CHARLES PUGLIA – LE COUCOU, New York City

Le coucou, Daniel Rose’s first New York restaurant, is the new definition of classic French  cuisine in New York city. The restaurant has very quickly established itself as the best and most  sought-after ‘table’ in NY. In fact, the accolade of ‘Best New Restaurant in America’ was  bestowed upon Rose and restaurateur Stephen Starr’s new baby by the James Beard Foundation this past Spring. Enter sommelier charles Puglia, a New York area born and raised local who most recently spent nearly five years at the helm of one of the greatest American institutions of fine-dining, Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Puglia readily admits that he came into the  restaurant business a little ahead of the ‘new generation’ of sommeliers who have a career-in-wine in mind from an early age. charles began his journey at the entry level of dishwasher and then prep cook in a ‘terrible restaurant’ but was quickly inspired to climb higher after a birthday dinner at the Greenwich, connecticut restaurant Gaia. Puglia returned a few days later with résumé in hand and asked for a job which he was given. The Wine Director Olivier Flosse was an early mentor and lit a true fire in his new protégé when he offered him a sip of a cheval Blanc
1982. “This wine was as old as me and it was one of the most delicious things I had ever tasted. It was Bordeaux that was my A-ha! wine. I had had some good cabernets from the Napa Valley but I had never tasted anything like this and I was blown away. I asked to help with the wine and the first thing I did was work in the cellar and it is still a joy for me to this day. Eventually I made my way out to the floor, at least a couple of nights a week and selling wine – I had no idea what I was doing.” Not long after figuring things out charles decided to make the jump into the city, take a pay cut and really start learning.
The Mandarin Oriental was my f irst NYC job, Annie Turso there was one of my great mentors, then I had the opportunity to work for a three-star Michelin restaurant just across the street  alled Jean-Georges – that was a big, big break for me. The team was only two of us – just me and Hristo (Zisovski) – and it was busy. After a while there I knew it was time to leave and start running my own program, and that’s when I had the opportunity to join Blue Hill. Dan Barber gave me a blank check to purchase whatever I wanted and there was plenty of cellar space. Blue Hill is both a farm and a family restaurant driven by Dan Barber’s personality. The guy is a genius as a culinary mind and as an intellectual – it’s a culture of excellence. The most  challenging aspect there was the wine and food pairing, wine pairings were so big there. The menu was never static, it always changed, sometimes from minute to minute.” Puglia built the wine list from about 650 to just under 2000 references which ultimately earned the Westchester restaurant a grand award from Wine Spectator. “And then I felt after that it was probably a good time to think about trying to do something new and joining a bigger group with more reach.” The other clear ingredient driving charles’ decision to move goes back to his love of French wine. “Le Coucou is classically French. You just have to serve really good food, really good French wine – that is my absolute passion – served with really delicious French food. And I like to work service. I enjoy the floor. It’s a super exciting energetic restaurant – it really has its own personality but it’s built with that support network that a restaurant company like Starr could offer it.” Puglia has travelled extensively in France. “I’ve visited everywhere except for Corsica, Alsace, and the Languedoc-Rousillon.” A region that fascinated him was cognac with its mass of vineyards as far as the eye can see. One of Puglia’s early adjustments at le coucou will be to deepen the list of cognacs and Armagnacs of age, the sort of spirits that le coucou’s patrons enjoy. “At Blue Hill we made a cocktail one time with bread scraps from the bakery. We took the bread ends, we heavily toasted them, threw’em in boiling water, extracted all of the flavor that we could out of them, filtered everything so you just had the flavor of the bread, added sugar and spice, and made a bread spirit and then made a cocktail from that.” And now for charles, only a few months into his new position, things just got a little more classic again…

Philippe Newlin