André Hueston Mack is one of America’s best known sommeliers. But for most of his career, he’s felt like an outsider. In the rarefied wine world, he likes to wear Air Jordans and a Mickey Mouse watch. He’s been known to describe wines he likes as “bangin’.” Since André was a kid, his obsessions have guided him — through the worlds of fine dining, wine making, and now: ham. Dan visits André at his wine and American ham bar in Brooklyn called & Sons to talk about the ideal thickness of sliced meats, predicting what a wine will taste like when the grapes are still growing, and how Frasier jump started his career.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Johanna Mayer, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O'Connell.
This episode contains explicit language.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Soul Good" by Lance Conrad
- “Rollin Train” by Steve Pierson
- “Gust of Wind” by Max Greenhalgh
- “False Alarm” by Hayley Briasco
- “Can You Dig It” by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- “Sugar and Spice” by Hayley Briasco
- “Hound Dog” by Jason Mickelson
Photo courtesy of Sash Photography.
Dan Pashman: This episode contains explicit language.
Dan Pashman: So what are we opening up here, André?
André Hueston Mack: So we're opening up a little Ridge? It's California Zinfandel, one of my favorites. Uh, and this is from 1991, so this the [Dan Pashman: Wow!] year that I graduated from high school.
Dan Pashman: I'll be honest with you, I know very little about wine, but that's a long time ago. So —
André Hueston Mack: That is a long time.
Dan Pashman: I feel, I feel like that just makes this wine special.
André Hueston Mack: You're trying to make me old? Yes. What?
Dan Pashman: I graduated high school in 1995. I’m only a couple years younger than you. It's cool.
André Hueston Mack: Okay. All right. OKay. I'll take a couple years. It's okay.
Dan Pashman: I'm just saying that like, that's — my understanding is like older wine is generally better or more expensive, so I feel very honored that such an old bottle is being opened.
André Hueston Mack: Yeah. Well, this is kinda how I roll. So —
Dan Pashman: You pour it into a decanter through a little sieve there just to get any sort of sediment?
André Hueston Mack: Yes. Yeah. So we use a little tea sieve. We want to just remove the sediment from the bottle.
Dan Pashman: I'm several feet away from this decanter and I feel like I can smell —
André Hueston Mack: You can smell it.
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
André Hueston Mack: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, no, I mean, it's vibrant. It's great. That's a good thing. It smells pretty wonderful. Ridge is one of my favorite, [Dan Pashman: Mm.] favorite producers.
Dan Pashman: I'll let you tell me when this is ready. Are we — is the wine breathing?
André Hueston Mack: Oh, no. This is ready. Yeah, no.
Dan Pashman: All right.
André Hueston Mack: We don't want it to breathe too long. Oxygen is the enemy of a wine this old. We just wanted to remove the sediment from the bottle, so we could have a better experience. So it's not granular.
Dan Pashman: All right, let's do it.
André Hueston Mack: And we're just going to pour here... [POURING WINE] And here's to Friday.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, cheers.
André Hueston Mack: Chin, chin.
André Hueston Mack: Ohh.
Dan Pashman: What should I be tasting for here, André? Walk me through this process.
André Hueston Mack: I would say, smell it. Just smell it. It doesn't have any off odors or anything like that, right? Like, [SNIFFS] it smells like little dried fruit, raspberry, cranberry, a little bit of cinnamon. It’s almost like a mulled wine, a little bit.
Dan Pashman: Perfect for a Friday at noon. [LAUGHS]
André Hueston Mack: I love it. I love it. Sometimes it's good to be the king.
Dan Pashman: That's right.
André Hueston Mack: You know?
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people.
Dan Pashman: Today, I’m in Brooklyn, at & Sons, which is a wine bar, but not an ordinary wine bar — it’s a wine and ham bar. So you can order a glass of wine along with a plate of American ham, sliced thin, the way you’d see prosciutto being served at an Italian wine bar. Now, I’m not just here to eat freshly sliced ham and have a glass of wine, although that does sound like a weekday afternoon well-spent. I’m meeting up with the owner, André Hueston Mack.
Dan Pashman: Before André got into ham — and as you’ll hear, he’s really into ham… But before that, André’s first love was wine.
