An unlikely path to wine leads the sommelier and entrepreneur to steadily taking over his street in Brooklyn.
By André Hueston Mack as told to Martin Johnson
Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.
André Hueston Mack went from pushing papers at Citibank in San Antonio to managing wine at the French Laundry in Napa Valley in just over two years. He went on to be the opening night sommelier at Per Se, Thomas Keller’s famed palatial restaurant in midtown Manhattan. His latest chapter is taking place on Rogers Avenue in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, the Brooklyn neighborhood he and his wife, author Phoebe Damrosch (they met at Per Se), have called home for more than a decade. Right before the pandemic, he opened ham bar &Sons with an eponymous buttery, and took over a Vyneyard, a wine shop on the same stretch of road. He’s also planning to open a bakery and a taqueria.
Back when I was working in finance, I wasn’t really a wine drinker. But it was slowly starting to creep in. I was going to some dinners. There’s wine being bought, and I’m not choosing it, but I noticed that the person who did seemed to have stature.
There was a merger at Citibank, and they were shutting down my division, and they were like, “We’re gonna pay you for eight months.” I was on holiday!
I would fall asleep in front of the television. And next thing I’d wake up, and Frasier would be on, back to back. And I’m like, what the fuck is this? The show was kind of corny. But at that moment, I didn’t have anywhere to be. Those characters are fun, and they have this ritual about wine. And they talk about it. Well, I thought, maybe that’s what’s missing in my life.
And that was it! You know, that show really gave me courage to walk into a wine store. You know, you walk by, you look in, it’s kind of snooty, you think people are gonna make fun of you, you think you’re gonna sound dumb. Is that the white folks in there? But for me, I felt humor was a way to foil that pretension. And by watching Frasier, it gave me some canned responses I could use.
I walk into the store for the first time, and they’re doing a tasting. I walk up to the guy standing next to the barrel, he pours a little bit of this red wine, I forgot where he says from, and I get this little plastic cup. I turn, and I’m getting ready to put it in my mouth. The guy behind me, he’s like, “So how’s the wine?” And I was like, Oh, shit. But I remember what they said on Frasier, so I say, “Well, it’s no Chateau d’Yquem.” Everybody started laughing, and it was sweet.
So I go the following week, and I was pretty honest—like, “Dude, I got 10 bucks today, what do you like at 10 bucks? What do you like about it?” Then, it was 15 bucks. Since I’m coming in all the time, they will just talk to me. And I felt better about myself. And then finally Citibank’s money ran out, and I needed to go back to work.
I was working at a stable—show up at five in the morning to work the horses. But I went on this trip for the stable to a restaurant in Houston, and I remember looking at the wine list, and they were drinking Opus One. And I’m looking at it—I think this was 1994—and it was like 700 bucks! I was like, holy shit!
Two months later, I’m flipping through the classifieds, and I see they’re opening a branch of that restaurant in San Antonio. I show up for a job, and the interviewer asks, “So what do you know about wine?” I said, “White with fish, red with meat.”
And he laughs! He looks at me and says, “Don’t worry about it. We can teach you all you need to know about wine.” They gave me the job. The first two weeks of training, we tasted three white wines side by side. That was it. I’m like, “I smell Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay …” There was a guy from Philadelphia, a general manager, who called himself a sommelier. And I was like, what is that? He says, “Well, you know, I buy all the wine.” And I was like, “I want to fucking do that.”
I just studied my ass off every day. I never felt like I was just a waiter. Other waiters would come to me and say, “Andre, table 32 wants to talk about wine.”
Then the next thing you know, I’m moving to California. I got into wine pretty quick. Two years after that moment watching Frasier, I was working at the French Laundry.
I remember sitting at a picnic table in the interview with Chef Thomas Keller, and he said something like, “All right, so I’m hearing great things about San Antonio, Texas. Why do you want to come here?” I’m thinking, is that a trick question?
