Chris Lara has been Wine Director at John Howie Steak (JHS) for three-and-a-half years now. If you’re a regular at this premier Bellevue steakhouse, you probably know Chris Lara as the guy who’s always encouraging you to try a big, bold Barolo with your Wagyu instead of the usual cabernets and cab blends. Or suggesting that you go for a light, bright Pinot Noir with enough acid and tannin to balance the creaminess of your house salad.
Helping guests make wine selections that elevate a dining experience at John Howie Steak from great to sublime is what Chris Lara loves to do. At the end of the day, he is just a sommelier and a nice guy, he says, who doesn’t intimidate or upsell, but only wants to help people pick out a bottle of wine that they want to drink.
We met with Chris Lara to find out more about the man under whose stewardship, John Howie Steak’s award-winning wine list has grown from 25 to 60 pages with over 1,300 selections. Excerpts from the interview:
Q: What got you started in food and wine?
A: Serving at fast food restaurants, really. I worked my way from bottom up — but luckily, I didn’t have to spend too much time at the bottom.
My first job was at McDonalds, and then I was at Denny’s of all places, serving the late night coffee crowd. These jobs proved to be excellent training ground for a kid who wasn’t at all sure what he wanted to do with his life.
Denny’s in particular taught me to stay sharp, organized and always on the ball. Unless you were ready to be buried and slammed throughout your shift and still be able to provide the best service to customers, you wouldn’t survive at a Denny’s or make any tips.
Q: How did you make the shift from fast food to fine dining?
A: I did not discover fine foods and wine until I was about 25.
I had followed some friends to Martha’s Vineyard, a resort island on the Atlantic just south of Cape Cod, where I got a serving job at a small, upscale little restaurant called Chesca’s. It was high season out there, and the place was busy! We would open our doors at 5:30 pm every day for dinner, and in the blink of an eye, it would be time to close.
Chesca’s was where I had my first experience of fine wines. Their list was pretty small, but I found one wine in it – an Amarone, which is a dried grape wine from Italy – that blew my mind. It was delightfully thick, smelled of raisins, and was produced by a company called Bertani, which is about as classic as you can get with Amarones. My pleasure in this particular wine made me curious about what else was out there waiting to be discovered, but I was a newbie with a novice palate and still didn’t know very much.
Q: What was the next milestone in the life of this budding sommelier?
A: A few years went by after my stint at Martha’s Vineyard, and then I got a job at 727 Pine, the Elliott Grand Hyatt’s restaurant in downtown Seattle. The place was all plush furniture and gleaming surfaces, with a sleek backlit bar, a theatre kitchen and a massive split-level dining room, and it was in these über-luxurious surroundings that I was first introduced to Erik Liedholm, our Wine Director at John Howie Restaurants Group.
He was like a beacon of inspiration to the staff members at 727 Pine with his infective enthusiasm for wine and willingness to teach — until Chef John Howie whisked him away to open Seastar Restaurant And Raw Bar with him in 2001.
A few others came after Erik during my four years at 727 Pine (the restaurant has closed since). They all did a good job, but none of them were in Erik Liedholm’s league. There was opportunity to help with the wine program but I never felt I had the palate for it, as I smoked cigarettes back then.
Q: Did you follow Erik Liedholm to the John Howie Restaurant Group?
A: No, not then. Our paths took us on separate ways after 727 Pine, and it was going to be several years before we came together again at the John Howie Steak restaurant in Bellevue.
After 727 Pine closed, my next job was at a restaurant called Crush, located on a quiet stretch of Madison. It was a small, chef-driven restaurant with only about ten tables. The owner-chef, Jason Wilson, had a friend help him put together the opening wine list at Crush, but later on, Jason took it over himself.
This was a time when the whole chef-driven restaurant thing was taking off in Seattle and Crush was becoming very popular. We were booked out days in advance, and getting busier and busier every day. Managing the wine list as well as the food was proving to be a strain for Jason, and as I was always the goody-two-shoes sort, wanting to do as much as I could for the boss, I asked if I could take over the ordering.
Jason said, sure. I began cautiously, but as time went on Jason allowed me to have more and more freedom with the wine list.
A breakthrough came through at this time – an event that I will remember until the day I die.
I tasted Domaine Tempier’s Bandol and just fell in love. I decided to serve it by the glass at Crush. I thought I was making it work price-wise, though upon looking back, I think we were probably losing money on it.
The wine impressed a lot of people. A lot. Jason noted the amazing feedback my selection was getting at the restaurant, and six months into the job, he finally gave the wine list to me.
We grew it from a few pages to about 16 pages. By the time I left, we probably had over 500 selections – kind of crazy for a restaurant that small, but we had fun, people liked it and they were willing to be adventurous and try new things.
