For 28-year-old Marie-Louise Friedland, restaurants run in her blood. As the granddaughter of immigrants, she’s fighting to continue the family tradition of spreading knowledge, challenging people, and celebrating food that began when her Spanish grandfather and French grandmother moved from France to Texas and brought their culinary ambitions with them.
In her current role as assistant beverage director and assistant general manager of two San Francisco restaurants, every day she works to help customers discover new wines without intimidating them.
Before coming to the US, Friedland's grandparents had owned a restaurant in France. When they eventually settled in San Antonio, they opened a French fine dining establishment named Chez Ardid, and the whole family worked together to run it. Friedland remembers growing up there: When other kids went to daycare, she went to the restaurant.
But serving French cuisine in Texas in the 1970s wasn't exactly easy. Chez Ardid wanted to serve food the way that Friedland's grandparents had experienced it in France, without compromising to appeal to local palates: Sometimes this meant taking back dishes that customers weren't comfortable with, but it also meant exposing diners to new dishes that they truly loved (Friedland's grandfather was the first person to serve frogs' legs and veal in San Antonio). At an early age, Friedland learned from her grandfather that even if people don't understand what you're doing right away, you have to persevere: "You need to have faith in your own vision," she says, in order to keep pursuing it.
Even though she loved Chez Ardid, Friedland didn't always know that this path would lead her to the restaurant industry. She received a degree in advertising with a minor in art from the University of Texas, and imagined a future as a painter or working on the creative side of an ad agency.
While in school, Friedland spent her summers working with food: She worked as a cheesemonger, she travelled and tasted wine and cheese across Europe, and one summer she ended up as a hostess at Uchi, a small Japanese restaurant in Austin, that would prove to have a profound impact on her career. Like Chez Ardiz, Uchi stands out in its surroundings.
When asked about the menu, Friedland described it as authentic Japanese cuisine. "You have to dig your heels in and say ‘Yeah, we're going to serve sushi in the middle of Austin, and we're going to serve it the way that they do in Japan. We're not going to give you soy sauce, and we're not going to give you wasabi.'" It was while working at Uchi that Friedland earned the title of certified sommelier and affirmed that her love of restaurants was not just a phase.
Armed with the confidence and defiance she witnessed firsthand at these two revolutionary Texas restaurants, Friedland is now the assistant wine director and assistant general manager at The Progress and State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, where she is on the floor every night. Although she loves interacting with customers, she doesn't believe that it's a sommelier's only role. She believes "sommeliers need to be leaders" in order for the industry to evolve.
In her role, she finds herself dealing with a lot more than selecting wine: She tastes and buys wine, cares for the wine cellar, trains the staff, and organizes restaurant finances. To get it all done, she credits extreme organization: "My inbox," she says emphatically, "is always at zero."
When it comes to the wine list, Friedland demonstrates a desire to make wine culture "less snobby." That’s an easy thing to say, but accomplishing it is a challenge. To start, she doesn’t expect her patrons to have the same knowledge of wine that her staff does. Although she makes sure that the waitstaff is well-versed in the the nitty-gritty specifics of the wine list, she asks them not to confuse customers with details about soil type or grape yields. That doesn’t mean, however, that she’s content to stick with wines that people know. To make the wine experience more inviting, she organizes the list by flavor, not by country or varietal. She believes that’s how most diners understand and approach wine: "They want to know what wine will go best with their meal."
Friedland is working to transform wine culture from her position in the industry. She believes that progress won’t come from reaching for a big break, but by investing in the community around her, and not just at her own restaurant. And she rejects the idea that sommeliers need to know everything instantaneously, and instead strives to build her knowledge through conversation with her peers from restaurants all around the Bay Area.
In her ideal restaurant community, servers and sommeliers from throughout the city would share tips on new wines to taste, how to help unique varietals find a market, and where to source rare bottles, because "you can’t sommelier in a bubble," she says. For Friedland, moving forward means more working together.
Madeline Muzzi is Eater's social media manager.
Marie-Louise Friedland is the assistant general manager and wine director at The Progress and State Bird Provisions in San Francisco.
Images by Patricia Chang.
Editors: Dana Hatic and Sonia Chopra
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley
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