. I was there for nine months and then moved over to Le Bernardin. 

Shakera: How was that? 

Sarah: Terrifying. 

Shakera: It’s a very different vibe! 

Sarah: Very different vibe. I’m so grateful that Aldo started me at the wine bar because of the combination of moving to New York and finding an apartment and working the hours that we work in the industry and figuring out the subway and sleeping for two hours. And with all that stuff plus Le Bernardin would have been too much for me. And so I’m really grateful that I did start at the wine bar. Even that pace was really hard for me. It was a very steep learning curve.

I feel like the right way for me to learn is to really be thrown into it. And that’s exactly what happened. And so I kept studying, I kept working. I struggled for sure. For the first month I was just really sad and it was really hard, but at some point I got into the rhythm. There’s always a click moment for me where I realise that I can do this, and I felt like I’d earned my place because I was doing it.

After nine months of that, switching to Le Bernardin was similarly hard, but at least, energetically, I knew what I was getting into. I’d been primed for that. Aldo had me work auctions and private events in the Le Bernardin manner before I actually started on the floor there which also helped prime me for it. And I just thought, I’m not making mistakes, I’m not going to fail. Of course I made mistakes. But my attitude going into it was that I was all in. I needed to make sure nobody had a reason to think I didn’t deserve to be there. 

Shakera: Wow. And Le Bernardin and fine dining culture is weird in that, if you’re in it or you do it, you love it. There’s so much to love about it.

Sarah: It’s a real rush. 

Shakera: It really is! I miss going out. I like to cook, but the reason that I love some of these restaurants is because even if I was to cook this at home, it would take me eight hours and would cost me $300 in ingredients. So I am better off paying someone to do it for me. But it’s artistry, it’s technique. It’s science. Everything about it is almost a performance to watch and to experience, like a live immersion experience, which I love and miss.

But it’s also very much a stuffy culture; more so the guests than the restaurants most times, and it can be quite intimidating. And even as a guest, I mean, I cannot begin to count the amount of times where I’ve been the only person dining that looks like me. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have those moments of, “are people looking at me? What’s she doing here? Who’s she with, who invited her?” And then I remember, “wait, the check is going to come and it’s mine. I belong here. As long as I’m paying my money, I’m going to enjoy this experience.” But I wanted to ask, if you had to summarize the best and the worst, not specifically of Le Bernardin, but because you’ve also worked private dinners and auctions and are familiar with that culture.

Shakera: What’s the best and the worst of fine dining to you? 

Sarah: Wow. That’s a big question. I think there’s a lot of bests and a lot of worsts if that makes sense. I’m maybe cheesy in saying this, but I really did feel intense, personal gratification whenever I knew that I had played a part in someone having a great night. And what I loved about Le Bernardin is that most people were there because they wanted to have a great night. So the energy was already there, it was starting in a good place, I could just improve it, which always felt really good. So even if I was having a really difficult night or had a difficult table, all it would take would be one really great table that was really happy to be there, to really turn my mood around.

I miss that adrenaline rush of immediate gratification of success, of knowing I did a good job. And the opportunity to introduce people to new things and talk about stuff to the extent that they want to talk about it and feed off of that energy. I learned a lot from my guests too. So I think the best part is the guest interaction, learning from and giving to people. I really feed off of good energy like that.

The worst: I mean, it’s like anything else, right? Some people are just there to be miserable and make other people miserable. And that’s not fun. I think when people feel entitled to experiences, it’s very different than when people are excited to experience them. And that is the sense of entitlement, not just at Le Bernardin, but in general. I think when people go into things with really outsized expectations of what they deserve out of it, it’s very hard to meet that sometimes. And how can you help fall short of it if people are energetically behaving that way? So sometimes you’d witness that in different scenarios. And that was kind of demoralizing.

I could also tell when people were looking at me sort of like how you mentioned, “what is she doing here? And how is she the authority here?” I could really tell that. It was rare that someone would say anything at Le Bernardin…

Shakera: But you could feel it. 

Sarah: But it happened, and I could feel it more often than it was actually said. So that wasn’t great. And then sometimes when you’re dealing with luxury goods, I think a lot of people feel this feeling of, “what am I doing? What is the point? These are just really expensive things that I feel very lucky to interact with, but I could never afford it.” And sometimes you see people taking it for granted and you’re part of the process and it doesn’t feel great. So there was a little bit of that. But I think all of that was less bad than the really good stuff that came out of the experience. 

