Craig Giesecke: The food-and-beer matchmaking game

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Craig Giesecke

I’ll finally be getting an opportunity in the coming month or so to do what I enjoy most – coming up with menu items to pair with beer at a dinner or other special event. While I never think of myself of actually going “to work,” it is at times like these that I really feel like I’m being paid for something I’d be doing anyway. It’s one of the ways in which the culinary, art and musical worlds are very similar to each other.

You’ll be seeing and hearing information about various events being planned around town for American Craft Beer Week, which is in the middle of May. I’ll be lucky enough to be working with the folks from Abita and NOLA Brewing (and maybe others) to pair various types and styles of beers with appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts, giving me pretty much carte blanche to come up with the tastiest stuff I can find. Similar events in the past have led to development of some best-selling daily menu items, so I’m looking forward to the challenge and also seeing what other chefs develop for similar events.

Some of the beers I’ll be working with are already very familiar, so it’s just a question of bringing out some flavor in the beer or using the beer to bring out a different taste in the food. But there are a few that are reasonably unfamiliar or pose unique taste challenges. Of course, this requires an artist to be very familiar with his/her medium – so my beer consumption level will be rising in the near future. Dang.

I am not the daily beer drinker I used to be. Matter of fact, I nearly stopped drinking beer entirely for a few years as I focused more on rum, cocktails and wines. But my time spent running the kitchen at The Avenue Pub (one of the country’s premier beer bars) coincided with a rebirth of Louisiana’s craft beer scene – meaning brews that are more varied, complex and, at least in this state, available for the first time. The beer world is every bit as involved as the wine and spirits worlds and, sometimes, even more so.

These days, if not for help from friends or family, a six-pack of beer lasts me a week or more.  I used to buy it by the case or the 12-pack, but anymore the choices are so varied (particularly at Stein’s Deli) that I hesitate to buy more than two bottles of anything in particular.  Cost can be an issue, of course, but the overriding issue is I feel I’m missing out on something else if I drink too much of one thing.

I much prefer to start with the beer and match the food to it. At Tracey’s the other night, I tasted one of the Abitas we’ll be using for a beer dinner next month. One particular taste (not an ingredient in the beer itself, by the way) shot immediately into my taste buds and I’ll use that as the base ingredient for the pairing dish. But other pairings won’t be so easy, so more tasting is required. Again – dang.

Folks ask me (and, I presume, any chef) how we “know” which flavors potentially go together. In some cases, like with the beer at Tracey’s, we want to ask, “how can you NOT know?” Other times, it takes experimentation and a lot of trial-and-error. But, sadly, some folks just don’t seem to have the Food Pairing Gene. I once knew a chef in Florida who had the culinary degree, the wonderful knife skills and could recite the ingredients for all the mother sauces. But she lacked an understanding of how the various senses work together to create good food and good pairings.

Contrarian that I can sometimes be, I resist trite pairings of things like lamb and mint or duck and orange. Even though they are good, I see them as lazy for both the chef and the diner. Next column, we’ll talk a bit about why I think so and how I bypass it. It’s part of the fun of doing what I do.

Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes, and is now banquet and special event chef at the Warehouse Grille. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.

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