Our columnist recently talked to Gabriela Davogustto, the wine director of Harlem restaurant Clay, about her journey from Venezuelan immigrant to star of the wine world.
Courtesy Gustavo Lpez
I find most New York wine lists are pretty cookie-cutter with the same producers paying to push the same bottles. So its rare to find a thoughtful list like the one at Clay put together by Gabriela Davogustto, which is full of classic as well as cutting-edge wines.
Davogustto has an indomitable spirit. She immigrated to America from Venezuela before Hugo Chavez came to power, working her way up from hostess to line cook to eventually wine director and now runs a Harlem restaurant.
Over a recent Zoom call, Davogustto and I talked about her career path, her secrets to studying wine, and the grim realities restaurants continue to face during the COVID-19 era.
James: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to grow up in Venezuela?
Davogustto: I was raised in a very different Venezuela than the one that exists now. It was the oil bonanza of the 1970s and 80s. It was a country that was quite amazing at that point, very cosmopolitan, lots of immigration coming in. As a result, I was exposed from a very young age to different culturesthere were Spaniards and Basque restaurants, Chinese restaurantsmy parents worked a lot as accountants and werent very fond of cooking at home. I remember that shrimp cocktail was my favorite when I was 5 and that my moms favorite drink was Cynar and orange juice. The only wines that they drank were from Spain or Chile. My mom and dad still live there. I still can get very homesick and nostalgic.
James: Would you say you learned your business savvy from your parents?
Davogustto: Kind of. [Laughs] I left Venezuela in 1998, before Chavez came to power. My mom was really overprotective and I met this guy, so I was like, You know what? Im leaving. And we just moved. The political situation was, well, you could say I saw what was coming. This guy was from Uruguay but his family was living in Argentina, so we lived in Buenos Aires until 2001.
It was very complicated. I couldnt find myself there, as I said I grew up in a very diverse place, so Buenos Aires felt closed in a sense. At that time, everyone ate the same, every restaurant would have the same thing. Then there was an opportunity to come to New York. And well before that I had fallen in love with New York. From the references in the movies and the museums. I had been to New York once before, on the way back from a wedding in Minneapolis if you can believe it, and I thought, I have to live here at some point in my life.
James: Where did you live when you first moved here?
Davogustto: I moved to the Upper West Side, because I basically didnt know any better and it was terrible. The apartment was really expensive, a tiny building on 81 Street between these huge pre-war buildings. A tiny thing, maybe three or four stories. I didnt have a job and I was terrified. Then we moved to Greenpoint. We were the only non-Polish people living in my building! It was so lovely to interact with them and understand what they ate, all the sausages and beers. And then I moved to Fort Greene, which I also loved, this was 2003 probably. Then back to Manhattan in 2008 in Washington Heights, where I have been ever since.
James: So when did you get into restaurants?
Davogustto: Its funny because in Venezuela when you go to college you have to choose what you are going to study. One of the things I wanted to study was hospitality. However, my family did not want me to work in a hotel or restaurant, they wanted a serious career. But when I came here, I saw in the Village Voice that a restaurant in the Meatpacking District was looking for people, this was back when there were only a couple of restaurants open there. It was called Son Cubano and it sort of recreated Hemingways Havana before the revolution, there was live music every night, it was amazing. At the time it was famous. It was the type of place where you would give the hostess $200 to get a table.
I worked there for two years as a hostess, now I am asking myself why I stayed there for so long as a host, but at the time even thinking about serving tables I was like, Oh my goddess, I couldnt do that. It was a busy restaurant, everything was done by hand. The reservation system for example was us marking tables with a sharpie on paper, a great mental exercise with 250 to 300 covers per night, to assign all of this manually.
Here, I also met my husband. He was a busser and I was a hostess. He started as an electrical engineer in Columbia, but then here he did whatever work he could find. At one point, we decided that we would love to have our own restaurant. So we both went to culinary school.
James: As part of your studies at the Institute of Culinary Education you did an externship at Boqueria, what was that like?
Davogustto: I was following Chef Seamus Mullens career because he was so great with Spanish cuisine, so thoughtful. The back of the house was great there. There were a lot of women in the kitchen and they sort of adopted me, Lucy, Carmen and Leydis. I was so nervous and insecure about everything, not the ideal person to work in a kitchen because I feel like in kitchens you need to have this persona where you are super efficient and super serious and you dont smile and I was like Woody Allen all the time. The restaurant though was going through many changes. Seamus was leaving and one of the new chefs wasnt having my neuroses in the kitchen, so they offered the open position to another woman. One of the sous chefs said why dont you reach out to my friend, they are looking for someone at Walls, so I reached out and they hired me.