My answer to him was that I needed discipline. I needed someone else to put that cape on some days, like when I couldn’t wear it. And he said, “Oh, no, we can give you discipline.”
French Laundry was hard. I’ve worked in restaurants where only one or two people really fucking care. Those people run around every single day, kicking people in the ass trying to get them motivated. At the French Laundry, everybody was like that. I don’t think that I will ever work at a place like that, where everybody cared—like, shit would happen on your day off, and you would just feel guilty. It was everybody going that extra yard. Everybody cared.
And then the extra pressure of people waiting 60 days to get a reservation. The anxiety of running food to the wrong table, or doing something else wrong. I think I worked 40-something days straight. Everybody held everybody accountable for everything. They all had a sense of pride about where they worked, and they were protective of that. It was really a utopia.
And then I go to Per Se—and there, I mean, the barista went to Harvard. Everybody is trying to get in and get experience. But it felt like an adult workplace. It felt professional. You work to impress the people that you work side by side with, because this is our life, we’re obsessed with this. Those are the moments that I cherish.
I got to see this transition, which was wild to me. The lights, the glitz, and the glamor of New York. The pass at the French Laundry, when I was there, was a stainless-steel table that they taped down with a tablecloth. The pass at Per Se cost $100,000 and looked like a fucking aircraft carrier with marble on the top.
In 2016 my family and I moved to Lyon in France for the summer. I thought I was going to go to all these fancy restaurants. And then I realized the French hate kids in restaurants. We could only go to certain neighborhood types of restaurants. We went to all like these mom-and-pops, where the owners lived in those neighborhoods.
We realized that our neighborhood in New York is changing. We’ve lived here for 10 years. How do we contribute to the narrative of this neighborhood? Running places is how we met. This is what we’re professional at. Let’s open a place that we want to do.
I had been traveling the country and the world, going into restaurants and seeing what people were doing. It dawned on me—these places are small, their rent is small in order to be profitable. These are the places that the neighborhood needs. When you move to a new neighborhood, the first thing you realize is the amenities that you don’t have. You want to spend your money in your neighborhood. We don’t want to go all the way over here, over there. We all play that game—if I had some money, I would put this place over here, I would put this place over there.
Every neighborhood we’ve lived in, we visualized and played those games. The resources and timing were never right. But all of a sudden, we found ourselves in the position that we could do it. And so we took two adjacent spaces, with the idea one is the ham bar and next door would be the buttery. We had that all mapped out. It still took three years to open. But now the pastry chef from Eleven Madison Park, Eryn Park, is making our sweets. She’s married to Nico Bouter, the chef at &Sons.
The wine shop, Vyneyard, was opened in 2016 by some friends of ours. Around that time, I went to a pretty famous wine shop in LA, and the person there was really kind of snotty and rude. And I was like, “I do all this other shit I do—I can do that, and I can do what you do better.” As soon as I left the shop, I got in the car, I texted my friend. I said, “Hey, you know what, if you guys are ever looking to sell, I’m your guy.” And he immediately texts back. So we added Vyneyard as a part of what we’re doing here.
And then, the same thing—there’s no good bread in the neighborhood. So I said, “Why don’t we just start our own bakery?” I don’t know how to make bread, but that’s irrelevant. We can hire someone who knows how to make it. So, in July 2020 we signed the lease for the bakery space. I like the idea that everything is on one street. It feels like I can touch everything. And then in November 2020, we signed the lease for the office, which we’ll turn into an Austin-style breakfast taco place.
That place will be called Mockingbird Tacos. I grew up in San Antonio—breakfast tacos are the shit. We’re going to be making our own flour tortillas from our own flour that we mill at the bakery, this beautiful stone mill. Most days I wake up, and I’m like, are you fucking crazy? If you watch the news, the whole world is coming to an end. I just realized that at some point, we’re all coming back.
I just like it here. It’s just crazy that people call me Mr. Rogers! They’re like, “Hey, I saw the empty storefront down the street, what are you going to put in there?” And I’m like, “What’s the address?”