Meet the Sommelier: A.J. OJEDA-PONS of THE LAMBS CLUB at The Chatwal Hotel in Midtown
Born in Caracas, Venezuela and raised by Spanish parents in New York City, A.J. Ojeda-Pons took a strong interest in wines at a young age. After composing and studying music in college, it was his exposure to fine dining restaurants in Manhattan that opened his mind to the world of wines.
He began working in the restaurant industry after September 11, 2001 after losing his job as a junior sound engineer for a music post-production studio. With friends recommending A.J. to start working in the restaurant industry, he went knocking from door to door to several restaurants until finally getting a position as a reservationist at Tribeca Grill. In his first year, A.J observed the staff training under Wine Director David Gordon and he had the opportunity to speak extensively with Sommelier Yoshi Takemura, who brought him to his first portfolio tasting.
A.J. has worked with some of the best restaurants in New York, beginning as Maître d' at Morrells 900. Since then, he has worked as Service Director/Maître d' at Laurent Tourondel's BLT Fish and BLT Prime and as General Manager at Jean George's Perry St. He then worked as Restaurant Director with the all-American wine program at Zoe Townhouse and as Wine Director at Public restaurant, with its Antipodean wine focus. At Public, at The Monday Room wine bar, he polished the craft of food pairings with obscure wines.
Currently, A.J. is the Sommelier at The Lambs Club, overseeing the continuously growing international wine program for Geoffrey Zakarian's restaurant. A.J. can be seen making his rounds throughout The Lambs Club dining room enthusiastically serving guests and providing his expertise recommendations.
"I think wine is something really special for me because no matter what you drink you have to think how nobody can replicate the final product in your glass. No matter what winemakers try to do, no wine is identical from vintage to vintage. Vintages carry surprises of their own, and the differences are going to be apparent. You can have a consistently good product, but in the end what we get to sip is a bit of history in itself."
A.J.'s passionate enthusiasm for his craft is contagious to diners, fellow colleagues and wine enthusiasts alike. Continuously educating himself and seeking out unique selections, A.J. brings a wealth of knowledge, and style, to all he serves. He spends much of his free time continually educating himself, participating in many industry events as well as teaching and examining for the Master Sommelier Program.
Broadwayworld.com had the pleasure of interviewing A.J. Ojeda-Pons for our "Meet the Sommelier" feature.
What special personal qualities or talents have enhanced your career?
I've always been a hard worker! My philosophy of working hard, and doing it well from the beginning have taught me to overcome obstacles and move forward. I can truly say that I really love what I do and it always reflects on how I conduct myself professionally. A smile goes a long way when you are trying to solve negative situations! Having a fine attention to detail and understanding of the guests that visit us every night and being able to share my passion are parts of my great success. I am a creative person naturally and I am grateful that I have been given the ability to express my vision and love for my craft.
Who have been some of your professional mentors or individuals that have inspired your work?
There are so many! Throughout my professional career and my studies I have learned from so many. I've gotten so much inspiration from people like David Gordon, Patrick Capiello, Fred Dexheimer, Mollie Battenhouse MW, Laura (Fiorvanti) Maniec MS, Michael Nelson, Jean-Pierre Duteron, Jason Wagner, Mary Gorwan-Mcadams MW, I tell you, the list is longer...
We'd love to know about your travel experiences as a sommelier.
The first wine travel for work/educational purposes I did was just the beginning of my journey into delving deep into the cultural aspects of the relationship between wine and food. Wine travel has not just helped me to learn but also decide how I design and select wines for my wine list and for my personal collection. I've met so many talented winemakers, farmers, regional ambassadors, educators and sommeliers and wine industry professionals alike that there are too many too name. I've explored so many unsung wine regions, tasting everything from the wine, the food and even the soil - no kidding. I learn so much every time I travel, taking copious notes and recordings that have helped me immensely in my studies and in sharing the passion that these people, sometimes obliviously, exude. I travel much more internationally than locally, but even discovering our own wine country has reaped great rewards.
Why do you find your career as a sommelier so rewarding?
There is no other product in the world that involves so many different parts to be created: from what the nature, soil and fruit provides, to the people that craft it, until it finally gets enjoyed, consumed, imbibed and ultimately, remembered. From a frugal meal to a lavish celebration. From a simple toast to a collectors' tasting. Wine is ephemeral. It's the memories that remain. Every single day of my life I get to taste and serve so many great wines, and humbly, I am able to experience them, sometimes just for a very brief second, like the pleasure of a perfume scent that makes you smile. I envy that pleasure even when I am not drinking the whole bottle.
What is one of your favorite meals and what wine would you select for it?
It may be kitschy, but I love Thanksgiving. Maybe because I am the one cooking the whole meal, but when it is all served, there are always numerous different wines at the table. It's a good time for me to share them and to enjoy. But in general, kid you not, bubbles are always in order!
Tell us a little about The Lambs Club.
The wine program has been a great benchmark for me, because it has allowed me to expand my knowledge and to widen the horizons of everyone that is looking forward to exploring it. I have been able to make so many wine discoveries of lesser known grape varieties to add to our by-the-glass program, which, I am proud to say we are the only restaurant to offer this many in the whole of Manhattan! It is truly an international wine list, well-curated, and where you can find a vast array of wines from a very, very wide price range from almost every wine region in the world. The wine list is a reflection of my (over 7 years) of work and dedication. I can say with all honesty that our wine list is a wine oasis within the Times Square theaters, with a terrific cuisine to match. The list is never still, it's ever-changing. There is always something new to look forward to, and our team would love to show it to you! Plus the menu from Chef/Partner Geoffrey Zakarian & Executive Chef Galen Zamarra is exceptional!
The Lambs Club is located in The Chatwal Hotel, 132 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036. They are available for breakfast, lunch, dinner, weekend brunches, pre-theatre dining, and drinks. Private event space is available. Visit them at http://www.thelambsclub.com/ or call 212.997.5262.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Lambs Club