Big Fish in Smaller Ponds

Most chefs and restaurateurs of note and accomplishment know that getting the best experience in the culinary world almost requires a several year stint in a top market, such as San Francisco or New York. In recent years, however, some of these strivers, after reaching those goals, have decided that moving to a smaller town with a growing food scene is more practical, affordable, and challenging. Gavin Kaysen, perhaps unwittingly, became the poster child for this phenomenon. He left the comfort zone as chef de cuisine of Café Boulud in Manhattan, part of the empire of one of the best known chefs in the world, Daniel Boulud, to return to his hometown of Minneapolis, MN. There he opened the now highly acclaimed Spoon and Stable restaurant. In short order, it became one of the toughest reservations in town and in 2015 was nominated as a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation.

Jim spoke with several chefs who are following his example. Here are some of their comments and reasons for wanting to be “bigger fish”.

DAMIAN SANSONETTI— CHEF/OWNER, BLUE ROOSTER FOOD COMPANY AND PICCOLO, PORTLAND, MAINE

Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, Sansonetti graduated from the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute and worked his way up to become the chef/owner of the Steelhead Grill in Pittsburgh. After moving to New York City, he opened Heartbeat at the W Hotel and eventually moved onto becoming the executive chef of Bar Boulud in 2008. He is married to Ilma Lopez, a Star Chef Rising Star Pastry Chef. After visiting Portland, ME, they decided to make the move there and together they opened the casual Blue Rooster Food Company and Piccolo, a modern Italian restaurant.

Q: What originally inspired you to become a chef?
A: My inspiration came at an early age from watching my Italian grandmother make pasta, my grandfather curing meat and my father at home in the family kitchen. So my menus are influenced by Calabrian and Abruzzian dishes.

Q: What made you decide to move to Maine?
A: Moving to Maine has afforded us access to some of the best seafood on the east coast. And after meeting Rod Mitchell of Browne Trading Company in Portland, I was inspired.

Q: Are you still able to do the food you love; find ingredients there?
A: Most of the ingredients I use are fairly easy to get; though I do import 20-30 percent of certain specialty items. And I found a source for what I consider the best lamb in the USA; raised on a small island farm off the coast. I admit, however, that I do miss New Jersey corn and tomatoes.

Q: In the long run do you feel it was a good decision to make the move?
A: Since having a new daughter and wanting to settle in a place more conducive to raising a family, my wife and I chose the opportunities offered in the fast growing food scene in Portland. We’ve developed a good circle of friends and associates and plan to open another restaurant later this year.

Q: Any advice you would give to younger chefs thinking of working in small markets?
A: For younger chefs who may be considering making a similar move, I recommend they pick a well-respected place to start.

JED DAVIS, OWNER/MANAGING PARTNER, THE FARMHOUSE GROUP, AND PASCOLO RISTORANTE, BURLINGTON, VT.

Davis grew up in Sudbury, VT and graduated from Cornell University. From there he moved to New York City and spent the next five years working at Le Cirque, Daniel, and Union Square Café.

Q: What made you decide to leave this culinary stratosphere and return to Vermont?
A: I was born and raised in Vermont so moving back was always the desire. Vermont is a special place, great people, and a great place to raise a family; and, of course, great food.

Q: Why Burlington?
A: It’s where the people are, and where the restaurant business opportunities are. A great, vibrant small city.

Q: How is living in this area different for you?
A: No change for me. I was born here! New York City was certainly different for me. A kid from Sudbury, VT moving to the East Village was quite a shock. I would never want to live in New York City again, but I absolutely love visiting with my family.

Q: Are you still able to do the food you love; find the ingredients there?
A: Even more so, yes. The food and beverage scene in Vermont is far ahead of other areas in my opinion. Particularly the beverage scene. I honestly feel that we are ahead of the bigger markets in this category. What’s cool in Vermont eventually translates to the larger markets; not the other way around.

Q: In the long run, do you feel it was a good decision to make the move?
A: Absolutely. My family and I have been blessed with several successful restaurant openings. Can’t complain. Great quality of life.

Q: Any advice you would give to younger chefs regarding working in small markets?
A: Be prepared to take a pay cut, but don’t let that discourage you. It’s such a different economy here than in big cities. There are definitely opportunities for talented restaurant pros in Vermont and with a great quality of life on top of that. Feel free to give me a shout! Always looking to work with great people.

