On a recent afternoon toward the tail end of summer, Anthony Cailan is beaming, ready to talk about new wines he has tasted that are locally sourced not too distant from Los Angeles.
For him, wine lists at restaurants shouldn’t be bound to the usual reds or whites, nor should they be intimidating to the typical diner.
“Wine is not something that should be put on a pedestal,” he says. “It is something that should be viewed as a cocktail or a beer. It shouldn’t be read as, ‘Oh, you’re fancy. You drink wine.’”
The last name Cailan may sound familiar, as his older brother is Alvin Cailan, who has been behind Eggslut, Amboy, and Unit 120, among other projects.
In addition to helping Alvin open Eggslut and reinvigorating Los Angeles’ breakfast culture after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, the younger Cailan is making his own imprint on the food and wine scene, from working at famed wine shop Domaine LA to some of the best restaurants, including Bestia as a runner, server and eventually wine steward, and Animal as a line cook.
His entry into the culinary landscape began with influences from his babysitter growing up named Auntie Cita, whom he says “used to cook me the most amazing meals of my entire life,” and watching the Food Network.
“I was probably the only 10-year-old who would be like, ‘Mario Batali’s so cool.’ Like I would watch him and I would watch ‘Too Hot Tamales.’ I grew up watching Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken on television and eventually go to their restaurants and fall in love with the world of food. I was never really good at school. I was bad at it because I was not a book smart person…But food always made sense,” Cailan shares.
As a teenager, he got his first job at Tony’s Pizza in San Marino, California, where he says that “if you work at a really busy pizzeria on a Football Friday and you have a line out the door…and if you can survive that people yelling at you, you’ll strive in the business.”
Currently, he is the beverage director at Hayden — a restaurant and wine bar by chef/partner Ari Kolender inside the Platform development in Culver City — bearing the distinction as one of the youngest sommeliers to oversee a wine program in LA. Hayden itself gives the casual California atmosphere without the fussiness and pretense that could be presumably found at places that boast curated beverages from all over the world.
“Hayden to me is this place of deliciousness and really good wine,” he says. “Everyone from our dishwashers to cooks — everybody who works at this restaurant is on an equal playing field. We all work together so well and we just wanted people to come in here, try and drink something different.”
Cailan recently spoke to the Asian Journal about his start in the food industry, lessons from his older brother, the best wines to pair with Filipino cuisine, and what it takes to become a sommelier.
AJ: Your brother Alvin has widely shared his side of the Eggslut story. What was your view of working with him and having a hand in building this LA favorite?
AC: It was like going from throwing out the idea and name Eggslut out there to having a physical shop in a matter of three weeks. It was one of the most insane experiences of my life. We were working grueling hours inside a very hot truck with a bunch of dudes and it was not my favorite thing in the world but you could feel that there was something special happening. But after a while, working with your family puts a strain on your relationships so it’s like we had to not do that anymore.
AJ: But you and Alvin continue to work on projects together.
AC: We’ve done a few collaboration dinners at the old Unit 120 space. It was fun to collaborate and not think about business. It’s like getting people drunk and feeding them. That was it.
AJ: What are lessons that you learned from him?
AC: There was a drunken night at Unit 120 after we got done through service where we sat down and we were both talking about how hard it is to continually work. He kept on reminding me that ‘You are a Filipino American.’ I’ve always just associated myself as being an Angeleno, but in reality, I am also a Filipino American representing [my] people in that industry. In LA, there are only four of us, not a lot of us. And so, Alvin told me, ‘You are going to have to work harder than everybody else. It is not gonna be easier for you and you have to just remember to keep your head down.’ And I have already been working hard — I’ve always had that work ethic since I was a student — but like to have the weight of an ethnicity on your shoulder is a little bit more intimidating and stressful. For me, it was a was a weird, brutally honest experience that we had. I still think about that.
AJ: What has it been like working at top restaurants in LA like Bestia and Animal?
AC: It’s a lot of fun. I think that’s the most important part. People are like, ‘Oh, you work in a restaurant, that must be so hard, you have no social life.’ You do have a social life! It just happens to be with each other, like the best part about working at those places is that the people who work there have the exact same mentality of striving for something greater, something bigger than themselves. Like when I worked at Animal, I was the line cook. I was not getting paid a lot of money but I still wanted to be there because the food was delicious and Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo were fairly rising up in the scene. To be able to put that on my resume was like an honor. The amount of people I still talk to from those restaurants — that I consider family to this day — that’s the best thing to come out of working at these places. If you ever have a question or need a dishwasher or front of the house help, the community is the best part.
AJ: Fast forward to here at Hayden, how did you land running the beverage program here?
AC: Chef Ari Kolender and myself have a mutual friend named Gloria. She reached out to me about Ari opening a restaurant around February. I had just started my hiatus and was taking a mini vacation. I had a conversation with her about what this project is and I told her that I had already been burned twice for other possible job offers so I was a bit skeptical. But then she’s like, ‘This one’s real. I promise you…’ And when I got the image of the chef, it honestly was like chemistry. He and I get along very, very well and we understand each other. Our philosophies, when it comes to the food and wine programs, is source the best quality product as possible. That’s what we’re doing and at prices that are not unattainable to the average person.
