Pairing Filipino dishes with wine, according to Jhonel Faelnar, award-winning sommelier 

Jhonel Faelnar | AJPress photo by Momar G. Visaya

Kinilaw with Chenin Blanc, Sparkling Wine with Sisig, Syrah with Lechon

For someone who had almost zero knowledge about wine almost a decade ago, Jhonel Faelnar has gone a long way. Today, he is the award-winning wine director at Atomix, a Korean tasting menu restaurant in New York City with two Michelin stars.

His impressive work at Atomix has earned him recognition as one of Wine Enthusiast’s “40 Under 40 Tastemakers” in 2020 and one of Wine & Spirits’ “Best New Sommeliers” in 2018. He was one of the youngest sommeliers named by Wine & Spirits as the Best New Sommelier of New York.

Atomix and Atoboy are from the husband and wife team of Chef Junghyun Park and Ellia Park. It was always their dream to kickstart a life and restaurants here in New York City.

Atoboy is more of a casual fine dining scene where the food was originally a take on the Korean banchan culture (small plates which are meant to be shared) but has now morphed into a mini tasting menu.

Atomix on the other hand has become a fine dining destination, an experience waiting to happen. Currently, their tasting menu inspired by Korean traditions and technique offers nine courses plus two snacks. Reservations are definitely a must, that is if you can get them.

Asked about his dreams, Faelnar told the Asian Journal: “I would love to travel more, I would love to visit the different wine regions. I mentioned Manila earlier so I think doing something that’s food and wine related would be an amazing thing as well, especially since Manila is such an exciting place right now for food and wine.” | AJPress photo by Momar G. Visaya

Last month, it became one of three New York City restaurants on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards for 2021, joining Cosme and Le Bernardin. There are only six restaurants in the United States which made it to this year’s list.

“So when you come here it’s really an experience from the space, the food, you know, there’s no choice when it comes to the food and so beverage comes into play quite a bit because that’s how your experience can differ from one dish to the next or from one table to the next depending on what you’re having for the night, whether it’s your beer, tea, cocktails or of course, the wine pairing of the wines that we have,” Faelnar shared.

He acts as both sommelier and wine director, curating the wine programs at both locations. His goal is to be able to offer a program that’s “approachable as it is, hopefully, complex and something that can kind of attack the different points of interest for different groups” that are visiting Atoboy and Atomix.

“You have to want to do it,” he replied when asked what it took for him to be a sommelier. For him, being a sommelier means not just being a hospitality professional but having to dive deep into the world of wine, in general.

“If you’re the kind of person who wants to learn more, who wants to put themselves in sometimes uncomfortable situations or you don’t know how to pronounce something, you don’t know how to describe something but you want to learn about it, you want to taste this ingredient or taste a different dish, then this is for you,” he added.

Filipino Food + Wine

There’s a misconception that Filipino dishes are not wine pairable, something that as a wine professional, Faelnar disagrees with. And to convince the naysayers, he says the easiest way probably to do it is to have that wine when eating a Filipino meal.

“It would be great if we’re having this discussion over Filipino food, because then you can just put a glass or something in front of them and be like, ‘Yeah, taste this,’ he said. “But it’s all trial and error, I think we just haven’t tried enough, and I think maybe we haven’t purposefully tried to pair both food with wine, in general. I mean, a lot of people are doing it I’m sure and a lot of them are successful, they’re just not necessarily maybe sharing it online or whatnot.”

“I think it’s all about experimenting and having fun. And if something doesn’t taste good. Just don’t drink it. You know, that’s the worst that could happen. But the best thing that could happen is you could discover something that’s like, amazing with the food that we have,” he explained.

Based on his experience matching Korean flavor profiles with wine, he was met early on with doubt and questions about whether Korean food pairs well with wine.

His success at Atoboy and Atomix speaks volumes and it has silenced critics so far.

“That all came from, honestly, drinking wine at Atoboy, and knowing that it does work really well or drinking wine in K-Town with Korean BBQ. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be the most mind-blowing pairing,” he shared. “When you’re putting an ingredient on your palate with a piece of food, it’s going to change. And so what that brings about is just your neurons are firing, you’re tasting different things.”

On his own and in the company of friends while eating Filipino food, Faelnar has made mental notes about the combinations that worked for him.

