Lori Mason still remembers the night of the wine incident. It happened about six months after she and her fiancé, chef Daniel Angerer, had opened their European-American Brasserie, Klee, in Chelsea.
The evening had started out well. Pretty young things were sharing bites at the long low-lit bar, couples were snuggled into cozy banquettes against the room's exposed brick walls, and groups of friends filled the extra large booths toward the rear of the restaurant, just a frying pan's distance from the open kitchen. Mason was pleased. That is until a waiter tapped her
on the shoulder.
"Lori, there's a problem with one of the wines," he told her. The vintage on the wine bottle did not match the one on the wine list. The guest had requested to speak with the sommelier.
"Oh, great," thought Mason, who put on her best smile and approached the table. But as she got closer, she realized this wasn't just any old guest complaining about a mistaken vintage. Not only was it someone she knew, it was someone she respected and admired. It was someone she hadn't seen since she'd switched careers, leaving after eight years of corporate litigation at Hughes Hubbard to open a restaurant and become a certified sommelier. It was her former jurisprudence teacher from Brooklyn Law School.
"He was surprised to see me, too," recalls Mason, who apologized and explained that their wine systems were not quite in place yet. "I assured him that the vintage, while off by a year, should not have a great impact on the quality of the wine.
He was really gracious about it. But then I teased him it would take a lawyer to notice that sort of detail."
All turned out well. The professor not only drank the wine, but he enjoyed the experience of dining at Klee so much that he's now a regular at the restaurant where he holds monthly wine dinners. These days, the topic of jurisprudence rarely surfaces in their conversations, which tend toward the differences from Pinot Noir grown in Burgundy and the Willamette Valley.
Mason's path from lawyer to restaurateur came about thanks to a combination of factors: a single mom who fed Mason in Manhattan's restaurants more than at home, a passion for cooking, and a love affair with a chef who would become her husband and business partner. But all the while, she was still putting in the hours at Hughes Hubbard, and just as their new restaurant was about to open, she was called to Colorado where a case was going to trial.
"It was great to be working on the trial, but it was so disappointing to be away from the restaurant after all that searching and planning," says Mason. After the trial was over, Mason decided to take a month off to recuperate, but instead of relaxing, she spent most of her days in the restaurant, greeting customers, running the floor and managing the staff. She was thriving in her new role.
As the days and weeks passed, she started feeling that maybe the law was not where her heart was. "I didn't see myself on a partnership track. I didn't want to put my whole self into it. I was hoping there might be something else for me." Thanks to Klee, there was. "Eventually one of the partners said, 'Lori, you have to make a choice. We are trying to figure out if you are partnership material,'" Mason recalls. He suggested a leave of absence, which Mason took. After almost two years off she officially severed ties with the firm and took the ultimate step: She returned her Blackberry.