Platelist: Chef Shea Gallante's Journey From Pizzeria to Fine Dining

Restaurateur and chef got his start working in a local pizza joint.

March 30, 2011— -- Growing up on his mother's farm in upstate New York, executive chef and restaurateur Shea Gallante learned to appreciate the deliciousness of fresh produce -- and he carried that with him to his Manhattan restaurant, where the motto is "From Farm to Fork."

But growing up on his mother's farm in Dutchess County, a rural area about 70 miles north of New York City, Gallante said he was surrounded by fresh produce and it was where he made some of his fondest food memories.

"Picking sweet corn from like the field right behind our house and cooking it in a barbecue, it was awesome," he said. "It was more fun going and taking it and putting it in a bag and running back to the house."

Sunday dinners and holidays were particularly important to the Gallante family, and an excuse to get together and to share traditional family dishes.

"It was probably where my family spent the most time together was around food," he said.

Click here to read some of Shea Gallante's favorite recipes

But it was when he began looking to make some extra money off the farm that he became immersed in cooking.

"In Duchess County there isn't a huge resource of jobs for a kid in their teens," he said. "Food was an obvious choice. For me up there it was kind of like the American-Italian mom and pop joint. That's how I really got into the pizza business."

A self-proclaimed "junk food junkie" during his teenage years, Gallante took his first restaurant job in a pizza joint during college. Soon after, he left school, broke out on his own and opened a pizza place at age 20.

Closing Up Shop

"It was definitely the first learning experience of many throughout my food career," he said.

But running his own business proved to be a huge undertaking.

"I just didn't have any discipline, really," Gallante said. "I had a way I knew things were done, but I didn't have any discipline with money, with a really strict production."

"You know those are the basics that you go to school for, and everything is very uniform, and that's what you learn. You don't learn how to be a chef, you learn how to build a foundation to go out and pursue you know, whatever career you want to in cooking."

Within a year after he started his own business, Gallante said he realized he still wanted to pursue a serious culinary career. So he closed down his shop and applied to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

It was there that Gallante said he learned not just essential culinary skills but also gained an introduction into fine dining.

"I didn't grow up in a fine dining household so for me everything was new," he said. "I was much further back than some of the kids that I met in school that had already cooked in restaurants...I came from a pizzeria so I had to learn everything from scratch."

All his hard work at the CIA paid off and after graduating he was offered a year-long internship with Pino Luongo at Coco Opera in New York City that later turned into a permanent position as a sous-chef.

At Coco Opera, Gallante gained an integral understanding of the inner workings of a kitchen and he took on responsibilities such as ordering food, managing the staff and keeping track of food costs on top of his regular cooking duties.

Later, Gallante moved on to several high-end establishments, including Lidia Bastianich's Felidia, and then Chef David Bouley's restaurant, Bouley, both in New York.

It was under David Bouley that Gallante said he honed his creative vision, studying the tasting menus and the complexities of various dishes. He spent three years as the Chef-de-cuisine.

"I love the gratification of creativity," he said. "Of creating a restaurant and have an environment that people are yearning to go to and they are happy in that environment."

Shea Gallante on Creating a Menu: 'Creativity Comes in Waves'

In 2004, Gallante was handpicked to be the executive chef at the CRU restaurant. Critics praised Gallante's creative menus, and he earned three stars from The New York Times, a Michelin Star and three stars in New York Magazine. The following year, Gallante was named one of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs, and Bon Appetit named CRU one of its 50 Hot Restaurants.

While at CRU, Gallante said he started to figure out what worked and what didn't. More importantly, he added, he started to learn how to cook for the customer.

"I've definitely learned in the last five to seven years more about what the customer wants," he said. "[For] six or seven years it was more about what I wanted. I think that you evolve. You learn as you go along."

After a successful run at CRU, Galllante left to partner with the renowned chef Stratis Morfogen and open their own restaurant, Ciano, in 2010. Back to running his own business, Gallante created menus using the farm-fresh, seasonal ingredients that were so important in his youth.

"Creativity seems like it comes in waves," he said. "There's time where I feel like I can sit down and write 10 menus and then there may be three months before a remotely OK idea pops into my's an ongoing process."

While overseeing the cooking responsibilities, Gallante also takes on the daily grind of payroll, staffing and other owner's duties at Ciano.

"I like to micro-manage," he said.

Outside the restaurant, Gallante said he carries on his family tradition of Sunday night dinners with his wife and young children.

"I'm usually off on Sundays so on my night off we usually have dinner together," he said. "You know, opening a restaurant is really difficult. It's a lot of hours, it's a lot of it's like one day to pack in full of family events."