André Hueston Mack: Wine people love to talk. They love to talk about — like you are not gonna be able to get me to shut up today. I’m just gonna keep talking, right?
Dan Pashman: Andre is a winemaker — his brand, Maison Noir Wines, is in stores and restaurants across the country. He’s also one of America’s best known sommeliers. He does wine videos for Bon Appetit that routinely get a million views, where he explains how to taste different varieties or lists his favorite wines in a box …
CLIP (ANDRÉ HUESTON MACK): [MUSIC] You know, if I was going to make a wine in a box, I would aspire to make something like this.
Dan Pashman: In other videos Andre talks wine with celebrities like Dwyane Wade or Kevin Hart.
CLIP (ANDRÉ HUESTON MACK): You like that wine?
CLIP (KEVIN HART): Can I be honest with you?
CLIP (ANDRÉ HUESTON MACK): Yes.
CLIP (KEVIN HART):This is absolute shit.
Dan Pashman: So he's a big name in the wine world, but for most of his career, he’s felt more like an outsider. A few years ago, he published a memoir-slash-wine guide, called 99 Bottles. In it he writes, “The stereotype of a wine dude is a man who wears a tailored three-piece suit and wingtips. That’s not really how I roll ... When was the last time you saw a sommelier, winemaker, and overall wine and beverage expert in Air Jordans, sporting earrings in both ears, a Mickey Mouse wristwatch, thick-rimmed spectacles, a graphic T-shirt, and a baseball cap?”
Dan Pashman: André grew up in a military family, moving every few years. The family eventually settled in San Antonio when he was a teeenager. His first restaurant job was at McDonald’s. And while his parents didn’t drink much, André found his first drink of choice: Olde English malt liquor.
Dan Pashman: As he grew up, André became the kind of person who doesn’t do anything halfway. Like when he wanted to learn to play chess, so he read eight books on the subject. He bought a computer just to practice. When he was younger, he was convinced he’d become a basketball star. He practiced and played constantly. But like a lot of kids, at a certain point he reached his limit, and realized he’d never make the N.B.A.
André Hueston Mack: And I felt like I blamed myself. Right? That like, I didn't work hard enough, but I worked really hard. But I still didn't work hard enough. And all I remember my coaches always talking about like, "You have great potential. And like it’s up to you what you do with that potential." And since I didn't make it to the N.B.A., I felt like I failed. And I always kind of went through the rest of my life saying, I just don't want to be the guy with potential. I actually wanted to make it mean something. I said, if I find something else that I'm good at, I'm never fucking letting go. Right? Ever.
Dan Pashman: André stayed in San Antonio for college and after, working at Red Lobster for a while. But he wanted a more stable career path, so he started working in finance. In 2000, after a few years at that gig, he got caught up in a round of layoffs and found himself out of a job, with a few months of severance. Just like with his dashed N.B.A. dreams…
André Hueston Mack: Basically, I felt like I had failed, I didn’t go anywhere, I sat on the sofa, I was doing absolutely nothing.
Dan Pashman: Absolutely nothing except watching a whole lot of the 90’s sitcom Frasier.
CLIP (FRASIER CRANE): This is Dr. Frasier Crane, I’m listening…
Dan Pashman: Frasier, as you may know, was a show about the psychiatrist and radio host Frasier Crane, and his brother Niles. You know, their whole shtick was that they’re huge snobs. They love fancy restaurants, fine art, and wine…
CLIP (FRASIER CRANE): Hmm. Big, full-bodied. Perhaps a bit baked? A sense of truffles ... long finish ... Chambertin '76!
CLIP (NILES CRANE): Bravo Frasier!
André Hueston Mack: They made fun of themselves. They made wine inviting and like the rituals and the things that they had around wine was was inviting to me. It was intriguing. That show gave me the courage to walk into a wine store for the first time ever. I wanted to learn more about wine. I wanted to have more wine in my life.
Dan Pashman: At that point André knew nothing about wine. But thanks to Frasier, it quickly became his obsession — the thing he wouldn’t let go of.
