The Agua Master, Please
Diners, it appears, have too many choices these days. First we have to figure out what kind of cuisine we want. Then we have to decide where to get it. Once there we have to weigh options on just about every aspect of dining, from ordering wine to translating vegetable names.
Fortunately restaurateurs currently seem to have so much disposable income that they can now afford to hire people to help us with these struggles. Don't know your triple cremes from your washed winds? The restaurant's cheese buyer can help you compose a board. Now get ready for the water steward, such as has showed up in the Ritz-Carlton in New York.
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Jacques Coup d'Eau, one of these new breed of hirees, for a heart-to-palate chat. Coup d'Eau is Miami's first agualier, an employee of a restaurant who is in charge of the taps. That's water taps, folks. And I think you'll find, as I did, Coup d'Eau not only quenches our curiosity about his job, he provides us with a very refreshing service.
NT: So what exactly does an agualier do?
JCd'E: Well, it is rather complicated, but I will attempt to make simple for you my position. Simply, I am the director of water -- agua. I oversee the proper pouring of both tap and bottled water at Caress.
Caress, as in the bath soap people?
No, no, of course I am talking about the restaurant on South Beach.
Oh yes, right. At such a busy place, you must have a number of responsibilities.
I have a great many tasks. It is the kind of job where you are the only one, and so you must be the one who is in charge at all times. It is the kind of job where you live it.
I can only imagine. Describe for us a typical day in the life of an agualier.
It would be my pleasure. First I wake up. Then I brush my teeth. And here is where you, the reader, might think that oh, this guy is an agualier, he probably brushes his teeth with pure natural spring water. (Chuckles.) But that is not the way. I am a regular José like you, and I rinse my mouth with water that comes from my bathroom faucet just like you. It is best, I find, not to let these things go to your head. I am an agualier and certainly that is prestigious, but I like to think I can still relate to the common man.
How do you interact with a customer during a meal?
I always interact the best. I am what they call a good interactor.
No, I mean, what kind of advice would you give a diner? How do you make your recommendations?
In the beginning I look at their clothes. If they are wearing designer labels I recognize, like (giggles) that Gap guy who only goes by one name, I will waste my time with them. If they wear trash -- Todd Oldman, Stella McCartney, that person Versace whose wife has that hair that looks like a corked bottle of agua -- like so many do, I snap my fingers like this. That way the waiter knows my services will not be required and he is free to offer them Evian or Pellegrino.
You know, Versace ... never mind. Are Evian and Pellegrino what you would consider lower-tier bottled waters?
It is not that I would call them poor for the price point. But they are the waters that are, how you say, mass-produced, and so they have lost what we call in the trade their integrity, no?
I don't know. A lot of people still rely on them, kind of like the Mondavi and Beringer of bottled water.
No doubt what you say is true. I feel confident you in your profession understand the common palate as least as well as I can interpret the more, shall we say, exotic one.
I'm sure you have a taste bud up on most of us, Jacques. How did you become interested in being an agualier?
I became enchanted with water at a very young age. When I was growing up in Guatemala ...
Guatemala? But your name is French.
Ah, yes, of course I can see where you might be confused. But my family was forced to flee from France during the, er, one of those wars, and my ancestors, they took a raft to Central America. They even took their livestock with them. I remember this one Arabian stallion that my grandfather affectionately called Atlantic because he was born during the voyage; unfortunately, his mother didn't make it. In fact it was a very risky journey, but my forefathers felt that we had no choice but to escape or certainly they would have been beheaded by the Inquisitors.
What a stirring story. Anyway, as you were saying ...
Yes, as I was saying, when I was growing up in Guatemala, we were very poor. My grandfather, you see, had been forced to leave all our gold in Swiss bank accounts and then he became a little confused. Here in this country I think you call it Notimers Illness, because you can't remember the time. And he forgot the password and then no one could find the money. So instead of milk to drink I had only agua.
Yes, extremely so. So there I was, with only water to fill my belly and mix with my puffed wheat that we received, and one day my mami noticed that I could tell the difference between the varieties of water. When she brought home the water from the town well, I refused to drink it. At six months old I turned my head, I didn't like it. I remember this clearly. But when she boiled the agua, fetched from the potholes in the road that had collected during the last rain, I thrived. It was then my love of water and my ability to taste the differences between certain brews took root.
And the rest is history ...
Well, I always wondered as a grown man, one who has seen the world and all the waters of the world and has been fortunate enough to taste the most exclusive elixirs, what was in the puddles that appealed to me so much more than in the well? After all, the well did not have the leeches, only the black snakes, and they were thought to bless the agua. It was especial good luck if you brought one up in your bucket. So I returned to our little village to do some tests after I'd completed my agualier schooling.
And what did you discover?
That there was a mineral component in the street that added a superior flavor to the agua, a grittiness ...
You mean dirt? Or perhaps small pebbles?
The grittiness, of course, is something that only one such as myself could appreciate. It is an acquired taste.
So what would you recommend to those who also have acquired tastes, who are looking for something a little gritty to go with their meals?
Ah, this is where you see I really get into my work. Each water has what we call a different flavor profile. I like most water that not only has texture -- good mouth-feel -- but has roundness. For instance an up-front fruitiness with a clean, hearty middle and a long, lingering finish. But of course it depends on what the diner has ordered. If there is a lot of vegetable matter on the plate, then I like a more minerally concentration -- perhaps something from the Pacific Northwest. For carnivores I often recommend something European, a water with an aromatic nose and a sweet close. That way the taste of the meat is washed from the palate oh very gently, like a baby in its bathwater, as long as the two are not thrown out together.
Now there's an image. Since our time is running short, why don't we end this interview with a couple of remarks about carbonated water?
That is very astute of you, because I think that people save agua con gas for special occasions, and it certainly doesn't need to be kept so at palate's-length.
You'd recommend it for everyday dining?
Yes, particularly if you've eaten a lot of garlic and onions or dairy products. It helps ease the process of digestion of these difficult items. It's like the French Paradox, no? You're actually healthier if you imbibe in Pellegrino. It keeps your arteries, those heart muscles pumping.
One more question, the one that's on everybody's mind. How do you feel about patrons who order tap water?
Bah. Give 'em the Salisbury steak. They know nothing -- they'll think it's hamburger.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Miami dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.