I worked there for a year. It was a cuisine and style of service I didnt know. It was very intimate, only four people in the kitchen. I loved it but my pay checks were kitchen wages, and I had been a server before, so I knew what I wasnt making. I decided that working in kitchens was just not for me. I also missed that connection with people, thats what makes it, for me, worth it. To see peoples expressions.
Boqueria was hiring servers, and I was like, why not? I didnt know much about wine but I knew the food. I knew I could do it. Its funny actually the week I started in the front of the house one of the ladies in the back also went on vacation, so I covered her prep in the morning then worked at night serving people who were like, the croquetas are fabulous! and I could say, Thank you! I made them.
They were still trying to settle after Seamus left, and Marc Vidal came in. He became a good friend and it was amazing to work with a chef from Barcelona! He was always in a good mood, always happy, never stressed out. I often think about how happy and cool he was all the time, and try to emulate that.
James: Boqueria was where you really got into wine but then what brought you to Locanda Verde?
When I was in culinary school I started following chefs. [Andrew] Carmellini was one of those that I had followed since he was at A Voce. So when I saw Locanda Verde was hiring I jumped and ended up staying for three years. It was a fashionable restaurant of the moment in a casual atmosphere with celebrities coming in all the time. They had wine classes often and the program was fantastic. They hired this new wine director, Laura Battiato, and it was great to see a woman in this role. She was awesome, she said, listen if you want to study wine there are places. I didnt know this was something you could go to school for! She recommended the Wine & Spirit Education Trust [WSET] and said that with my knowledge I would get into the advanced class right away. I was like, that sounds crazy! But I registered anyway and passed.
James: What a unique and wonderful experience to have a female mentor so early on in your career, especially in such a male-dominated industry.
Davogustto: I think I fit in better in different circles, in smaller restaurants with a lot of natural wine. I do not move in the big and elite circles, so my experience is different, my circles are more democratic in a way, more inclusive. I never felt like I needed to know all the crus of Burgundy. I have never been at the fancy wine fairs. I dont know how you can make those elite circles more inclusive because those are circles where they dont want to include other people in their circle, thats the way it seems from all these stories. They dont want women or people that are not white. Wine is something to be shared, it takes so much love and passion, so much to make that bottle of wine. How can you be so mean? I really dont get it. Wine shouldnt bring out this darkness in people.
James: And you also managed to build your own community of women when you were studying.
Davogustto: So Laura said that she was going to start the diploma program with WSET and why dont we do it together? So in 2015, we enrolled together. And we had a group of women that we studied with, we called ourselves the diploma dames, Laura Battiato, Sarah Bray, Cassidy Havens, Marika Vida, Lana Bortolot, Amy Zavatto and Beth Cotenoff, there were about ten of us. It was a great group of women from different backgrounds. What a great experience, to be with them. This group of women doing this together. Im still friends with a lot of them. I am very grateful for all the connections that I made there, so many supporters like Mary Gorman-McAdams and Mary Ewing-Mulligan.
James: It really is incredible what we can accomplish as women when we band together. So three years ago, you opened Clay with Bar Director Andrea Needell Matteliano and Executive Chef (A.K.A. your husband!) Gustavo Lopez. Thats a pretty badass female beverage team, can you talk about how you and Andrea work together and also touch on what it is like to work with your husband?
Davogustto: So, Gustavo and I used to pass by what would become Clay every day. We always said that this place looks amazing, and its on such a nice corner. Andrea at that time was working as a bartender there and we were friends from beforeI had actually hired her at a previous job. Then when we were looking for places to open Clay it became available. We couldnt believe it. The connection us three have.
We had this idea of having a place that was for the neighborhood, with honest food, wine and spirits. Andrea manages the bar, which is great. Andrea and I share the same views and philosophies towards what goes behind the beverage program. We also complement each other well, a sort of yin and yang. There are instances where I can bring her down to earth and some others when she reminds me of hospitality. When she was on maternity leave I managed the bar and I decided on top of that that I should also take the WSET Unit 3, and that I should run the New York marathon, because why not? Since we are doing it all, lets do it all! But it was a lot. Parental leave is so important but it is what puzzles me about the restaurant business. Its so hard for a small restaurant to offer but we made it. I dont know how, I wish I had an answer.
Working with my husband I have to switch off that he is my husband. He is the chef. And then its a great relationship. For those hours we are not married. It can be hard though because there isnt switching off the restaurant, we talk all the time about it. There isnt a resting moment. And now we have put our life and all of us towards something that I dont know now if it will have a future. Its quite scary.
