As the youngest woman to achieve the rank of master sommelier when she passed the fourth and final exam in 2003, Alpana Singh has made quite a name for herself in the world of wine. Her love for the vine began when she was waiting tables in college at a restaurant with a pretty impressive wine program. Singh found that wine combined her passion for travel, history and food in a balanced manner, so she landed her first wine job as a sales clerk in Carmel, California, before becoming the sommelier of the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Chicago eatery Everest at the ripe age of 23 as she worked her way toward the prestigious master sommelier title. Singh spent nearly a decade as the host of the restaurant review series Check, Please!, but moved on from TV in January 2013, after opening her much-anticipated Chicago restaurant, The Boarding House. We chatted with Singh about being a sommelier pioneer, which wines she prefers and what her River North restaurant is like.
You left Check, Please! to open up The Boarding House. What made you decide to do that?
I was hosting the TV show for about 10 years. It’s just a transition phase in my life, going from having the TV thing to becoming a restaurateur. I’m a sommelier by trait, but just sort of working to transition from one world to the next. Restaurants will always be a part of my life, and I just made a decision on what I want to focus on right now. We have over 100 employees, and we’re serving anywhere from 600 to 800 people a night. It’s a huge, monumental project, so I’m focusing my efforts on making The Boarding House the best it can be.
What was it like to be the youngest female master sommelier?
You know, it’s one of those things that, in hindsight, I’m more appreciative of the feat but going through the process, my only goal was to pass the exam. It took me seven years to go through the exam process and it really takes over your life. You focus everything and every decision you make to pass the exam and surpass the goal — that involved moving from Monterey, where I was born and raised, to Chicagoto take over a wine program that would allow me to learn how to run a program to work as a professional sommelier.
I moved to Chicago when I was 23 and worked at Everest for five years, and it was a Four-Star, Relais & Châteaux property; so that was a fabulous opportunity to learn fine dining and work in a fine-dining element. I had passed the exam in 2003, and it was my fourth year at the restaurant, so I stayed another year. When I hit the five-year mark, I started thinking, “What’s the next goal? What’s the next step?” Everest is owned by a company called Lettuce Entertain You; it’s a large restaurant group based in Chicago, and they have over 80 restaurants in eight states. I moved to the corporate office to become the director of wine and spirits for the company. I did that for another five years and got that similar sort of “What’s the next goal? What do I want to do next?”
I had been friends with my now partners at The Boarding House for five years, and we had always talked about doing a restaurant together, but it was one of those things where I wasn’t quite ready. Then in November 2011, I celebrated 20 years in the restaurant business, and I didn’t think I was going to do anything else. At this point, restaurants are very much a part of my life, and they always will be. So the next logical step was to see if I had learned enough from my 20 years and see if I could operate my own restaurant. Especially knowing that I had really good partners that would stand behind me and help fulfill our vision for what we wanted for our restaurant. We sourced a space, and the building itself is absolutely magnificent. It was just an opportunity that was too good to pass up, so I decided to take the leap to restaurateur.
How did you get into the wine world?
My parents are both in the restaurant business — my mother waited tables, and my dad is a classically trained French chef — so I always grew up with restaurant chatter in the background. But the goal for me was to get a formal education and become a doctor or a lawyer or something. I ended up waiting tables in college, and the restaurant that I worked at had a pretty awesome and intense wine-training program. Just waiting tables there and going to the weekly wine classes, I discovered that it was a very fascinating subject. I found myself more and more engrossed in the study of wine.
The gentleman that was running the wine program was actually studying to become a master sommelier. I was young, and it never occurred to me that you could have a career in wine. It was one of those things where wine encompasses so many different areas that you study — you have history, you have food, you have travel, you have science; there are just so many things that wine encompasses. It’s a very fascinating subject, and the areas of study are pretty much endless.
He mentored me, and I said, “I want to get into the wine business, what would you suggest?” He said, “Well, I would get a job at a wine shop.” So I ended up getting a part-time job at a wine shop in Carmel, and it pretty much snowballed from there.
What keeps you passionate about wine?
That you can never know everything. Every year a new region comes out; you discover a new grape. The wine itself, even if you had it 10 years ago, you revisit it 10 years later, and it keeps changing. Wine is ever evolving. It’s endless. I’m learning new things every single day.
Photo Courtesy of Anthony Tahlier