Shakera: Yeah. And I think the fact that you can feel what you feel and then calibrate it back is what keeps you healthy in those spaces. I think that there’s something wrong with people that take pleasure in subjugating people that are working in service because service doesn’t equal servitude or subjugation. And you see it everywhere. How many times have you seen somebody yell about their coffee order being wrong? Really? It’s a cup of coffee. I get it, you need this right now. Your day is s**t and this is really going to turn it around, but you have to calm down. It’s not that serious. 

So ever the learner, here you are, you’ve got this amazing position that you actually love in one of the best restaurants in the world. And there’s something else nipping away that you start thinking about.

Shakera: How does Kalamata’s Kitchen start brewing in your head? 

Sarah: Well, I got to a point where I felt really comfortable at Le Bernardin, and that’s one of those things where if you’d told me that when I started there, that there was going to be a day where I was comfortable and happy in my skin and able to just work the floor with ease at Le Bernardin, I would have laughed in your face. I didn’t think that could happen, because it was terrifying all the time. But there was a point where I realized I was really comfortable and I was good at it. And as soon as I feel like I’m good at something I think that I need to do something else.

So I was looking for ways to get back into writing. I was considering doing some wine writing, but it wasn’t really exciting me that much. And then my dear friend, Derek Wallace, actually called me one day with an idea that he thought I would really like. He knew I was looking for something, he knew I loved writing and he knew I loved working with kids. I mean, for years I had always loved volunteering with kids. Every time I went to India I worked in a school for intellectually handicapped children.

Derek was able to thread the needle. He came to me with this idea of creating the character that people associate with food adventures, but for children. If we could introduce children to the world through food, how would we do it? We’d do it through a character. He asked if I could bring that character to life? And I thought, this is the best idea I’ve ever heard. Yes, I can. I think I can. Maybe I can? And so we just dove in.

We spent a lot of time thinking about what we wanted the world to be, how I had experienced the world through food and how Derek had in very different ways. He really started to experience the world through food as an adult. I had grown up in South Indian culture where food is the center of our universe. It’s all they talk about. We’re eating a meal and we’re talking about the next meal and so Derek and I thought, how do we combine the magic of our experiences into this world? And so that’s where Kalamata’s Kitchen was really born. It was born out of this idea of wanting to expose children at the earliest that we could, to all of the wonder and possibilities that food can introduce; all of the stuff that food did for us basically. And so that’s where it came from. 

Shakera: You know how excited I was about this project. Because I agree that music is a universal language, but I think that food really is as well. And I think a very, very good way to start introducing children to culture and to the rest of the world and to broaden their horizons is through food. Kids are picky eaters to begin with, so why not throw everything but the kitchen sink at them!

Sarah: Exactly. 

Shakera: So, it’s been a year without my niece, Sydney and our regular adventures and I miss her dearly. But even before Kalamata’s Kitchen came out, that’s exactly what we did. Saturdays we’d go to ballet class and then we’d have lunch. Sometimes she’d say she didn’t like sauces or green things in her food. And so we’d decompose it. We’d taste each piece of it and see which part she liked and which part she didn’t. Then we’d talk about what she didn’t like about it. I’d ask her, “why don’t you like it? Is it the texture, or the taste?” Kids are not beyond understanding this. They can be quite descriptive about what they don’t like. It’s such a cool way to help kids experience culture and introduce them to things. The whole concept of it is brilliant and a lot of kids will benefit from it.

Sarah: Yes, that’s a huge part of it. I think that the earlier you introduce kids to this world and being more mindful about what they’re eating, the better. And as you said, the why behind a like or a dislike is so important. A lot of adults can benefit from this too. A lot of the assessment techniques that I have from wine include breaking down flavors and scents and textures. I’ve tried to translate that into how you talk about that stuff with your kids and what we’ve realized is that in the same way that a lot of people lack the confidence to speak with a wine vocabulary, a lot of people just lack the confidence to speak about a sensory vocabulary in general. And that’s why these conversations don’t happen a lot of times, people don’t realize that vocabulary is part of it.