AJ: What are some features of the wine program that you want to share?
AC: The wine program that I am focusing on is everything in small production. I work with small producers in California and small amounts from Italy and Germany. The goal for me is to highlight wine producers and farmers who work hard on their wonderful products and grapes that are not the most known. If you look around town, wine lists end up all looking kind of the same — you have your Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. But the world of wine is so huge. The diversity of grapes in this world is thousands upon thousands. My goal is to create something different where you can have a different glass or bottle of wine — something that you wouldn’t have at a normal place.
I get people to try something new, which I think is the most satisfying thing in the world and then you’d see their face saying, ‘Oh, I’d never tasted anything like it.’ It’s the best feeling.
AJ: As a sommelier, how do you keep searching for and expanding your knowledge on the different type of options there are all over the world?
AC: The best part of being a wine buyer is that the owners of wineries come to visit you and give you a taste of what they have coming. I’ve been working with wine reps and importers for five years and these are people I’ve developed relationships with. We hang out outside of our workplaces and drink. These are people who I trust, so I get to taste things that wouldn’t normally be in most places.
AJ: What do you see as an upcoming trend in wine?
AC: The current trend is ‘all pink and everything.’ Everyone seems to love rosé. But I think the next trend is realizing that you can chill red wine. There are red wines lower in alcohol that are very refreshing. If you serve it with a chill, it’s like you could have red wine in the summer of Los Angeles. You can drink lots and lots of chilled red wine.
AJ: For people who don’t really know wine, what would you say for them to get started in tasting and exploring wines?
AC: Find a wine shop in your neighborhood that has a very curated selection, not a liquor store, not a grocery store. There are so many shops now in the city where you can tell them, ‘I want to learn about Pinot Noir.’ They’ll give you three options: one that’s $15, one that’s $25, one that’s $100. If you want to buy them all and open them, you can experience that.
But I think the best way to really learn wine is to keep drinking wine with food every single day. At 21 when I first got my job at Domaine LA, I was very lucky where we had a video conference with Eric Asimov, the wine writer for the New York Times…My question was ‘Where do I begin?’ He told me, ‘Every day, with your meal, with your family, with your friends, have a bottle of wine…Always have some wine wherever you go.’
AJ: Where are some of your favorite regions in the world for wine?
AC: My favorite region is the Loire Valley. There is so much diversity of the grapes in that region of France where you could literally hop from one part of the valley to another and the wine’s going to be different.
All the wines that I wanna drink copious amounts of and are doing the interesting work at the same time are from this region. There are light-bodied red wines, full-bodied red wines, wines that age for a long time, sweet white wines…the whole thing is crazy. If you did like a full year of tasting the Loire Valley wines every day, you would learn something new every single day.
The amount of interesting wine that’s happening in California is blowing my mind. There is so much deliciousness that’s coming out of [the state]. It’s the new California wine movement. I think that because this is California and Los Angeles, I find a moral obligation to also support them. You may root for different baseball teams but that’s fine. The wines are delicious and it brings us all together.
AJ: What are some wines that could be paired with Filipino food?
AC: In my experience with Filipino food specifically, it’s hard to generalize the wine or like a couple wines that would boost the flavor’s range so wisely because of all the influences, such as Chinese, Japanese, American, that make their own flavor profiles. But honestly, high acid white wine. If there’s a rich, fatty dish, that wine will refresh your palette. Something like krispy pata would be good with really light white wine like Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling — stuff that’s just happy.
AJ: Where do you see yourself in the next few years in terms of your career?
AC: The end goal for myself is to have my own restaurant/wine bar. I don’t know where. Historic Filipinotown would be cool or Chinatown. But I’m an Eastside Angeleno, born and raised, so I feel like it’d be my obligation. I could open a wine bar in the San Gabriel Valley. I wanna like do something interesting because it’s home. Comfort food doesn’t necessarily mean Filipino food, so when I crave comfort, I crave like soup dumplings and classic Chinese food, and with wine, oh my, it’s pure, pure joy.
AJ: Being one the of the youngest people in the wine industry, what’s your advice for people who want to get started in it as well?
AC: Work hard. Don’t have a huge ego. Wine tends to do that to people, but work really hard and honestly, have humility. If someone has a different palette than you, that’s normal. Be someone who’s always open-minded and always be willing to try something new or even try something you have already written off. Try again.
Find a place where someone will give you a shot. I was lucky that when I was in Domaine LA at 21 years old, I got a shot to work there one day a week. All you gotta do is persist. Or if you want a restaurant, be 21 years old and be a busser. Don’t be afraid to work somewhere that has a very good reputation, has really delicious food, has an amazing wine program.
Just don’t be afraid to let your intentions be known to those in charge and tell them that you want to learn more about the wine. And eventually, there will be a moment after your shift where someone says, ‘Hey, would you like to taste some of this wine?’ Wine people love to share — it doesn’t matter who you are and what spectrum of wine you know. I’m very lucky to have had opportunities fall in front of me and I grabbed them as fast as I could.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]