Keri Levens has worked as Aquavit’s wine director since May. Though she studied art history and art at Rutgers University, she ultimately decided to pursue a culinary career. She chatted with Fork in the Road this week about her work at the restaurant (65 East 55th Street) and how she plays with drinks.
So what was the path that led you to Aquavit’s beverage program?
I’ve been here almost a year now. I did a consulting project with the Hilton and Waldorf-Astoria. Before that, I was at the Modern for three years. My focus had always been the wine side of things. I was a sommelier at the Modern. But when you are in charge of a beverage program, cocktails are certainly a highlight. So it’s really since I’ve been here that I’ve been to play around a little behind the bar.
Did you originally set out to become a sommelier?
It was something that I guess I kind of fell into. I expected to be a cook, actually. I went to the Culinary Institute of America, and I thought that I would have a back-of-house career. But I worked at Eleven Madison Park for a season and kind of got hooked on the front of house and the whole wine side of things — especially wine pairings. But it was really Belinda Chang when I went to the Modern, which won a James Beard Award for best wine service. She really exposed me more to the wine world, which was really fun.
Do you still have an interest in wine?
I’m working on both my master of wine and my master sommelier certifications. Both paths are quite time-consuming and long processes, and I’ll be finished with my diploma by the end of this year. After that, I will apply to become a candidate for a master of wine. They both take a significant amount of time and study and wine tasting. I’m always in classes of some form or another.
How does your interest in wine and cooking affect your work now at Aquavit?
What’s really fun: Because I have a culinary background, I get to play with flavors and I’m revamping our aquavit program a little bit, and I get to think about our menu — what’s traditional in aquavits and how I can push the envelope forward a little bit.
We have a lot of blueberry aquavit that we made. We got some beautiful blueberries we got from Maine, when they were in season. We’re going to do a bramble cocktail. The blueberry aquavit will be the main in the cocktail, but we’re also getting salmonberries. They’re like a wild raspberry, but they come in three different colors. They’re coming from Alaska. So it’s going to be blueberry, blackberry, and salmonberry. What else?
We played around with a spruce aquavit, which was really interesting. We infused gin with the spruce as well. It was a really juniper-heavy gin, and then we did a variation on the gimlet and then used some Meyer lemon and some more winter citrus with that. It has this really nice herbal note. I thought it was a little crazy at first. It’s herbal and citrus. We’re working on putting it on the list right now. Another one, Spruced Up, is a spruce-infused aquavit with little bits of lingonberries, cinnamon, and citrus. It’s really nice and wintery.
What do you see as far as the future of Aquavit’s drinks?
Aquavit has been around for 23 years. In that time, many aquavits have been made and experimented with. The challenge is learning what’s been done before me and learning what can be done to make them relevant now and make a bridge to our menu as well. We always have something brewing in the background. We have a really secret stash which, if the guest is interested, we will pour one of our favorite flavors, like garlic. In the past, we even had somebody try Swedish Fish before. But I’m glad I wasn’t around for that …