John Wabeck is about to start a new chapter in his restaurant career. When Inox—the forthcoming restaurant from Jonathan Krinn—opens in Tysons Corner this December, the former New Heights and Firefly chef will be not in the kitchen but in the dining room running its wine program.
Though Wabeck has spent most of his working life in kitchens, he’s always been passionate about wine. When he was in high school in Salisbury, Maryland, “my friends and I had more wine than we should have,” he laughs. On his 21st birthday—the same day as his mom’s 50th—Wabeck’s family celebrated by sharing “a bunch of wine.” He even remembers what they drank: 1988 Storybook Mountain Zinfandel.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1992, he came to DC and cooked at Red Sage, 1789, Restaurant Nora, and New Heights. He then moved to the Napa Valley, where he ran the kitchen at Brix restaurant in Yountville (the tiny town that’s home to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry), and worked at a boutique winery. Five years ago, Wabeck came back to DC and opened Firefly, then returned to New Heights for a second stint as its executive chef.
At Inox, former 2941 chefs Jonathan Krinn and Jon Mathieson will be running the kitchen. The three have been friends for years. “We’ve always talked about it,” Wabeck says. “Probably five or six years ago, Jon said, ‘I’m going to open a restaurant, and you’re going to be my wine guy.’ If I was going to leave the kitchen, it was to cook for people who cook better than me. Those guys can.”
Wabeck is in the final stages of putting together Inox’s wine list, which will offer more than 600 bottles and about 25 wines by the glass. Here, the chef-turned-sommelier shares some of his favorite eats (chicken soup at Bistrot du Coin, greasy pizza) and drinks (wine, wine, more wine, and beer just when he’s thirsty).
Favorite wine and food pairing: “I was at Vidalia a few weeks ago, and I had R.J. [Cooper]’s Wagyu short ribs with a Carignano from Sicily. That was spot-on.”
Current favorite wine list in the area:
“I like the list at Liberty Tavern in Arlington a lot. Sean, the manager there, does a really great job, and it’s not too expensive. Andy Myers at CityZen always does a great job, Vidalia is great, and I always enjoy the list at Charlie Palmer. Of course, the list at Citronelle is crazy.”
Desert-island wine: “To be honest, ask me now, then at 5 o’clock, then tomorrow, and it would be a totally different answer each time. Right now, it’s a white Rioja, the producer is Lopez de Heredia, the wine is the Vina Gravonia 1998 Riserva. I still can’t put my finger on what I like about it—it just doesn’t taste like anything I’ve ever had before. Every time I have a glass of it, it just makes me happy.”
Favorite low-budget wine: “I like a lot of wines from Beaujolais these days. One I love right now is from Côtes du Forez—that’s the region. The producer is Verdier-Logel, and the wine is called Volcanique. It’s from the Loire Valley, just west of Lyon, made from same grape as Beaujolais, and it’s just delicious. Probably $9 a bottle, and on the list it would be under $30.”
Favorite dish to cook at home: “Lately, I’ve been cooking a lot of risotto. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever had to cook at home. I like it, and it doesn’t take a lot of space or a lot of time. If I have roasted chicken left over, I’ll do a risotto with some chicken from the day before, celery root, and some Parmesan cheese. Real simple.”
Favorite junk food: “I eat a lot of pizza. If I order at home, it’s usually Alberto’s. If I’m out, I’ll get a slice in Adams Morgan at a place across the street from Alberto’s—those jumbo slices as big as a computer-monitor screen. I try to stay away from those, but that doesn’t mean I do.”
Beer of choice: “There are a couple schools of thought about wine, spirits, and beer. I drink wine because I like using my brain; I drink spirits because I’m always learning—there’s so much out there. Beer I drink because I’m thirsty. You give me a Miller High Life and I couldn’t be happier.”
Favorite wine writer or publication: “I read Decanter, an English wine magazine. They have their own biases, but I think they’re great. One of my favorite columnists in it is Michael Broadbent—he’s probably my favorite wine writer in the world. He’s in his mid-seventies now, and no one on Earth has more experience in drinking vintage wine than this guy. When he writes about wine, he wants to bring it to you. It’s not a talking-down-to-you writing style.”
Favorite local wine bar: “I go to Cork because it’s around the corner from where I live. But it’s too busy for me. The wine bars are all too busy for me these days.”
Go-to after-work snack: “It’s not a secret to anyone that I go to Bistrot du Coin quite a bit. That restaurant is our office after work on Saturday nights—myself, [Citronelle sommelier] Mark Slater, and a couple other people. Mark and I have had a standing date for like six years—we meet there every Saturday. I don’t know how that’s going to play out when I’m working in Tysons, but now I try to go a couple nights a week. The one thing I usually order is the chicken soup, the velouté de volailles. Nine times out of ten, I order that.”