Dan Pashman: He started going to tastings, paying attention to restaurant wine lists. Eventually, he saw that an upscale chain restaurant called The Palm was opening a location in San Antonio, and they were hiring servers, so he applied. He went in on the day of the interview …
André Hueston Mack: and I was talking to the C.F.O. of the company. And he said, "Hey, kid, so what do you know about wine?" And I was like, “Oh, you know, white with fish, red with meat.” And you know, and then they all started to laugh at me.
Dan Pashman: In this room, André’s answer was not super impressive. But …
André Hueston Mack: I just remember him saying, “You know, we can teach you anything that you need to learn about wine.”
Dan Pashman: André got the job and immediately started his wine education.
André Hueston Mack: The last two days of training, we tasted about 60 percent of all the wines. There were 60 wines on the wine list and we started with white and they laid out three white wines all in a row. And so it was like Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. And all I could remember it was Voss Sauvignon Blanc and I smelled it and was like white pepper. It was like so different than anything else. And I was like, "This is wine? Like, This is the diversity in wine?", like this is, this is wild. And then through the training, what I started to realize was this is geography. This is history.
Dan Pashman: Right.
André Hueston Mack: You know, I traveled the world with my parents. Like, that is something I understood. And that was interesting. And it was like once you started to realize that it was, it was all of these things? I was just ... I was dumbfounded. And it was at that moment that I decided, I wanted to do this shit.
Dan Pashman: If you want to work in the wine industry, there are a few different paths. You can make wine, you can sell wine… or you can be a sommelier. That’s the person who decides what wines a restaurant will carry, talks with diners about what wine they want to drink, and then makes recommendations, and serves it. André got it in his head that that’s what he wanted to do — and unlike with his N.B.A. dreams, he was going to make it. He was still waiting tables, but in his spare time he read every book on wine that he could get his hands on, studying labels, and training his palate.
André Hueston Mack: And that was it, man. I was like, I was in it. Like, the restaurant doesn't technically have a sommelier, they had like a manager who was in charge of beverage. But like at that point, I was asking him questions he couldn't answer. Like, you know what I mean?
Dan Pashman: Right.
André Hueston Mack: It was… I'm good at what I do. So like, when I started to learn wine, all the other waiters depended on me. So they would say, "Hey, they want to talk wine at my table. I watch your tables where you go over."
Dan Pashman: In 2002, André got his next break. He left The Palm to run the wine program at a new steakhouse in San Antonio, called Bohanan’s. Now he was meeting wine makers and distributors, and gaining a deeper understanding of the industry. He started entering sommelier competitions, where you have to decant and serve wine, pair it with food, and do blind tastings. He quickly won the title of Best Young Sommelier in America.
Dan Pashman: But he still felt like he had a lot to learn — and since he was the top wine person at his job, he had to look elsewhere for guidance. So he cold-called all the best restaurants in Texas, to ask if he could work there for free on his days off, just to gain more experience. One person at the top of his list was Paul Roberts, the only Master Sommelier in Texas, who worked at the prestigious restaurant Cafe Annie. But the restaurant was in Houston, about three hours away. André wanted to see if he could connect with Paul, work at Cafe Annie, even for a day just to learn from the best. But when André called, Paul didn’t pick up.
Dan Pashman: André called a friend who knew Paul. And the friend told André, "I worked it out for you, be at the back door at 4 p.m." André hadn’t talked to Paul directly, he felt weird about the whole thing. Still, he drove the three hours to Houston and just showed up…
André Hueston Mack: Employees were out there smoking. My girlfriend was dropping me off. And I was like, "No, I want to go. I'm not going to go. This is dumb." She's like, "No, you're going to get out." I got in there and he was talking on the phone and I was in a boardroom and had all these wine lists wrapped in Saran Wrap. And he was walking back and forth. He threw down the wine list. He’s like, “This is what we're going to be working with. Get familiar.” I said, “Okay.” And then we hopped on the floor and it just worked.
Dan Pashman: The floor of a restaurant might be where André feels most comfortable. He knows wine, and he knows how to talk to people. Part of it is just experience, but the other part comes from how he was raised, in a military family. He learned early on how to adapt to new situations, how to read people, how to make new friends.
André Hueston Mack: Every two years, we'd move. And I kind of like that part. The idea of like being the new person that comes with a certain amount of attention, right? You know what I mean?
