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Sommelier Chad Ellegood...Uncorked

Chad Ellegood '00

February 2011 | by Jodi O'Donnell

While a theatre major at St. Ambrose, Chad Ellegood '00 started the weekly open mike performance forum "Inside Down There" to provide students a way to participate in creating a fun evening for everyone. And although he didn't know it at the time, it was just the beginning of bigger things for him.He would eventually marry Jenny Lesner '99, the pretty Buzz reporter who interviewed him about his project. (The couple now has a two-year old son, Phineaus Joseph.) What's more, Ellegood's talent for bringing together complementary dynamics and elements to create an inspired experience would eventually find its expression not in acting, but in wine. Ellegood first fell in love with wine when supporting his nascent acting career as a waiter at the now defunct Printers Row in Chicago–although he admits at first his interest was financially motivated. "The more you know about wine," he says, "the better your tips as a waiter." To up his game, he got hold of a copy of "Wine For Dummies." Ellegood gulped down the primer and found himself thirsting for more.

Then came his big break, wine-wise if not in acting: A group of gentlemen would hold monthly dinners at the restaurant, to which they brought their own rare, expensive wine. "No one wanted to work the group because they required a lot of extra time and the tip was rarely more than 15 percent of the food bill," Ellegood says. One evening, though, he drew the short straw among the wait-staff. That night he opened a collection of red Bordeaux, all from 1966, all of which the men insisted Ellegood taste. He was hooked.

Ellegood would go on to establish his chops at Spiaggia, where he learned from the legendary sommelier Henry Bishop how to listen to guests and make the pairing recommendations that would not only elevate their dining experience but also their knowledge and appreciation of wine. Now sommelier and wine director at the upscale restaurant TRU, Ellegood recently shared with Scene how he still loves bringing it all together into a memorable performance.

Life is a Cabernet

What was the creative journey from actor to sommelier like?

I still very much have an acting job. When I was in theatre at St. Ambrose, I enjoyed the period pieces the most because they require a lot of precision. (He played the title role in "Tartuffe," among others.) There are multiple aspects to serving guests, and a big part is the show the whole restaurant is putting on-especially when the average check at TRU can be $200 a person, more than most Broadway shows. I have lines to memorize-facts about the wines. And giving people the wine experience they want-whether it's serious and proper or being more convivial and joking-involves improvisation. Even the movement of presenting the wine, opening it, tasting it–that's all choreographed to create a memorable experience.

Reds, whites and TRU

What's the thought process that goes into building a restaurant's bottle list?

It definitely revolves around the kind of restaurant. At TRU, our focus is on wines from all over the world, with a deep foundation in the white and red wines of Burgundy. (The restaurant's wine list is 67 pages long, with 1,800 wines, and is one of 75 restaurant wine lists in the world to receive the Wine Spectators Grand Award.) We look for wines that tell a story or aren't readily available, that allow us to show guests something new and special, because TRU is a special occasion restaurant. Choices that are offered by the glass change to accompany the ever-evolving menu.

Personalities complex

Which wines delight or intrigue you most, and how?

People are often shocked that I gravitate toward white wines. A white Burgundy can age beautifully over 20 to 30 years. When it's young you experience apples and pears, very fresh, and as it ages, all of those flavors roast, turning into hazelnut or even bacon. A wine that I get to drink a lot that's a surprise is German Riesling. It has an amazing ability to age. In their youth well-made Rieslings offer pure flavors with great balance of sweetness and acidity, but with more time in bottle those elements compound into an intense combination of flavors, yet that balance of sweetness and acidity remain. For me, one of the biggest draws of wine is that there's always something new to learn. When I meet wine experts, they almost always tell me something they've just learned or figured out.

The grapes of gaffe

What's in your personal wine collection?

My wife and I are wine drinkers, not collectors. I receive a lot of gifts from winemakers, and she has problems with me not labeling "very special" bottles. Once that led to her making a $200 pot roast!

A great judge of character

Last question: If Martin Scorsese walked in today and offered you a leading part in his next film, how would you answer him?

If asked to be in a Scorsese movie, who wouldn't say yes! But going through the process of auditioning to be in one–no. I could see being in community theatre in the later years of my life. I do still critique acting, but then, I critique everything, especially at TRU. I'm constantly looking at how to get the wine to the table in the most beautiful way.

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