TARA GALLINA, CO-OWNER AND GENERAL MANAGER, VICIA (PRONOUNCED VI-CEE-YA), OPENING THIS FALL IN ST. LOUIS.

Tara and her husband chef Michael Gallina did a series of sold-out pop-up dinners under the name The Rooster and the Hen as a way to get to know their new community as they developed plans for their restaurant.

Tara Gallina graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. She began her professional life in human resources and event management before deciding to make a career change to get into the food industry.

Q: How did you get your start in the food business?
A: I took a risk and relocated to New York City to attend the International Culinary Center. My culinary arts degree opened a lot of doors for me, and I tried my hand at just about every facet of the industry. I took another leap of faith and applied for the FARMS Apprenticeship at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in 2012 and that turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. After six months of intense service training, hands on farming, and sustainable agriculture education I found where I was meant to be, at the forefront of the movement, learning from chef Dan Barber, and discovered that service was my passion. I was also fortunate enough to find true love, meeting my husband, former BHSB chef de cuisine Michael Gallina.

Q: What made you decide to move?
A: Working at Blue Hill at Stone Barns for three years, I had the opportunity to hold a variety of front of house positions. Spending a year behind the bar learning the in’s and out’s of craft cocktails and wine, and as a captain, being responsible for creating a magical experience for each and every guest from start to finish. It was the learning experience of a lifetime. I was also lucky enough to meet my husband, Michael, who at the time was the chef de cuisine at BHSB. Before that, he had worked with Daniel Humm at Campton Place in San Francisco and Eleven Madison Park in New York. He had also spent time staging in kitchens all over the world. In destinations as far away as Sweden to work at the remote restaurant Faviken. We developed an incredible working relationship and after getting married felt that the time was right to set out on our own and start the next chapter in our life. Leaving a place like Blue Hill is not easy, and something we didn’t take lightly. Thankfully they were incredibly supportive of us and our decision.

Q: Why did you choose St Louis?
A: Michael, whose childhood nickname by the way was “rooster,” was born and raised in St. Louis, so I was able to discover the city organically as we would travel back to visit family over the years. As Michael re-discovered the city after being gone for 13 years, we both were struck by what a strong food community existed and how many exciting breweries, restaurants, coffee roasters, and sustainably driven farms were shaping the city. There is an energy and small businesses mindset that we have not seen in other cities and it felt so inviting. Not to mention that the cost of doing business is much more reasonable compared to bigger markets like New York City and San Francisco, which we considered. We felt like there was a place for us to make an impact in St. Louis and join a community that is on track to become a true food destination.

Q: How is living in this area different for you?
A: Being new to the Midwest, there is certainly a change of pace compared to New York, which I’ve really enjoyed. While it is a fairly large city, it has more of a small town vibe. Everyone knows everyone! I must say “what a small world” at least once a day. I feel so fortunate that the community embraced us with open arms and we were able to jump right in. Bonus: you can get just about anywhere in 15 minutes!

Q: Are you still able to do the food you love; find the ingredients there?
A: Absolutely. Our food philosophy is very much about celebrating the landscape around us, wherever we are, and St. Louis is surrounded by a number of diverse, small farms. We have spent the last few months getting to know the farmers and artisans in the area, visiting farms, and exploring the landscape. We have done several pop-up dinners featuring our vegetable-forward cuisine and the response has been very positive.

Q: Your pop-up dinners were called The Rooster and the Hen. But you are planning to name your restaurant Vicia. What does that mean?
A: Vicia represents the Latin genus for vetch, one of the most common cover crops grown in Missouri. This is a symbol of the relationship between what goes on above and below the soil and how that impacts everything that touches our plates.

Q: In the long run, do you feel it was a good decision to make the move?
A: I really do. We have been able to take our time to get to know our new community and have been reminded daily on why it was the right move. The city is on the rise and we’re excited to grow with it.

Q: Any advice you would give to younger chefs regarding working in small markets?
A: Having the experience of working in a large market is extremely valuable, so I would never discourage a cook or service professional from taking the leap and getting that experience and viewpoint under their belt. But in terms of sustainability and quality of life, a lot can be gained from living in a small market, especially if you want to be a small business owner. We are fortunate that we were able to do both!