Dan Pashman: Right.
André Hueston Mack: So people were talking about you. And then being able to walk up to a group of strangers. I mean, I think waiting tables is kind of the same way, right? It's like there's a group of strangers that like over the next 60 minutes, I'm going to get to know them or they're going to get to know me.
Dan Pashman: That night with Paul Roberts, André really made an impression.
André Hueston Mack: And he's like, "Yeah, sorry, I didn't return your phone call, but basically, earlier this week, Monday, I accepted the job to be the wine director for all the Thomas Keller's properties."
Dan Pashman: Thomas Keller is a chef and restaurant owner. His most famous place is The French Laundry in Napa Valley. It’s one of the most exclusive fine dining restaurants in the world.
André Hueston Mack: And I just remember at the end of the night. He was just like, “Hey, I got to hire six sommeliers. Do you want to come to the French Laundry with me?” And I was like, “Uhhh… yeah.”
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: André did a formal interview and got the job. So he packed up his life in San Antonio and headed for California wine country. I just want to back up for a sec and say how incredible this is. A few years earlier, André was sitting on his couch watching Frasier, not knowing the first thing about wine. Now he was a sommelier at one of the top restaurants in the world.
Dan Pashman: André writes in his book, 99 Bottles, that almost immediately, he felt like his identity was being challenged, that he couldn’t totally be himself. Part of that was his sense of style. They wanted him to dress a certain way, talk a certain way — ways that didn’t feel like him. And then there was another thing. As André writes, he also “happen[s] to be African American. He points out, that according to Wine & Spirits, [his] skin tone alone makes [him] ‘rare as a unicorn’ when it comes to working in the wine business.” In wine, he says, he’s “mostly a lone presence.” Customers at The French Laundry constantly mistook him for the one other Black sommelier.
Dan Pashman: At the same time, André was learning a lot – not just about being a sommelier, but about how to make wine.
André Hueston Mack: So I got that experience, spending the afternoons before coming in to work at winery, so all the wineries wanted you to come and taste out of barrel. So you get a preview of what's happening. It’s like trying to analyze something in the future. Right? Because, because the wine isn't fully developed yet.
Dan Pashman: Oh, interesting. It hasn’t aged — oh, it's not done aging, right?
André Hueston Mack: Yeah. Yeah. And so and some of it just went through fermentation. And actually when I got there, the chef had bought eight barrels of finished wine from a winery. And so we spent a lot of time at that particular winery, you know, going through the process, bottling, labeling, all of those kind of things, which was really exciting for me, you know, coming straight from Texas. You know, working on a wine project with the chef was pretty spectacular.
Dan Pashman: Just a year into his job there, André was offered a position at Thomas Keller’s brand new sister restaurant in New York, called Per Se.
Dan Pashman: He packed up and moved across the country yet again. Seeing the new restaurant, André could tell that things would be different than at The French Laundry. I mean, The French Laundry is in a renovated stone cottage, among the vineyards and rolling hills of Napa Valley. Per Se is in midtown Manhattan, in an upscale mall with a Swarovski crystal store and an Equinox gym.
Dan Pashman: This would be Thomas Keller’s first new restaurant in New York in more than a decade — and developers were banking on his reputation to bring in millions of dollars. At Per Se, Andre showed up to work most days at 7:30 in the morning, and didn’t leave until 1 a.m.
André Hueston Mack: It was a lot, man. I took more showers at the Equinox in the basement than I did at my own apartment.
Dan Pashman: I understand that, you know, so periodically you’d have to take inventory of all the wine, which would take five hours, give or take.
André Hueston Mack: Oh yeah.
Dan Pashman: And you had a tradition to drink Old English, a 40.
André Hueston Mack: Yeah, a 40-ounce, yeah.
Dan Pashman: While doing that.
André Hueston Mack: Yeah, not while doing it.
André Hueston Mack: Okay? I definitely would have been fired. Deserve to be fired. Let's just set the record straight.
Dan Pashman: Okay. All right, all right. Fact check.
André Hueston Mack: No, no. The night before.
Dan Pashman: Oh, night before the inventory, you would drink that.
