Christopher Harris has a way of making you feel like you’ve been friends for years just minutes into meeting. Perhaps that speaks to his mastery of hospitality acquired over years spent at notable restaurants across Chicago, or perhaps it’s instinct driven by his Midwestern roots — probably a combination of both.
Harris, currently of Michelin-starred Entente in Lakeview, is one of Chicago’s leading certified sommeliers. His resume is an impressive one that includes stints at a series of two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants like Graham Elliot, Grace and Smyth.
Like many who get their start in the industry, Harris’s restaurant career began as a college student. While studying to become a professional opera singer, he took a couple of server positions, including one at a restaurant, fittingly named Opera.
As his food and beverage experience grew from server to expeditor, Harris began to gain an appreciation for the restaurant industry. He recalls, “It was really at Graham Elliot where I saw you could make a career out of working in a restaurant. That time in the kitchen is what began a lot of my sincere interest in food and especially in wine. As a runner, part of your side work was to help out the kitchen, so we were constantly picking herbs or shelling beans. I had a lot of hands-on with a lot of the dishes and it was one of the best experiences I had before moving up.”
Harris would eventually move to the front of house to become captain, a role that required some wine knowledge. He soon discovered that pairings came intuitively. Seasoned colleagues like Jaime Kluz took notice and began cultivating his wine knowledge with classes and tastings, all of which would help set the foundation for his career as a wine professional.
In 2012, Harris joined acclaimed restaurant, Grace, as a member of the opening team. “Michael [Muser] saw something and trusted me to be one of the opening floor sommeliers.” The magnitude of the opportunity was not lost on Harris and he quickly stepped up to the plate noting, “You have to push yourself and you have to continually study to be able to live up to those expectations; even if they weren’t necessarily there, I was placing them on me because you’re spending $185 for food and $110 for wine, at the time. It has to be on point.”
“The word ‘sommelier’ is tricky because if you look up the definition, it’s like anyone who works with wine. To be floor sommelier is totally different. And having the title of being a floor sommelier means you know your shit.”
In the early days as a sommelier, being black and young, or a “baby somm” as he jokes, meant Harris had to work extra hard to prove his expertise. “I remember passing Certified and getting that little purple and bronze pin and thinking: I have to wear this every day on the floor for multiple reasons. One of the main ones was I want people to know — at a glance — he knows what he’s talking about.” Harkening back to the lesson that he and many black youth are taught, “It’s still very true — work twice as hard — we have to be on our game 100%, all the time.”
By looking at this accomplished food and beverage professional, you would never know that as a kid growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Harris was a self-proclaimed picky eater. “I was the kid that grew up eating chicken fingers and fries and BBQ sauce until I was 21.” It wasn’t until he was exposed to different foods prepared in different ways that he began to shed his picky eater ways. “At Grace, I remember never liking beets and there was a dish that Chef Duffy put on, and it was beets, and I remember being like ‘Wait a minute. This is a beet? I can eat this all the time! I’ve never had a beet like this.’”
Exposure is also very important when it comes to showing black youth different careers outside of traditional norms. African-American consumers are one of the fastest growing demographics in wine, yet outdated perceptions about careers in the food and beverage industry, especially the wine industry, still exist for some within black communities. “There is still that stigma [of] that’s not what we do because it’s not playing ball or being in music, so you can’t make any money in that — it’s not true at all,” says Harris. “I’m able to travel the world because of this juice that’s in a bottle.”
And the absence of mainstream media coverage of black women and men in wine and fine dining tells a false narrative that Harris disputes, “We are out there, across the city and across the country. We are out there and making it happen.”
Connecting with and supporting the careers of other black wine professionals is very important to Harris and he encourages young black women and men to consider joining the wine industry. “It’s doable. We do have a place in this community.” His advice, “Never give up. Push, knock down doors, knock on doors, study, study, study.” And equally important, “At the end of the day, have fun. You have to have fun. Every day is a party. I’m having so much fun where I’m at right now, and with the people I work with.” Harris points to a bottle of bubbles on the table, “This is meant to be fun, not meant to sit on a wall and not be consumed.”
Today, Harris sees wine becoming more accessible and consumers having a thirst for wine knowledge. He also sees changes in the attitudes of younger sommeliers, “As the younger generation of sommeliers has started to take over and not be so buttoned up, having that air of ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m the sommelier,’ has definitely shifted and dissipated.”
"I love being able to talk about beverages and I want to share that enjoyment with people. Beverages are one of the most intimidating portions of being in a restaurant and anything I can do as a sommelier to make that portion of your experience less intimidating, then I did my job…that’s one of the things that makes me warm and fuzzy inside."
The journey that started out as a college student making ends meet turned out to be a career that Harris never imagined. Many of the food and beverage people that he connected with early on now have major accomplishments under their belts, too. “It’s fun to see the people that I was working with at Grace that are now executive chefs or GMs or partners at restaurants,” says Harris. “I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of talented chefs and staffs in the city at very well-known places.” Almost pinching himself as he reflects, “This is so unbelievable. This cannot be my life.”