For me, thinking about those specific things was always part of the experience of eating. And so we’re just trying to remind people to ask, why is this delicious? Why don’t you like it? What does it feel like and what does it sound like? What does it smell like and taste like? Experiencing stuff with all your senses is such a great way to get the most out of whatever you’re eating or drinking, but also to remember it. You’re creating an experience for yourself when you pay attention to that level of detail and kids like assessing stuff like that. They ask why all the time, and this is just flipping the script and making sure you’re asking them why and it’s really fun. We basically just made trying new things an adventure and adventures are fun. So, therefore trying new food is fun.

We have what we call our taste bud pledge, which summarizes it all. It’s a promise to keep my mind open and my fork ready to try each new food at least two times and to share what’s on my plate when someone doesn’t have enough. And that I think encompasses what Kalamata’s Kitchen is really trying to do, which is trying to introduce the ideas of curiosity, courageousness and compassion to children, through the act of eating and trying, and experiencing new cultures. And then also being able to share that experience with other people. 

Sarah Thomas - Kalamata's Kitchen

Shakera: Oh my gosh. That is everything that would help the world on a global level. Particularly the sharing, because somehow we forgot that. Kids say, “oh, you don’t have it, here, use one of mine.” And adults say, “oh, you don’t have it, that’s your problem.” Which is ridiculous. 

Sarah: Yeah and all of that leads to something else. Curiosity leads to empathy. You have to be curious enough to want to try something new or to meet a new person or anything, you can extend it out. But you have to, once you have that curiosity to want to try something, then you have to have the courage to do it. I think that all of that builds compassion and empathy for other people. And I think that’s so important to drive home for children so that they don’t lose it when they get older. And I do think that sharing food is really the best global handshake that we can do and build that lifelong love. 

Shakera: I love it. And then you’re partnering with other great people. We saw Eric Adjepong make an appearance; actually two Erics now. I’m super excited about that, tell us about that partnership. 

Sarah: We work with a lot of amazing chefs and I’ve been just humbled by how much the food world has embraced Kalamata’s Kitchen.

While I was at La Bernadin, we had done two independently published books and I had given the first copy to the chef as a thank you for letting me play me and do this while I was also working at La Bernadin. And then I think I remember giving him a second book and he said, “this is great, but when am I going to be in a book?” It was really sweet. I never wanted to take advantage of that relationship because he was still my employer, but then it felt okay because he asked. And so he was a really big part of our company growing. From that point, we did the third independently published book with him. That’s what we presented to Penguin Random House. And so the next books that will be coming out will be with Penguin Random House. 

We knew that chefs really liked this and we really love sharing the stories and perspectives of our own food heroes. So we reached out to everybody that we love to see who was in. And so recently Eric Adjepong had a snack story; Kristen Kish had a snack story, I love that people I really idolize found something in this that they could really relate to. It’s also something they need, because everybody wants more kids and families to come into their restaurant. Everybody wants to be able to connect that way. And so we’re kind of providing that connection point, the way for them to reach this family audience.

More importantly to me, is that I believe very strongly that the stories and perspectives that they provide us are so important for people to hear. In the interviews with top chefs you might hear about the inspirations for their restaurants, but I’m really interested in what in their childhood sparked this joy, what came from that and what lessons from that, which you don’t often hear about. And what do you remember that could really spark this in another child?

I always ask these chefs, “what’s the one lesson that you’ve learned through food that you’ve carried through from childhood to now that you think is most important for kids and families to know?” And it’s always so profound and wonderful and helpful. And I’m super grateful that people have been so excited to share their perspectives with me. I have the best job on our team. I basically just get to talk to cool people all day and write their stories and share them. 

Shakera: Girl. Same! 

Sarah: It’s amazing. I’m the luckiest. 

Shakera: I mean, that’s really what this podcast is about. All these names in food and wine and culture and you know them for who they are today. But when you talk to them about how they got there, it sheds all of the intimidation that surrounds everything. And you understand that it could be for you too. It’s just the spark. It’s just the combination of the right thing at the right time and the right environment and you’re hooked. I love it. I can’t wait to see how many more collaborations we have coming.

It took me a smooth 35 years to get to Michelin star restaurants and Sydney got to eat at one before she was six. The next generation is going to be alright. It’s so wonderful that even as these people reach these pinnacles in their career, there’s just this inherent desire to still give back and that’s the heart of an empath. It doesn’t matter what you have, if you’re doing great you try to get more people to enjoy it and experience it too. And that’s such a necessary thing in our world. And I also think it speaks to the core of what hospitality should be. It should be about creating welcoming spaces for people to experience. And so I am just so inspired by everything that you’re doing. 

