I find most New York wine lists are pretty cookie-cutter with the same producers paying to push the same bottles. So it’s rare to find a thoughtful list like the one at Clay put together by Gabriela Davogustto, which is full of classic as well as cutting-edge wines.
Davogustto has an indomitable spirit. She immigrated to America from Venezuela before Hugo Chavez came to power, working her way up from hostess to line cook to eventually wine director and now runs a Harlem restaurant.
Over a recent Zoom call, Davogustto and I talked about her career path, her secrets to studying wine, and the grim realities restaurants continue to face during the COVID-19 era.
James: “Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to grow up in Venezuela?”
Davogustto: “I was raised in a very different Venezuela than the one that exists now. It was the oil bonanza of the 1970s and ‘80s. It was a country that was quite amazing at that point, very cosmopolitan, lots of immigration coming in. As a result, I was exposed from a very young age to different cultures—there were Spaniards and Basque restaurants, Chinese restaurants—my parents worked a lot as accountants and weren’t very fond of cooking at home. I remember that shrimp cocktail was my favorite when I was 5 and that my mom’s favorite drink was Cynar and orange juice. The only wines that they drank were from Spain or Chile. My mom and dad still live there. I still can get very homesick and nostalgic.”
James: “Would you say you learned your business savvy from your parents?”
Davogustto: “Kind of. [Laughs] I left Venezuela in 1998, before Chavez came to power. My mom was really overprotective and I met this guy, so I was like, ‘You know what? I’m leaving.’ And we just moved. The political situation was, well, you could say I saw what was coming. This guy was from Uruguay but his family was living in Argentina, so we lived in Buenos Aires until 2001.
It was very complicated. I couldn’t find myself there, as I said I grew up in a very diverse place, so Buenos Aires felt closed in a sense. At that time, everyone ate the same, every restaurant would have the same thing. Then there was an opportunity to come to New York. And well before that I had fallen in love with New York. From the references in the movies and the museums. I had been to New York once before, on the way back from a wedding in Minneapolis if you can believe it, and I thought, I have to live here at some point in my life.
So, we moved for his work. Right before September 11. It was kind of like moving to New York months before COVID hit, you can’t believe the hardships. But I was still in love with New York, even though it was hard. Even today, 20 years later, the city still surprises me. It’s funny. It feels like home. Even days when I’m super tired I can’t even imagine living in another city. I feel like I belong here. I don’t know if rationally you can explain it, it’s more of a gut thing.”
James: “Where did you live when you first moved here?”
Davogustto: “I moved to the Upper West Side, because I basically didn’t know any better and it was terrible. The apartment was really expensive, a tiny building on 81 Street between these huge pre-war buildings. A tiny thing, maybe three or four stories. I didn’t have a job and I was terrified. Then we moved to Greenpoint. We were the only non-Polish people living in my building! It was so lovely to interact with them and understand what they ate, all the sausages and beers. And then I moved to Fort Greene, which I also loved, this was 2003 probably. Then back to Manhattan in 2008 in Washington Heights, where I have been ever since.”
James: “So when did you get into restaurants?”
Davogustto: “It’s funny because in Venezuela when you go to college you have to choose what you are going to study. One of the things I wanted to study was hospitality. However, my family did not want me to work in a hotel or restaurant, they wanted a ‘serious’ career. But when I came here, I saw in the Village Voice that a restaurant in the Meatpacking District was looking for people, this was back when there were only a couple of restaurants open there. It was called Son Cubano and it sort of recreated Hemingway’s Havana before the revolution, there was live music every night, it was amazing. At the time it was famous. It was the type of place where you would give the hostess $200 to get a table.
I worked there for two years as a hostess, now I am asking myself why I stayed there for so long as a host, but at the time even thinking about serving tables I was like, ‘Oh my goddess, I couldn’t do that.’ It was a busy restaurant, everything was done by hand. The reservation system for example was us marking tables with a sharpie on paper, a great mental exercise with 250 to 300 covers per night, to assign all of this manually.
Here, I also met my husband. He was a busser and I was a host