James: When I recently visited Clay I remember you and Andrea both talking about the challenges of outdoor dining, how you both are now weather forecasters. You described a day in which Andrea was a human sandbag, weighing down a table before it blew away, and some other instances in which lights broke. Small businesses like Clay seem to be particularly affected during this coronavirus pandemic. Can you talk about what the future of wine and restaurants looks like to you?
Davogustto: One thing I have enjoyed about this whole outdoor COVID situation is seeing how resilient the industry is. How New York came together. We had to come every day with new solutions to problems that were unheard of. It has given me another dimension, how we are all at the mercy of nature.
Another thing is that I now feel very empowered to not take any abuse from customers. Our whole staff actually. We are putting our lives at risk for you to have pasta that you could cook at home, so respect us. We are very used to being abused in this industry, we have been taking it for too longpeople yelling at you, calling you names. That time is over.
COVID made everything so polarized, we saw which customers really supported us and showed unconditional love and which were just horrendous. I had a guy the other day that wanted to sit even though his party wasnt complete. We dont seat incomplete parties because we need to avoid people feeling that they have been discriminated against. That someone has been seated or not seated for a certain reason. Everyone is equal here. I had a guy the other day that said that is so ridiculous. You know what? I am going to be laughing in two months when you shut down.
James: Wow. And what did you do?
Davogustto: I said, sir, that is so mean and unnecessary. Especially when we are struggling so hard to have this place here for you. So if you are the type of person who laughs at other people, I am asking you to leave. This is not the place for you. Did he really think that he could say that and then sit and have dinner? But Ive had encounters like that twice a day.
James: As someone who is also a part of a restaurant trying to operate during this pandemic, I know how hard it is to try and keep your staff safe and respected, while simultaneously trying to bring in revenue. How do you keep this healthy balance?
Davogustto: Healthy? Youre funny! I am trying but it means therapy twice a week, which helps. But really, I am a control freak. And now Ive learned that I have no control, its always another learning moment. Like I get really mad when other restaurants are not keeping the social distancing guidelines. I mean we are all in this together! We all need to do our part to stop the spread of the virus. And you know, to practice being kinder to one another, especially in these times.
I think we are going to have to be smart on how we keep our businesses alive. Right now, it means I can only offer three wines by the glass in each category. I have to work with my inventory. Im buying very little. You know I always think of the movie, Casablanca. I think everyone sees it as this romantic story, but I see it as a guy owning a restaurant [Ricks Cafe] in wartime. Its funny how he manages to keep the restaurant open. If you see it through that lens, you see how he really tries to keep everyone happy. And its just hard. Really hard.
James: Your restaurant is big on creating a safe space for customers and employees. How do you make sure this culture is sustained?
Davogustto: With zero tolerance for abuse, of any kind. To give you an example, we had a white male server approach a group of BIPOC women and when they asked for a particular wine he said that they wouldnt like that wine. That they would like something more like a Moscato or a Riesling. I almost died. He basically told them that because they werent white, and also they were women, they couldnt know about wine. I apologized to the table and took over from there. We talked about this in great depth afterwards in line-ups and used it as a learning opportunity. We ended up letting that server go eventually, since he wasnt receptive to our training.
James: Especially during these times, I know so many people look up to you. You moved here and worked your way up from hostess to wine professional to now running your own restaurant. What advice do you have for those looking to follow in your footsteps?
Davogustto: You need to be moved by something. To have curiosity. I remember studying wine lists and asking myself what is amarone? and then buying the Wine Bible. You have to do it yourself. You have to study. When people ask me, how do I learn about wine? Its like how do you learn to walk? Its left then right, over and over. And nowadays you dont even have to go and buy a book! I mean, you have Google! When I first started drinking wine I was puzzled by it. Then one wine, I had never drank anything like it. It was Gravner. I was like, I want to be friends with Gravner, I want him to adopt me! I wanted to understand.
Recently I was drinking a new vintage from Victoria Torres Pecis, she makes wine in the Canary Islands. Victoria took over her fathers winery when he died but waited years to change the winery to her name. With the recent vintage she had a new label, it was always a picture of a house but now it is clear and has a fingerprint on it. Oh my goodness, I cried when I saw that label, I was so moved by that. If you arent moved by that, I cannot help you.
I dont want to be a South American dictator. I can go there but it isnt very inspiring. I am going to cut your finger off if you dont know the wines! No, I cant do that. You just have to believe. You have to see. Wine can really move you. There are bottles of wine where you sit down and are like, oh shit, everything is worth it.
Interview has been condensed and edited.