Tiffani Faison’s beverage director Charlie Gaeta quit a career in investment banking to put his stock in wine

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Tell me about your job.

My role is Beverage Director for Big Heart Hospitality, which includes Orfano which just reopened, Sweet Cheeks, Fool’s Errand and High Street Place in March. On a day-to-day basis, there is certainly a lot of focus on wine, but I also took on writing the beer program and worked on large-scale spirit purchases and allocations.

I’m on the floor almost every night. This is my happy place. Spreadsheets and all that stuff are important, of course, to the health of the business, but being in touch with customers is kind of the point.

What does your job look like in practice? Do you pour drinks? Make recommendations ? Running between restaurants?

That’s something I’m going to try to figure out in 2022. … It’s a lot of morning and afternoon paperwork, and meetings, and making sure those boxes are checked so you can get in service with a clear mind. I work the ground. I serve the tables, I manage the food, I make sure the guests are happy, I check the coats, all that stuff.

What’s the vibe on the floor these days? I guess even a month ago was different than maybe a day ago, with COVID.

I think the energy has been really positive and really high both, I think, from our perspective, and also from our guests. There have definitely been nights where I felt like I was floating, because everyone is so happy we’re back, and the space is more beautiful than ever. I think people are partying and being cautious about the wines they usually order.

All in all, it’s really positive. The last few days – and not just Orfano, but obviously all restaurants – have had to pivot a bit, but we are working for someone who is very caring, careful and cares about his employees. Having the confidence of leadership is, I think, really important right now. It’s definitely super touchable.

Do you feel that people are reducing their activity because of the Omicron news? What’s the vibe?

Until this week, like almost yesterday, it was almost business as usual. The last 48 hours have been a bit more difficult. We haven’t had to cancel any of our plans so far, fingers crossed. New Years Eve is something we look forward to, that very decadent dinner. I think we’re lucky to live in a city that believes deeply in science, and they believe we’re doing the right thing, and vice versa.

Once we’re on duty, I think the anxiety is eased a bit. It’s when you wake up and read the Times in the morning or the Boston Globe. I think the guests matched our level of enthusiasm, for sure, and probably also our level of concern.

How is it emotionally to be in a profession that symbolizes carelessness and joy in today’s atmosphere? Is it an escape?

That’s a very good question. I know I will never take it for granted that someone pays me a salary to sell wine to the people in the dining room. It’s certainly really special when you get to do it, and I’ve continued to be able to do it since we reopened.

There’s a lot of anxiety about not knowing what’s going to happen in the next few days, weeks, etc., but I’m not the only one. I think, for me, I’m just doubling down: okay, right now, right now, we’re safe, and I can serve wine. It’s really special.

How did you come to wine?

My instinctive response is always “I don’t know”, because I drank very badly in college. … Just very, very cheap beer. I remember when my favorite pub changed their beer program and put a draft system in our senior year [at Providence College]. Harpoon IPA was, at that time, the classiest beer I had ever drunk in my entire life. Then, of course, I moved on to this weird whiskey on the rocks thing, and Crown Royal seemed to be really classy because it came in this cool velvet pouch. It was so lame.

After college, I went back and forth between Boston and New York. I didn’t even know anyone in the industry, no matter how to get their foot in the door. How to make a career in gastronomy, wine and hospitality? I was going to all these places and using the internet to do my own kind of R and D in terms of what I ate, what I drank.

It definitely started with cocktails. It was in my early twenties, then cocktails-slash-craft beer. The next thing became the wine. I was on a trip, and we were drinking a lot of Old World wine, and a lot of Bordeaux and Burgundy for the first time. I had never been exposed to this type of wine. The light went out. I was like, ‘I can’t go back. That’s what I want to do.

After that, I just went from zero to 100 in my mind. I wanted to get to this point in my profession as quickly as possible. A lot of it was self-study, but I also took the Boston University curriculum, then started working on certifications, working my way up from busser, to runner, to back -bar manager, until I was able to get my hands on a wine program myself.

It took time. It took a lot of work. I still do all those things. I still make food and drink tables every night. I don’t come from a big family of wine drinkers. I didn’t have a quick connection to the industry. It is this organic passion that has developed. I quit my job in finance to go to bus tables, which everyone thought I was crazy for doing.

