Bee's Best

March 17, 2013

Michelin star is goal for Enotria general manager

Sacramento's culinary scene hasn't quite experienced the pedigree of someone like Anani Lawson, who has served as Enotria's general manager since January.

His necktie fastened in a fat Windsor knot, the cuff of his patterned shirt peeking smartly from his suit, Anani Lawson preps Enotria's service staff before a busy Saturday night. This meeting is known as the "lineup," a rundown of the latest menu changes, wine offerings and what VIPs are on the reservation books.

"Good evening, everyone," said Lawson in a lilting French accent. "Again, we will be very busy tonight. Make sure we know who's going to be where and why. We have a birthday party at table 34, and the mom doesn't eat fish. Any questions so far?"

Sacramento's culinary scene hasn't quite experienced the pedigree of someone like Lawson, who has served as Enotria's general manager since January. Lawson is a former maitre d' and sommelier of French Laundry and Per Se, the Thomas Keller enterprises considered among the world's greatest restaurants. He's the kind of person entrusted to pop the delicate cork on a 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc, a paragon of hospitality who can soothe the most high-maintenance of diners.

The goal for Lawson's hire at Enotria ( bring Sacramento its first Michelin star, a ranking saved for only the finest restaurants. For a local culinary scene that craves the national spotlight, not just lumped as an also-ran next to San Francisco and Napa, a Michelin star would mean ultimate recognition and respect.

He also brings a new set of business connections to town, honed by years in the highest echelons of the restaurant world.

"Yes, I'm in Sacramento, but I'm one text away from the who's who in wine," said Lawson, before greeting an arriving dinner party. "That's potential for us to grow."

Setting the tone

A well-run restaurant is something like a swan: On the surface, all is elegant and gliding effortlessly, but look under the surface, and you'll see a lot of flailing. Lawson's job is to set the proper service tone in a high-pressure restaurant, to operate as an air traffic controller for Enotria's chefs, servers and guests, and smooth over the mini-crises that arrive on a nightly basis.

Lawson took on two jobs at once. He takes over for former general manager Michael Coyne. Given Lawson's extensive background in wine service, he's also assuming the duties from departed Enotria wine director Matthew Lewis.

Before serving high-end diners, Lawson served aces on the tennis court as a certified pro. A native of Togo, the former French colony in west Africa, Lawson, 54, attended law school there and served with the Peace Corps in Africa before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area as a tennis pro in the early 1980s.

He taught tennis at a Santa Rosa hotel, and, having a knack with guests, he took a host job at a nearby restaurant. Lawson's burgeoning taste in wine only grew over his restaurant shifts.

"Maybe it was my accent, but people liked to hear me talk about wine," said Lawson, between sips of the house coffee at a midtown cafe. "There was a period where I'd teach tennis in the morning, relax for a few hours, then go work at night. Restaurant work fit my lifestyle time-wise."

Lawson worked around the Napa Valley and San Francisco, and served a short stint in Portland before deciding the rainy weather hampered his tennis game. The world-famous French Laundry in Yountville became his home court in 2001. He spent nine years there, serving as a captain, maitre d' and sommelier.

Lawson was among a staff that helped reap the French Laundry three Michelin stars, regarded as the highest ranking in the restaurant world. The French Laundry's tasting menu costs $270 per person, and a reservation is all but impossible to secure save for the most persistent or well-connected.

A sense of urgency is ingrained in all French Laundry staff, to operate on the highest levels 110 percent of the time whether you're a dishwasher or chef de cuisine. Lawson was a hit with the French Laundry's patrons and staff, including former wine director Bobby Stuckey.

"We called him the Prince of Togo because he was so noble and awesome," said Stuckey, who now owns Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colo. "He makes hospitality look so easy. He genuinely cares that people are taken care of. I loved working with him."

During a French Laundry lunch service, Lawson found a friend in Pajo Bruich, the future executive chef of Enotria. Lawson can still rattle off the exact day: Dec. 5, 2009. Chatting between courses, the two realized their daughters shared the same birthday. Bruich was still a burgeoning chef in Sacramento's culinary community, a boutique caterer who specialized in modern cuisine but had yet to run a restaurant kitchen.

Lawson knew nothing about Sacramento's restaurants. Bruich passed along the URL to his website, and Lawson loved what he saw.