André Hueston Mack: Yeah, yeah. The night before inventory, I would always drink a 40-ounce. It was just like kind of just the thing of where I came from, you know, I… You know, when I could start buying on my own or even drinking underage ... that's what I drank. Right? You know, hip hop raised me. And so we drank what the rappers drank, and that was 40-ounces.
Dan Pashman: Clearly, André had his own style. He liked to stand out. He didn’t want to lose that there, he didn’t want to lose himself in this place. And he was still getting cues that maybe he wasn’t quite fitting in. According to an article in Esquire, some of his coworkers “blanched when he described a wine as ‘bangin’.”
André Hueston Mack: You know, I wore a Dr. Seuss watch on the floor. You know, they made me take it off, but like, cause they didn't think it was appropriate. But like for me, it gave me a way to be able to have a personality.
Dan Pashman: At Per Se, you also acquired a nickname.
André Hueston Mack: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Tell me about that.
André Hueston Mack: Yeah, I think, everybody gives everybody a nickname. I didn't have one. And we used to pour this wine. And it was called like, it was a zinfandel, but it was called the Black Chicken, and it was in reference to they were farmers, but also bootleggers. And so when you came to the farm, you could like, “Yeah, let me get a dozen eggs, let me get some milk. And then let me get a couple of those black chickens,” which meant they, you know, they wanted some booze or some hooch in the back. And so we were cracking up about it. So now throughout the night, they would say, "Hey André, can I get a Black Chicken for Table 22," and then someone was like, “Oh yeah, we should call you Black Chicken.” I was like, “No, I don't think so.”
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
André Hueston Mack: And then someone said something about black sheep, and then I had to go serve a wine on a table. And then when I came back, I was like, "Maybe mouton noir.", French for black sheep.
Dan Pashman: Right.
André Hueston Mack: But, you know, there was not a lot of people who looked like me that do what I do. And so I think that was kind of the underlying factor, which was funny to all of us. And, you know, I didn't take offense. I thought, maybe I should and I shouldn't. And then I was like, I just ran with it. I was just like Mouton Noir. I like that. I like that. And then I created a logo and it was on my — it was my screensaver at my desk at work. And then people would call me Mouton for short and that was it.
Dan Pashman: At Per Se, André tried to embrace the identity of the black sheep. But at times, it felt a little too real. Like when Riedel, a prestigious Austrian brand of glassware, wanted André for an ad campaign. He had to check with his bosses before accepting.
André Hueston Mack: The bosses were like, “No, you're not the face of this program.” And I just thought that was interesting. But then when Black Enterprise came and said they wanted to do a feature on me, then they were like, “Okay.” Right? So they were okay if I was doing something in the Blacksphere, but they weren't OK for me being the face in an industry thing which I thought was interesting.
Dan Pashman: A spokesperson for Per Se says the distinction was likely due to their policy limiting paid endorsements. That’s not how André took it — but he also didn’t want to dwell on it …
André Hueston Mack: My thing is you just — I move on. And, you know, stuff like that happens all the time. Like, if I was always upset about it, then maybe I wouldn't get — I wouldn't get as far in life or get things done if I'm occupied with that, like, I had to deal with that. You know what I mean? I deal with that kind of shit all my — my whole entire life. So it's like whatever like. All right. I see you. I understand what's happening here and I just keep moving.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, André keeps moving right out the door of Per Se, and transitions from serving wine, to making it. Then later, he develops a new obsession: meat slicers. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. In last week's show, we bring you the story of the heirs to the Jell-O fortune. Allie Rowbottom’s great great great uncle bought the patent for Jell-O in 1899, for $450. Thirty years later, he sold it for what would be nearly a billion dollars in today’s money. And that money was passed down for generations, but according to Allie’s mom, it came with something else.
CLIP (ALLIE ROWBOTTOM): She had learned as a child that the curse was specific to her family, specific to the men in her family, and how it haunted them because of the connection to Jell-O and the great wealth that Jell-O had brought the family.
Dan Pashman: Jell-O became a twisted metaphor for all of Allie’s family tragedies, but she also realizes it means something much bigger. That episode is up now, check it out wherever you got this one.