Sarah: I’m so inspired by you! 

Shakera: Aw thank you. Which leads us to today! You know, it’s funny, SOMM 3. I turned into you for a moment. Some of the people and some of the spaces I find myself in and people that I know to talk to and stuff I’m like you, how did I get here? 

Sarah: Yeah. 

Shakera: I still feel that overwhelming, that almost imposter feeling. And I think that’s normal. I think that is normal as long as you don’t hold on to it for too long and that you kind of shake those nerves off. And once you get into it, you realize, “no, I belong here. I’m cool with this.” And that brings us to where you are today. You have been doing a ton of advocacy work and broadening the wine space with The Roots Fund. There were so many other things since the events of last year took place. Tell us a little bit about The Roots Fund and Core and all the other great things that you’re doing. 

Sarah: I’m a really small part in those organizations, I’m there to offer any support and help that I can to Tahera who is just one of the most amazing, inspiring, hard working people I’ve ever met in my entire life. I really started talking to Tahera and really trying to figure out what we could do better, what I could be doing better when she reached out to talk about her experience in the Court. It shook me, there were things that I always knew that I had not experienced in the Court, but something in me wasn’t surprised when I found out that she and so many other people had. I feel like I missed it. I was lucky to have missed it, but it wasn’t a surprise. And I could suddenly just see all the problems when she started talking.

So basically my role in all of this is to provide support in whatever way I can. I never thought of myself as a mentor in wine because I still feel like I’m constantly learning and being mentored by all of these amazing people. But what I’ve started to realize is that I do have a lot of experience, but it didn’t occur to me that I might be helpful. And so Tahera said to me, “no, you’d be helpful.” 

Shakera: You’d be really helpful! 

Sarah: I want very much to offer myself up in that way, to anybody who has questions or just wants to talk about their experiences or advice or whatever anybody needs that I can help with. I just want to be available for it, I feel like I didn’t have mentors. I didn’t have people in the industry that looked like me and I didn’t believe at the time that it was necessary in order for me to get where I got. It would have been a lot easier and maybe I would have had a position to look up to, but I didn’t. I’d like to be able to say that I can offer that to someone else.

The work that Tahera’s been doing in making the wine world a more open place, a place where people don’t feel that intimidation around any part of it, not just in fine dining. And I just love how she’s really doing a lot of work. And I’m trying to help in terms of breaking down the snobbery around wine, breaking down the gates, breaking down the idea that you have to be able to speak about it in a certain way. That’s all nonsensical.

It really goes back to what we were talking about initially is that we’re here to help people experience things, right? How do we help people realize how joyful the experience of having a great glass of wine can be and just forget all the other stuff around it? I feel that very deeply, that the joy can and should be translated in such a way that is universal. I think the work to put it back down is harder than it might seem, but it’s hard for people to be genuine about what they’re feeling, what they’re experiencing, because all of these things have been built around it. So we’re just dismantling all of that to make it more welcoming for people to have their own authentic, joyful experiences. 

Shakera: Yeah. That’s why I describe wine in the way I do, where it’s situational. I like pairing Disney villains! Because we can talk about linear and angular wines with racing acidity. But if I just tell you, well, think about Jafar, suddenly you can personify this thing and it sort of makes sense. Or if I tell you Zinfandel, think of Ursula, that makes sense. And so I think someone has to be a vessel for translating it. But then once you’ve realized that you have enough to translate it out to people, go share it in that way. And I think that’s something that I’ve taken up and changed the language of it.

You are from South Asia. I’m from Central America in the Caribbean. If you describe something to me as spicy, I’m never going to think of a jalapeno popper because the jalapeno popper is not spicy to me at all. If you describe something to me as sour and you say a green apple, that’s not sour, but if you say tamarind, that’s sour to me. So being more inclusive with the language that we use to understand that different people have different fruits, different spices, different everything around the world. So let’s make the language that we’re using universal.

And I think that we all need to continue to work towards that because I love seeing messages from people, “oh my God, I tried that wine that I saw you were talking about, because you made it sound so good and I tasted it and it was great.” I love that, now keep drinking! That’s all that matters. And that’s what I think will keep changing. We’re not going to just flip a switch and everything will be different. But I love the progress that we’re making, I really, really do. And it is an honor and a pleasure to be able to learn and grow with people like you and so many others that we know that are more than willing and happy to share their knowledge. 

