Meet the Sommelier: FRANCIS SCHOTT of Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi Restaurants in New Brunswick, NJ
Francis Schott is co-founder and beverage director of Stage Left Restaurant in New Brunswick, NJ. Stage Left has been one of the best dining and beverage destinations in NJ since it opened in 1992. The pioneering beverage program included a focus on estate-bottled wines from small producers, a stock of extraordinary and uncommon spirits and aged beer. With the help of Dale DeGroff, Francis established Stage Left's craft cocktail program in 1993, which Francis will point out, is about 10 years before anyone gave a damn.
In 2006, Francis opened Catherine Lombardi, an Italian-American restaurant based on the cooking of business-partner Mark Pascal's Brooklyn grandmother. The restaurant shares a cellar with Stage Left and boasts 1,000 well-curated labels. The Cocktail Bar at Catherine Lombardi was the first purpose-built cocktail bar in NJ and it remains the grandmother of cocktails in NJ. The Spirits Project at Catherine Lombardi is an ongoing educational tasting of extraordinary spirits, made available in one ounce portions at cost, weekly.
Francis, his partners and his restaurants have been featured in The New York Times, Cheers, Food Arts, The Star Ledger, The Food Network, Eater, FoodBelfast and The Irish Echo.
In addition to his own restaurant operations, Francis consults on fun projects here and in Ireland. He is Co-Host of The Restaurant Guys Radio program (www.RestaurantGuysRadio.com) and is in demand as a public speaker. His TEDx talk on restaurants and community can be found online.
Francis was an early graduate of the B.A.R. 5-Day program and still classifies himself primarily as a bartender that knows a thing or two about wine and running restaurants.
What special personal qualities or talents have enhanced your career?
Being the most demanding person you've ever met, while at the same time being endlessly and always grateful to those who put up with me and travel down the road with me.
Who have been some of your professional mentors or individuals that have inspired your work?
Kevin Zraly - As for so many people, he was a singular influence and his number one lesson was that the most important thing is the people. Wine is just the medium and the tool and the glorious instrument we use to make their lives better. And by making their lives better, of course we do the same to our own.
Tell us a little about your travel experiences as a sommelier.
Traveling as a wine pro is just about the most fun you can have. You can make friends anywhere they make wine and these friendships can be enduring. Especially living in the New York area, everyone eventually comes here (and sometimes they sleep on your floor or in your spare bedroom). The community of wine people makes the world a small and friendly place.
When I was just starting in the business (before the internet) I traveled most of Western Europe with a large satchel of letters of introduction from Kevin Zraly. People in Rioja and Jerez, in Champagne and The Rhone, in Oporto and everywhere else invited me to their vineyards, opened their doors to me, their cellars to me and sometimes their guest houses, couches or living room floors to me to sleep on. I learned as much about wine people as I did about wine.
Why do you find your career as a sommelier so rewarding?
I love great food, wine, spirits and cocktails and I love what I do. I am the treasure hunter that finds that great new wine or spirit you have not had. I put things in context and I help people separate hype and marketing from quality and authenticity. I am the keeper of the story.
It's the connection with the people that makes it great. I am the connection between the producers and the drinkers. I love them both.
What is one of your favorite meals and what wine would you select for it?
I'm a fan of fowl. Pheasant makes me happy, especially if it's laden with mushrooms of any kind or truffles. This is also a dish that makes almost any wine sing. An old Cote Rotie ('95) by Bernard Levet would be my first choice or maybe a Morey St. ('03) Denis from Hubert Lignier. It could also stand up very nicely to some of the old Riesling, in my cellar like the 'Zeltinger Sonnenuhr' Riesling Spatlese ('99) from Selbach-Oster.
Tell us a little about the restaurant or organization that you currently work with.
With my business partner Mark Pascal, I'm fortunate enough to own Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi restaurants. After 22 and 10 years respectively, we're very much a part of our community. We've pioneered a cellar centered on estate-bottled wines from small producers (1992), NJ's first craft cocktail list co-authored with Dale DeGroff (1993), farm-to-table menus (1993) and other innovations. But the most important thing is that we're still just the great local restaurant where we're glad to see you and we have a cellar and bar full of great stuff to make you happy!
Stage Left and Catherin Lombardi are conveniently located in New Brunswick, New Jersey in the heart of the city's bustling theatre district. For information on Stage Left visit http://www.stageleft.com/sl/dine/. For information on Catherine Lombardi, visit http://www.catherinelombardi.com/sle/cl/.
Photo: Courtesy of Francis Schott