Dan Pashman: Okay. Back to André Hueston Mack. While he was working at Per Se, André met his future wife, Phoebe Damrosch. She was working as a server, and unbeknownst to management, she was also writing a book about the place and her experience there, called Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter. She eventually left the restaurant so she could finish the book, but André was still working there when his bosses heard that Phoebe’s tell-all was about to be published.
André Hueston Mack: They freaked out. You know, you're in the manager's meeting and your girlfriend's name comes up. And you know, this is to let everybody know that she is now considered press. And if anybody wants to talk to her, they have to talk to our PR people first. And I'm like, Wow, this will be interesting pillow talk.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
André Hueston Mack: But I think that gave me the confidence to say, “You know what, I'm going to go out on my own. I've been here for, you know, three years and I feel like I want to… to move on.”
Dan Pashman: If André never quite fit in in the traditional world of wine, he would make his own space — by going from sommelier to winemaker. A friend of his was purchasing vineyards across America, and André worked out a deal to make wine in Oregon.
Dan Pashman: He decided to name his brand after his old nickname, Mouton Noir. Black sheep. He designed the logo himself. He was ready to put the labels on the bottles. He just needed to fill them with something.
Dan Pashman: What about the actual taste of the wine? How do you decide what your wine is going to taste like?
André Hueston Mack: I knew what I wanted it to taste like and it's like, I want it lean pinot noir that was reminiscent of Burgundy. I wanted some stem inclusion because I wanted to give it a little bit of, you know, a little bit of astringency.
Dan Pashman: Stem inclusion means that, instead of picking the grapes off the stems and then fermenting them, you just throw whole bunches of grapes, stems and all, into the barrel to ferment. Most wines are de-stemmed. So stem inclusion makes for a very different taste. It may be a strong and different flavor for casual wine drinkers, but one thing’s for sure, it makes the wine stand out.
Dan Pashman: So André knew what he wanted his wine to taste like. But he had to figure out how to get there.
André Hueston Mack: So that was the hard part, right? So I was taught as a sommelier to evaluate a finished product. So but it was always my curiosity in a lot of people who do what I do, the curiosity that leads them back. Why does this wine taste this way? Is it something that they're doing in the winery, something that's happening in the vineyard? And so that's why we would work harvest, to get a better understanding.
Dan Pashman: In Mouton Noir’s first year, they produced about 5,000 bottles of wine, which meant André had to figure out how to sell 5,000 bottles of wine. Nearly every week he was on a plane, traveling the country to visit stores and restaurants, trying to convince anyone who would listen to carry his product. As a sommelier he’d been on the receiving end of these pitches — now he was the one making them.
André Hueston Mack: The biggest surprise to me was that I realized that I was challenging the status quo every time I showed up anywhere, because no one was expecting me. You know, someone would say, "Well, you don't look like a winemaker." And I thought that, uh — and then I start laughing. She's goes, "I'm not talking about that. You know, like your earrings, your glasses," and I was like, "Oh, because I — yeah, I mean, this is what I wear every day," like I'm not — to put on a a suit is not something that I would do.
Dan Pashman: I heard you say in an interview that sometimes you feel reluctant to put too much focus on the idea that you're a Black-owned business.
André Hueston Mack: Correct.
Dan Pashman: Why?
André Hueston Mack: Because that shouldn't matter. But like the fact that I walk in here and that everybody puts their foot in their mouth or don't know how to act because it's me that shows up means that we probably should continue to talk about it. I want to be good at what I do at it. I just — I don't want to be the good Black person to do that. When I got into wine, my passion led me to wine. I wanted to be around other people who are passionate about wine. So fulfilling that need superseded any need of being around people who look like me. There's no denying it, if you met me that it's a Black owned business. But like, I don't feel like that's a selling point of what we have. Like kind of thing, you walk in, you like what it is. That's great.
Dan Pashman: After a bit of time, André had to change the name of his wine company from Mouton Noir to Maison Noir Wines, to avoid a conflict with another brand. Now Maison Noir wines are sold all over the country in restaurants and stores.