So you’re not on the floor anymore. That day-to-day has gone, but you still drink wine. 

Shakera: What’s a wine, a region or a grape that you think people should be exploring, but it’s not getting the attention that it should?

Sarah: I don’t know if it’s not getting the kind of attention that it should. But I know you were a big lover of Spain and all the delicious stuff that’s coming out from ‘non-traditional’ regions. And I’ve had a little love affair with Spain and Spanish wine myself. For a couple of years now I think, we poured some at my wedding. I love Mencia, I think it’s delicious and I think it’s versatile. There are  a couple of producers that are just making fun wine.

I think one of the things that I really lean into, being off the floor and not having to describe wine in the same way all the time and really just getting back to experiencing it, is I’ve been rediscovering how good lots of different Indian food is with wine. I mean, it’s one of those things that I was always frustrated by the fact that people always said, “oh, you can’t have good wine with Indian food. If you’re going to have wine it has to be sweet.” And I thought, “how do you know? How much Indian food have you had and how much wine have you tried with it? Why are you just saying this?” And so I’ve been really enjoying eating my food and my mom’s food and trying it with great wine. And you know what, most of it’s really good. 

Shakera: It’s working. 

Sarah: It’s working! That’s been a fun, personal joyful experience for me. And I had a lot of Spanish wines that have been really fitting that bill in terms of great food pairings with the kind of heavily spice-laden dishes that I’m used to eating. 

Shakera: Same. Oh my God. So, guys. 

Sarah: We’ve gotta cook together! 

Shakera: We have to! Once the world opens up and we can tell you about Spain. Trust me on this country. These wines are phenomenal. I’m going to start collecting gold stars of other people that are championing Spanish wines. They are delicious. They are well-made, they are affordable. And even if you have one that you don’t like, try it with a couple of different things that you’re eating, there’s A Glass For Every Palate. 

Sarah: Got it in there! 

Shakera: This has been such a great conversation. So, we always end with this little lightning round thing. So quick answers. Can’t think about it very much, first answer that comes to your head. Ready? 

Sarah: Okay. 

Shakera: If you are having a great day, everything has gone spectacularly. You just want to celebrate, what do you drink? 

Sarah: Champagne. It’s basic, but it’s just true. 

Shakera: Okay. No, it’s not. There’s never not a reason to choose Champagne.

Shakera: On your worst day, everything went wrong. If it could go wrong, it did. Gosh when is this going to be over? I just want to lay down, but first, a drink. What do you have? 

Sarah: Sherry. 

Shakera: Really? Okay. 

Sarah: Yeah. I love Amontillado. That’s probably what I reach for. If that’s my first drink where I’ve gotta take the edge off.

Shakera: Some Sherry? Okay. So that’s it for the next one then.

Shakera: The next one was going to be, if you’re not drinking wine, what’s the cocktail or spirit that you love?

Sarah: Oh yeah. Well, Negroni or Boulevardier.

Shakera: I love that everyone loves these very spirit forward cocktails. And last but not least, when someone tastes and has experienced as many wines as you, I often find there’s something that, it doesn’t matter how much you have it, it’s palatable and you can drink it, but it’s just not one that does it for you.

Shakera: Is there a great wine or region that you’re just not a lover of?

Sarah: Yeah. Torrontés. I’ve never gotten into it. Torrontés is sometimes overly floral stuff. I’m just not into it. I’ll be honest, it’s the easiest one for me in blind tastings. Because I always am thinking, lemon edge, or soap or something, but that’s not very nice. I’m sure there’s great Torrontés out there and I just haven’t had it. 

Shakera: Yeah, that is fair, fair and fair. Oh my goodness. This has been such a great conversation. Tell people where they can follow you on social media. 

Sarah: My handle is @ess_thomas and @kalamataskitchen 

Shakera: Boom. Oh my god. Sarah, thank you so much for being here with us. This was a great conversation and I can’t wait to see your smile in person again and give you a big hug and then we’ll have to do a cooking video. We have to. 

Sarah: Yes. Thank you so much for having me. This has been so much fun. Definitely the best part of my day today. 

Shakera: Yay, thank you! Alright guys, bye bye! 

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