How did it go for you?

I think there’s a level of innocence in your early twenties where you can make those decisions and not think long-term so much. I don’t think I would change my career right now, being in my thirties.

I worked seven days a week. I worked five long days in an investment bank, then I worked three night shifts. My only day off was Sunday. I was commuting from downtown Boston to downtown Lynn as I worked at the Blue Ox. It started to get really exhausting. I had to make a choice. It was like: Where is my heart lying? It was pretty obvious that this ability to put food, beer, wine or a cocktail in front of someone and make them happy seemed like an unlimited possibility.

I don’t want to be nosy, but I guess that’s my job: financially, how did you manage to go from banking to bus tables? What did you do to make it work?

I definitely changed my lifestyle a bit. I was also not at the top of the totem of this investment bank. It was still an entry-level job, but financially and in terms of perspective, it was a slightly aggressive move for many of my friends and family. But my family was super supportive. They trusted me from day one, and I think everything has gone well so far.

What is the future of dining in Boston? What will customers want? What do you think will be viable in the future?

I think there are people in town who are much smarter than me who don’t know how to answer that question. I think there’s a slight comeback to not taking for granted the ability to walk into a restaurant and feel safe, to sit down and be really well taken care of by staff who are very passionate about what he does – to make customers meet us on that level too, in terms of hospitality on both sides of the table, if that makes sense.

What’s the next big neighborhood?

I would like to see the Fenway continue to grow. It’s taken a bit of a hit over the past 18 months, so I’d still like to see what can diversify this neighborhood. I also live in the neighborhood, so this is a selfish answer.

I’d like to see where these neighborhoods go, especially with Kenmore being pretty hard hit by COVID, obviously, and Fenway stopping growth a bit. Honestly, as a neighbor and someone who works in the neighborhood, I want to see where it continues to go, because I don’t think it’s done.

What wines are popular now?

At the moment we drink a lot of Nebbiolo, a lot of Barolo and Barbaresco, but we also find value in Piedmont, because I think it’s very important to have a balanced list. We have some really classy Barolo and Barbaresco pages, and that’s great, but they’re not the wines I can go out and drink every night. We want to make sure this conversation isn’t just about spending more than a hundred dollars.

For the average person who knows nothing, what should they ask? What’s the name of something you really like – if anyone doesn’t know a Barolo from anyone?

Right now I would start with the varietal and just say, “Hey, I’m looking for a nebbiolo” and name a price you’re comfortable with. Honestly, I almost never recommend a specific bottle to a specific guest unless they’re looking for it. … I would tell them to kind of start the macro and just say, “I heard about Nebbiolo in the winter. I want to drink Nebbiolo. I don’t want to spend $50.

What is the biggest mistake people make when buying wine or ordering wine in a restaurant?

I think there’s a sensibility that has permeated the industry for a very long time that the guest is always right. When it comes to wine, I am convinced that there is not a bottle on our list that is fundamentally and philosophically a bad bottle. Farming practices are all exactly what they should be. It’s always organic at a minimum. I think my biggest issue is name recognition and really being connected to that.

I would argue with a guest – well, I would never argue with guests – but I would argue with you. If you and I had a beer, I’d say if that wine is in Target, it’s probably not a good wine. Let me explain exactly why: You get to the point that a bottle of wine costs $12 for a lot of reasons that aren’t good. I think those brands, those big brands, are good for me because if someone gives me something that I know is a commercially viable brand, I know exactly what they’re looking for. But then I can pivot and be like, ‘OK, this is what we have that’s close to that’, or it could be that style too – but there’s a family behind it, there’s a name behind it, there is a connection behind it, and a story behind it.

If you had to buy wine in your spare time, where would you go? Do you have a favorite place?

One Hundred Percent Wine Press Fenway. I am there all the time. They’re probably bored of me.

Favorite snack?

It’s super lame, and it’ll always take me back forever to high school and when you cook your lunch for yourself, but Blue Gatorade and Cool Ranch Doritos. It’s a wonderful duo. Dirty. Soft. Electrolytes. You know?


Kara Baskin can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.

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