Shea Gallante is among today’s most respected chefs. He has worked at several of New York’s most influential restaurants. Developing a unique and innovative style, Gallante has brought his culinary skill to respected establishments such as Felidia, Bouley, and Cru, eventually going on to open his own restaurant, Ciano. Most recently, Gallante accepted the Executive Chef position at the well-known Lincoln Ristorante.
Total Food Service had the opportunity to talk to Shea Gallante about his inspirations, aspirations, and keeping one’s restaurant both modern and tasteful.
What inspired you to enter the foodservice industry?
I grew up in Westchester, and did all of the things that are expected of a kid. I worked in a pizzeria for a while. Interestingly, I went to school to study accounting, but I quickly realized that it bored me. However, it would become useful in the future while running and operating restaurants. No matter what I was doing, I always resorted back to cooking because it’s fast paced and stimulating. Originally, I planned to leave my hometown and cross the country to attend the California Culinary Academy. I had a friend who was studying at the Culinary Institute of America, and he eventually convinced me to do the same. I applied to the CIA, got accepted, and was able to begin right away. Those are really the pivotal events in my early life that began my career. I didn’t set out to be a chef from an early age; it was always something that I happened to gravitate towards, and I continued until I saw progress.
What was the major takeaway from your time at the CIA?
I used the school for what it was, and made the most out of the experience. I think that I gained perspective, and acquired a very realistic approach. Prior to attending school, I had no fine dining experience, so I was building my foundation. I found that a lot of students came out of the CIA believing that they suddenly knew so much more than the people they previously worked for. In my opinion, lessons are learned and experiences are gained through living life. Eighteen months of school does not magically set you in motion to be a great chef. I had very realistic expectations.
What was your first job out of school? Would you consider anyone in your life at that time to have been a mentor?
I commuted to New York City from Poughkeepsie for a year on the Metro North. I worked for Pino Luongo when I first came out of school. Next, I went to Felidia, which was really my first exposure to working in a fine dining establishment. I’m still friendly with Chef Fortunato Nicotra, who has been there for over twenty years. He provided me with a wonderful introduction to fine dining. At that time, we didn’t have the million dollar kitchens that exist today. We worked out of a smaller kitchen, and that really opened my eyes. Also, I would have to say that Bouley was a great learning experience. At Bouley, I really cultivated my creativity and my instincts to become a chef, and gained a greater appreciation for the importance of the finer details.
How did you end up on your own?
I was at Bouley for three and a half years. An old friend that I had worked with at Felidia came in and told me that they knew somebody that was looking to do a new project. That project ended up becoming Cru. That was my first solo venture. When I was at Bouley we had an army of people working with us in the offices, doing payroll, several prep cooks and butchers. At Cru, it was myself and a team of four other people. We had to cover all aspects of operations and production ourselves, and be very creative about making the most out of a relatively small space. I learned first and foremost how much work it really is, and how challenging it can be to run your own restaurant. It was the first time I realized how significant my impact on the front of the house was, in addition to the back of the house. I remained at Cru for five and a half years, and left as the economy plummeted. The business model was not conducive to withstanding the recession. I actually went back to Bouley for about six months, and went on to open Ciano in 2010. I was at Ciano for three years. Although it wasn’t the best partnership, it was a great little restaurant. Eventually, they ended up selling the building. Next, I opened a small restaurant with my wife in my hometown as an investment. Within eighteen months, I had accepted a position at the Baccarat Hotel. Honestly, it was very overwhelming. I figured that as an investor, I would hire a chef and get somebody to run it, but I ended up being there sixty-five percent of the time. Eventually, I sold it to another chef who happens to be a friend of mine. My first time involved with a hotel was a huge learning experience. I was developing multiple concepts and opening a hotel with a new brand from scratch. It was like opening four restaurants simultaneously.
How did the current chapter of your journey at Lincoln come about?
After several years, the chef at Lincoln, Jonathan Benno, decided to leave in order to work on the other projects he was developing. Lincoln was looking for someone to replace Benno, and I couldn’t have entered a better situation. Benno had cultivated a very organized and operationally sound restaurant, and he basically passed me the torch. The transition has been very organic. Lincoln has always been driven by its location, but at the same time it’s a chef reflective restaurant. Like Benno had, I have creative control over the menu and the approach to Italian cuisine.
What sort of adjustments and tweaks would you like to make at Lincoln?
I’ve been at Lincoln for five months, and so far I’ve changed all of the menus. We haven’t changed the concept, which is basically a beautiful modern restaurant in Lincoln Center with a contemporary perspective on Italian cuisine. The dishes are new, so the difference is noticeable. The changes simply reflect the fact that I’ve taken my own unique approach, as Benno did before me. In addition, we’ve changed the lunch offerings, enhanced the brunch meal period, and grown the dinner. Essentially, it’s a refresh of my predecessor’s ideas.
Please describe the clientele at Lincoln. Is it a restaurant that has repeat customers based on what’s playing at Lincoln Center? Is it a tourist destination?
I think it’s all of the above. The guests have certain expectations regarding the experience, and so we’ve streamlined our process. Pre-theater can be difficult because every table has the same deadline, and we have to meet it. We’re very passionate about making that happen, which is why we implemented a prefix for the pre-theater hours.
How has the process for promoting a restaurant changed from when you started? Please discuss promoting and marketing a restaurant in today’s industry.
That’s probably a hot topic at any roundtable for every restaurant group in the world at the moment. Social media has a huge impact, and it reaches your audience instantaneously. When I started, we used to wait for the Times reviews to come out on Wednesday. In my opinion, social media both helps and hurts. There’s a lot of marketing involved, and with marketing comes hype. However, social media is a powerful tool, but it needs to be used carefully and honestly when advantageous.
Please discuss your approach to and relationship with the vendor community.
Patina Restaurant Group operates about seventy restaurants, so we have a very solid purchasing structure in place. However, Lincoln is probably the one anomaly of the bunch since it has numerous vendors outside of the purchasing program. I have a multifaceted approach to purchasing. I’m cost conscious, and we purchase with caution, care, and consideration. However, I also have purveyors that I’ve used for ten, fifteen, and twenty years. At the end of the day, the relationship is very important, along with the quality.
Today’s culture has given rise to celebrity chefs and restaurant industry television celebrities. What’s your reaction to this new breed?
I’m open to everything. I’m lucky to be aligned with the younger generation, because I have an understanding of the modern nuances within the culinary world. However, I also came from and was exposed to the industry’s old guard. Existing between both generations has provided me with a unique insight. I love cooking, but I also recognize the importance associated with expanding and growing in a business and professional sense. I have three children and a wife. At a certain point, I see the value in transitioning to mental work once I’m no longer young enough to satisfy the physical demands. Preparing and grooming one’s self for the future is imperative.
What is your opinion on the technologies that are becoming available to the restaurant industry?
I like to stick with what works. I’m not one to jump on every new technology, but I certainly implement anything that improves efficiencies. I believe that technologies and apps such as Open Table are extremely useful tools. However, iPads for ordering in the dining room? I haven’t gotten there yet. I believe in wireless and handheld technology, but they need to be used tastefully. In every restaurant that I’ve ever worked in, no matter the level of technology, at some point we’ve always resorted to using paper and credit card machines. That being said, I think it’s important to be open to using any technologies that add value.
To learn more about Shea Gallante and Lincoln Ristorante, visit their website.