Dan Pashman: But about five years ago, after so much time traveling to build his wine business, André decided he needed to make a change. So he and his wife Phoebe decided to pivot — they’d work towards opening a restaurant. Today, they own a mini-empire: a ham bar, a bakery, a wine store, Natch, a breakfast taco joint, an oyster bar, a specialty grocery… all within a few blocks of each other in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where they live. It’s an area that’s traditionally had a large Caribbean and African American population, but it’s gentrified a lot recently.
Dan Pashman: The crown jewel of that empire is & Sons, the ham bar, where I’m sitting with André now. You can choose from a dozen different American hams, sliced in house, and wash it down with American wines. Wine and ham are a natural pairing — you see bars that feature charcuterie and wine all over Europe.
André Hueston Mack: It always seemed weird as an American, but when you traveled — I mean, Spain, they have bars that just served ham, right? They have legs of lamb hanging everywhere. I mean, ham, ham, leg of ham. And the fact that Americans weren't a part of that conversation, like we never had a right to like, talk about that our ham was great, right? It was just, you know, the Spaniards and the Italians really, right?
Dan Pashman: André points out that Thomas Jefferson had Virginia ham shipped to him in Paris — and the French were impressed with it. In fact, Europeans are still impressed today.
André Hueston Mack: Italy couldn't keep up with the world's demand of prosciutto and they buy hogs from Ohio. So we've been doing country ham, which is our version, this kind of thing. So what we set up here is no different than a jamón bar that you would find anywhere in Barcelona or Madrid. But it's just all American. For me, I just thought like, I want to do a small ode like to American food culture and history. And let's just do it in this little bar so this doesn't exist anywhere in the world. There's no other American ham bar. This is the largest selection of American ham anywhere.
Dan Pashman: Once André started learning about American ham, in true André fashion he became obsessed. But if he wanted to open up a restaurant devoted to this new obsession, he’d need a crucial piece of machinery…
Dan Pashman: Tell me about the meat slicer.
André Hueston Mack: Aw, man. I walked into a Bastianich restaurant.
Dan Pashman: Joe Bastianich, the restaurateur.
André Hueston Mack: Yeah, yeah. The restaurateur, yeah. And I — when I came to New York, and I remember going to one of his places and out of the corner of my eye, I'm like, “What is that thing over there that looks like a Ferrari?” It's like candy painted, red nickel plated. I'm like — they're like, "Oh, those? that's a meat slicer."
Dan Pashman: This was a vintage slicer from Italy. So it works like those meat slicers you see at the supermarket deli counter, but it looks like one of those beautiful espresso machines in a fancy coffee shop. Bright color with chrome trim. Sleep Italian design
André Hueston Mack: And the person says, "Oh, Joe collects them. They're expensive. They're like $25,000 like." And I was like, [GAPS] that's kind of an odd thing to collect, who collects a meat slicer.
Dan Pashman: [laughs]
André Hueston Mack: And then, and then the obsession started.
Dan Pashman: Right.
André Hueston Mack: And I was like, Oh my God, I like, I need one. And I fast forward, I bought one for my birthday. Named it Kimbo Slice. It's in my dining room.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] After the M.M.A. fighter.
André Hueston Mack: Yeah, yeah. After Kimbo. So it's in my dining room. In my dining room of My house. So I have one at my house.
Dan Pashman: Oh, so it's just decorative.
André Hueston Mack: No, we use it. We slice ham on it.
Dan Pashman: How big is it?
André Hueston Mack: It's pretty heavy, it's about, you know, 200 pounds. Yeah, I bought it on Craigslist from a deli out in Long Island. So the idea is that I wanted one that was functional but still needed some work.
Dan Pashman: André figured he could get it on the cheap, get some use out of it, then eventually get it restored in Italy.
André Hueston Mack: And yeah, when I was home, we would just in the morning, I'd put out the ham and leave it on. And we just leave it on the machine all day and just slice and have him throughout the day.
Dan Pashman: Since buying that first meat slicer, André's bought several more — not for his house, mostly for his businesses. When you walk into & Sons, that's the first thing you see is, a 110-year-old machine — the Ferrari meat slicer of André’s dreams.
Dan Pashman: Can we take a closer look? Can we walk over there?
André Hueston Mack: 1903. Yep.
Dan Pashman: Let’s check this out. Oh, yeah.