Crush was a wonderful learning ground for me, and I gained enormously in experience and confidence. I still enjoyed serving, but I had a titillating taste of what a sommelier’s life could be.
But it was time to move on. I had spent four years at Crush, and in the restaurant business, four years is sometimes like twenty.
Q: Where did you go next?
A: I went to Matt’s In The Market, the spendy, upstairs eatery at Pike Place Market that is a landmark now in Seattle. It was a tiny, shoebox restaurant in those days. In order to find it, you had to know where to look. There wasn’t even a proper restaurant kitchen and food was cooked on little Bunsen burners. But the place was fun, Matt Janke, the owner, was always around and people loved it.
When Matt decided to sell and hand over the reins to Dan Bugge, he stayed on to help with the transition. They expanded the restaurant to almost triple its original size and hired a whole bunch of new staff. It was an amazing time to be part of that team.
Dan Bugge had a lot on his plate during this period of growth, and knowing my background, he asked if I would do the wine ordering. It was a great honor to continue the wine list that Matt had created.
But something else was going on in my life at the time. In between my stints at Crush and Matt’s, I discovered the Court of Master Sommelier’s, the institution that sets the global standard of excellence for beverage service, and started working my way through the levels until I reached the Advanced sommelier’s course and exam.
In order to pass the exam, I knew I had to work as a server and not a wine director for a while, to make time for study.
I made the choice to leave Matt’s and just be a server at a steakhouse in Bellevue called John Howie Steak.
Q: Did you pass the Advanced level of the Court Of Master’s Sommelier?
A: I did. It was an extremely difficult exam but I finally made it through. I passed after trying three times.
It was exciting time, then. I wanted to spread my wings and try something different — like wine distribution. I hooked up with a small winery called Cadence as their first employee, and had a wonderful time selling wine for them.
But the restaurant business was still calling. Master Sommelier and my good friend Chris Tanghe, nudged me back onto my true path to Master Sommelier exam. He said working on the floor would provide the best experience to pass this very daunting test. I decide then to get back into service and Chris hired me at Aragona where he was the Service Director.
In that early iteration of the restaurant, Aragona served Spanish food (created by Jason Stratton and his team) backed by a remarkable Spanish wine list. Attracted by the crowd and the vibe of the place, I went to work there as a server, even though I already had my Advanced Sommelier Pin with the Court Of Master Sommeliers.
But the restaurant didn’t do as well as expected and they began reinventing the place. I was at an important crossroad in my life.
Q: So you finally came back to John Howie Steak…
A: Exactly. I came back to John Howie Steak when I heard they needed help.
This was around the time when Lisa Rongren, the Wine Director, announced she was moving on after five years at the restaurant. It was a no-brainer for me to put my hand up and say: “I’d like to be Wine Director”. Chef John Howie said yes.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Q: What’s it like to be Wine Director at a premier Pacific Northwest steakhouse?
A: In the time that I have been here, we have taken the wine list from 25 pages to 60. We have added a whole formal service to the floor with my boss Erik Liedholm’s guidance and leadership.
And we have really pushed the Court Of Master’s Sommeliers standards. There are a lot of great restaurants in Seattle and they have some really amazing wine programs. But not a lot of them follow the Court’s exacting standards of service. They choose to customize the protocols to fit their own program (which is perfectly okay, of course), and it is a matter of great pride for us that we practice the highest set of standards in sommeliership at John Howie Steak.
Q: What does the future hold for Chris Lara?
A: Currently, I am studying for the Master Sommelier exam at the Court. Only 3% of sommeliers pass this final test and I am working hard to earn the red-and-gold Masters pin.
When I look into the future, I see myself at John Howie Steak, working on projects that keep taking our wine program forward. JHS has solidified my love for being there for our guests, and service is where I belong.
We are going to start working on increasing our dessert wine selection. I have asked Daniel Pendleton, one of our Sommeliers, to help in this task, and I am looking forward to that. Another focus is vintage wines. Finding wineries that will allow us to raid their cellars and bring a wonderful selection of vintages that people don’t normally get to see. Often, restaurants focus on the current vintage or a past vintage, but not a lot of them will do multi-vintages.
At John Howie Steak, we want to fill that gap. Our Lead Sommelier Chris Arora is actively asking some exciting new wineries if they want to partner with features.
I am also looking forward to the educational pieces I am doing under Erik Liedholm’s leadership to teach, train and assist our staff to go through the Court’s introductory and certified levels. It is all about helping others grow and finding their passion as well.
Q: What does Chris Lara love to do when he’s not working?
A: Hiking. Hanging out with my dad, brother and nephews. Sharing a good bottle of wine, a good dinner and some great conversations with close friends. That is my idea of true happiness.