“More acid-driven food like our version of crudo or kinilaw, that could be something that you can pair with a leaner wine like Chenin Blanc from Loire Valley; sparkling wine and or champagne with sisig, and I think that’s such an easy thing, a light red maybe even an earthy burgundy, maybe even a fancy burgundy, to go along with adobo, you know, those things are almost so easy that you almost don’t even have to think about it,” he said.

“Syrah with a bit of lechon, it’s almost like cracking a little bit of black pepper over your lechon. So that’s something that can be amazing, especially with laing as well, a little bit of white burgundy, a little bit of Chardonnay, something lean and crisp and has a lot of texture. I think it works well with the flavors of coconut and the taro leaf. It’s one of my favorite dishes, especially with a bit of spice I think that works so well,” Faelnar added.

Sommelier Journey

A Management Engineering graduate, Faelnar moved to Japan for a year and a half and felt he wasn’t quite ready to return home to Manila. After less than a week in the homeland, he flew to New York.

Faelnar’s sommelier story began when he moved to the Big Apple in 2013. Back then, he was shifting careers and just wanted to explore what was out here in New York in terms of the food and wine scene.

At this point, he didn’t know anything about wine yet and that somehow excited him. Everywhere he looked in the city, whether he was just walking on the street or meeting people in restaurants, he felt the city’s wine culture. He immediately felt the challenge because there was so much to learn about it, everything from verbiage to the language to the different wine regions.

“It was almost an impossible task to learn all about them. So that was something that really piqued my interest,” he reminisced. “About a few months after I moved to New York, I started pursuing wine in earnest, and then fast forward, years of working as a sommelier, with my first job back in 2014.”

He enrolled in the International Culinary Center’s intensive sommelier program and after graduation in 2014, One Five Hospitality hired him to be a sommelier at The Fourth American Brasserie and Botequim in Union Square. Then he became a somm at The NoMad, which boasted one of the best beverage programs in the city.

It was around this time when he met Ellia Park a couple of years before she and her husband opened up Atoboy. He joined the team in 2018 to help open up Atomix.

Wine Pairing

As wine director, Faelnar creates and designs wine pairings for chef Junghyun “JP” Park’s award-winning tasting menu.

“I always look towards the food first, I feel like that’s our job as sommeliers is to make sure that we highlight the flavors of the food regardless of what cuisine, it is or what cuisine it is based out of, whether it’s French, Korean, Filipino,” Faelnar said. “Wines are so fun to play around with, and also to drink, obviously, especially when you’re with a group of people that you want to be with.

For him, it’s all about creativity, listening to the food and the flavors, and listening to the chef. What is the most important part of this dish that the chef wants to highlight, and what can he do with the beverage side of things to help achieve that, whether it’s wine, beer, tea, or traditional Korean beverages sort of like soju.

Faelnar believes that the pairings give another dimension to the experience of the diners.

“The dishes are amazing in and of themselves but I treat the beverage almost like as another ingredient, which can be very scary, because you know if the ingredient is wrong, then you can ruin a perfectly delicious course with the wrong wine. So that’s a very important thing for me to make sure that it adds to the experience rather than takes away,” he added.

Faelnar describes the Atomix wine list as “a nice mix of classic and also some eclectic selections, an amalgamation of the different experiences” he encountered over the eight years he has spent in New York City so far.

Since the food is seafood and vegetable-driven, the wine list focuses on white wines, not just from big countries like France or Germany but a small selection of the wines from everywhere and a strong selection of sparkling wines as well, because why not, as the somm says, “Everybody loves a good bubbly.”

And every now and then they’ll source some rare wines out there, ones with a bit of age that he thinks carry well especially with fermented flavors that they have in-house.

The challenge now comes within, as in how do they keep their wine program dynamic and ever-evolving and not just resting on the laurels of their success over the past few years.

“How do we incorporate new things into the menu that we haven’t had before beverage-wise, how do we push the cocktail program forward, how do we add more beers to the selections that we have? It’s not just about adding or subtracting but you know it has to be a purposeful thing that we introduce,” he said.

Momar G. Visaya

Momar G. Visaya is the Executive Editor of the Asian Journal. You can reach him at momar.visaya@asianjournalinc.com.

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