"I thought if this guy's from Sacramento, there must be something there," said Lawson. "He was so articulate and passionate about food and wine. He was doing very avant garde cuisine. He has a very good eye for design – really beautiful."

The two stayed in touch and met for coffee at Oxbow Public Market in Napa. They decided to collaborate on a dinner in Sacramento: Bruich would cook, Lawson would serve as sommelier. They took over a clubhouse at a condominium complex behind the Pavilions shopping center on Fair Oaks Boulevard, charging a whopping $175 a head.

"It was a ballsy move," said Bruich. "I was a nobody at that point but we pulled off a fun event. I tried to get Anani on board with any event I could."

Their alliance continued, including catering private dinners for wealthy clients. One event in Santa Barbara County required Lawson to pop the cork on a magnum of Petrus, an oversize bottle of Bordeaux that's now selling for $7,000 at a Bay Area wine shop.

Lawson moved to New York City in October 2010 to serve as a sommelier at Per Se in Manhattan's Time Warner Center. Like its sister restaurant, the French Laundry, Per Se also boasts three Michelin stars and one of the most coveted restaurant wine cellars in North America. Lawson and Bruich promised to stay in touch.

"My goal was always to work with him at a restaurant," said Bruich. "We're both visionaries and dreamers. We set big goals and have high expectations."

In search of a star

The ultimate form of validation for Enotria would come in the form of a Michelin rating, which are ranked from one to three stars. Just getting a single star, which denotes "very good cuisine in its category," is a huge accomplishment. A Sacramento restaurant has yet to earn one. A whopping three stars means a restaurant is at the top of the food world. Only 10 restaurants in this country can claim this honor.

Bruich has craved Michelin recognition since arriving at Enotria in September. Bringing Lawson to his team was a key strategy toward that goal. Lawson had already left Per Se to travel and develop a wine-pairing app called Tipsi. A chance to come back to California, and Sacramento in particular, was a fairly easy decision. Lawson has some extended family in the area and would also be calling more shots at Enotria compared with Per Se or French Laundry. Plus, he'd be back with his buddy, Bruich.

"People say, 'Anani, why would you move from New York City to Sacramento?' " said Lawson. "Why not? We don't see the limitations of living here."

Enotria, and every other local restaurant for that matter, still has a ways to go for Michelin recognition. Michelin publishes dining guides only for the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City and Chicago. If anything, a Sacramento restaurant would get lumped in with the San Francisco guide. There's also no evidence that one of Michelin's anonymous inspectors has been in Sacramento to rate a local restaurant.

"Unfortunately at this time we are not covering establishments in Sacramento in our 2013 San Francisco, Bay Area & Wine Country Guide, but please be assured that we are always considering new markets for future guides," said an email from a Michelin representative. "Consideration depends on several crucial factors such as consumer demand, marketing strategy, and sales potential."

Bruich remains undeterred.

"The fact that Anani is here with his pedigree speaks volumes for where we are in Sacramento and where we're headed," he said. "Michelin can't deny this."

Getting the details right

Back at Enotria, Mayor Kevin Johnson and his wife, Michelle Rhee, have a 5:30 p.m. reservation. The staff is reminded that the mayor doesn't drink alcohol, so have some mocktails ready when his party arrives. The rest of the night is booked so solid that Lawson forms contingency plans to handle any overflow.

Once the mayor arrives, Lawson delivers the round of nonalcoholic mojitos himself.

He keeps a service sheet handy that's been passed out earlier to staff. It reminds them to have "all hands on deck for all times," and provides some wine education notes on Hyde Vineyards in Carneros and France's Domaine de Beaurenard. And there's always a note of appreciation for everyone's labor.

"Don't just say, 'Thank you for your hard work and commitment,' put it in writing," said Lawson.

Bruich hints that more projects will be coming soon with Lawson, including forming their own restaurant group. Lawson, who moved from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the very un-metropolitan suburb of Natomas, is eager to leave his mark here.

"Winning means making the guest happy," Lawson said. "If I recommend a wine with a salad course, I'm not just hoping that it works, but I have to nail it. Everybody's coming in with expectations, and you have to overshoot them to make friends for life."

Call The Bee's Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.

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