Meet Tracey Shepos Cenami, the Executive Chef and Cheese Specialist at La Crema Winery in California. A graduate of the California Culinary Institute, Tracey joined the Kendall-Jackson team in 2009, specializing in crafting delicious wine country cuisine and working with local artisanal cheeses for the winery and restaurant. She sits down with Wandereater to share her Wine and Cheese Pairing Secrets and her opinions on taste.
Executive Chef Tracey is an author who wrote a ‘Season Cookbook’ which received Cookbook of the Year from the International Association of Culinary Professionals and she has also made appearances on The Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay” and is also a “Guy’s Grocery Games” three-time champion. Before joining the La Crema team, she worked for eight years as the executive chef for Stark Reality restaurants, a Sonoma County restaurant group. During her tenure there, she helped to open five different restaurants and create a catering department. After years in the culinary world, Chef Tracey was drawn to the California wine industry and wanted to have the opportunity to create unique wine and food pairings and experiences.
“What specifically excites me about living in Northern California (even more specifically, Sonoma County) is the fact that as a chef, this area is our mecca. It is a farm town surrounded by amazing produce and farmers, very close to the coast with great access to artisanal cheese makers and an overall community that thrives on good food and wine,” she says.
Chef Tracey is passionate and inspired by her wine and cheese career and her relationship with food from the ground up. “Jackson Family wines have a beautiful 300-acre culinary garden which to me is as amazing as it gets as a chef, walking through there every day is forever inspiring.” When it comes to what she thinks everyone should grow she states that “Fresh herbs are always a great thing to grow at home as they allow for more creativity in your cooking. You can take a simple spring mix and throw in your favourite herbs and create a totally unique combination!”
Tracey Shepos Cenami grew up in a family that was always cooking. Her Italian Nonna and mother put considerable thought into every meal and made the every day special, treating each and every day as a special occasion. She was tasting great food at a young age, and now her daily job is built around wine and cheese tasting and their symbiotic relationship. “When I do any sort of tasting, I always start with the wine and from there decipher what it is that I’m tasting but I also note texture, acidity and all those other little things that hit the palate.”
How to taste
When it comes to wine and cheese pairing Executive Chef Tracey believes that it is a personal experience as much as it is about science. “That is the amazing thing about wine and cheese, you can find your mood and go from there.” To grow and develop your journey of taste you need to ask yourself important questions as you analyze the way they interact.
Her biggest piece of advice is also her biggest lesson when it comes to wine and cheese pairings. “The biggest lesson I have learnt about taste over the years is to really pay attention to why and why not. Paying close attention to the flavours and textures and not strictly if we like or don’t like something is extremely important. When you are tasting cheese or wine or anything for that matter, really challenge yourself to not only ask if you like it but also why you like it?”
“I think there is very much a craft to wine and cheese pairings, science alludes to a specificity whereas pairings are very fluid and diplomatic.”
When it comes to the trade secrets Chef Tracey starts with the wine first and allows it to lead the way. “When I do any sort of tasting, I always start with the wine and from there decipher its individual texture, acidity and how all those other little things hit the palette.”
Taste can be a tricky thing that can be based around both art and science. “When winemakers make the wine or we are tasting cheese and pairing wine there isn’t a strict formula we follow, but more a constant process of tasting and adjusting – and not all of these adjustments are exact.” she says.
When I asked her about how she analyzes each variable she said, “I look at the tasting in three different parts; beginning, middle and end. A big win in a cheese and wine combo is when the flavour at all three parts of the tasting work. An even bigger win occurs when the pairing allows the two entities to evolve and bring out different aspects of one another.”
The number one wine and cheese pairing secret she says is to pair wines that have fresh and bright acid on the palate with salty cheese.
Practice Makes Perfect
Executive Chef Tracey played a pivotal role in developing the culinary program at La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard, including introducing a VIP wine and cheese pairing experience – a lesson in the fundamentals of wine and cheese pairing which expertly pairs local artisan cheeses with La Crema wines. She trains hard for each and every day of her career to cater to incredible taste experiences for visitors – so her palate needs to stay alive and relevant. “It is so amazing to be a part of the community, when I am not working as a chef, I am out eating in the county. It is a great privilege to not only help in creating the experience of Sonoma County but also experience it myself.”
When Tracey is not creating perfect pairings, she enjoys spending time outside with her husband and son barbequing in the backyard or eating oysters on the Sonoma Coast. Her personal favorite pairing is La Crema Pinot Noir with bacon almonds and Valley Ford Estero Gold cheese.