André Hueston Mack: Yeah. So this one — so this is from the Computing Scale Company in Dayton, Ohio. So this is what IBM used to be called. So they made slicers ...
Dan Pashman: IBM used to make meat slicers?
André Hueston Mack: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: I guess pivoting isn't new.
André Hueston Mack: No, it is not. It is not. They did a lot of other things.
Dan Pashman: What's the ideal thickness?
André Hueston Mack: For me is thin as possible. I do like number two, is what we normally do, and it just depends on the ham, right? But like because it is really salty, right? The thinner you get it, the less salty it becomes, right? So it kind of disintegrates on the palate. Country ham generally was consumed in thick slices and you threw it in the pan. Right? And then you made red-eye gravy which kind of cut the saltiness from it. And so, but that was going on in the States, but in Europe they were treating it with white gloves, right? So it was like, oh, we’re gonna slice it paper thin. And I didn’t invent — the idea of treating American ham that way, but it seemed like a better way to be able to consume and do these things. So —
Dan Pashman: This thing is cool.
André Hueston Mack: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: I don’t think my wife is going to go for it.
André Hueston Mack: Yeah, it took some, some talking. Lots of talking. It’s was really funny because she's like, "What do you want for your birthday?" And I was like, "Ah, you know, I'm good," but then I was like, "Wait a minute... "
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
André Hueston Mack: And then I started looking ...
Dan Pashman: She's like, I'm sorry I asked!
André Hueston Mack: No, she was cool with it. She's like, this is great.
Dan Pashman: André, can I hit you with a lightning round?
André Hueston Mack: Yeah, let's do it.
Dan Pashman: All right. They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but can you judge a wine by its label?
André Hueston Mack: You cannot. You have to drink it.
Dan Pashman: What about the back of the label?
André Hueston Mack: I guess, the back of the label could act a lot as like the publisher, right? You know? So they have an importer, that's one way to be able to, you know, if it has Kermit Lynch or it has somebody who's been well respected, then there's something to that. But it isn't — it's not a rule that can be applied across the board.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
André Hueston Mack: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: You've said that champagne and prosecco sparkling wines are better than a regular wine glass than in a tall, narrow champagne flute glass.
André Hueston Mack: True.
Dan Pashman: Why?
André Hueston Mack: Because the flute is actually just designed to capture the bubbles. It's more of a stylistic thing and less of a functional thing. So when you actually go to visit the people who make the sparkling wine, they are not drinking it out of flutes. When they're in the cellar and when they're making it, they're drinking out of regular wine glasses.
Dan Pashman: Okay. Final question for the lightning round. How do you feel about ice in wine?
André Hueston Mack: I don't think I don't think anything's wrong with it, but like the idea of not being in control of the temperature of the wine, so the colder it is, it numbs it. Right?
Dan Pashman: Right.
André Hueston Mack: So if you're drinking not so great wine, that's okay. But if you're drinking Marceau or something great, that's really known for the nuances. You don't get that if the wine is still too cold.
Dan Pashman: I got to say a couple of months back, I went to interview Jacques Pepin.
André Hueston Mack: Uh-huh?
Dan Pashman: And after we finished taping, he poured me a glass of wine —
André Hueston Mack: Uh-huh?
Dan Pashman: On ice.
André Hueston Mack: Yup.
Dan Pashman: It was delicious.
André Hueston Mack: that's not that's not what I would do, but if that that floats your boat, do it.
Dan Pashman: That was André Hueston Mack. You can find his wines at MaisonNoirWines.com. His memoir-slash-wine guide is called 99 Bottles: A Black Sheep's Guide to Life-Changing Wines. And hey, if you’re ever in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn, you can check out his ham bar, & Sons, along with his other businesses, on Rogers Avenue.
Dan Pashman: Coming up next week on the show, a special story about Spam. While you wait for that one, check out last week's show about the Jell-O curse. It's up now where you got this one. Please make sure you subscribe to or follow this podcast in whatever app you use to listen to your podcast. Go ahead. You can find the button in that app. It's probably a heart, or it says follow, or subscribe. It's in there somewhere. Go ahead an click it, right now while you're listening, please and thank you.