Chef Shea Gallante got a pretty early start in the restaurant business. In fact, he opened his first restaurant -a pizzeria named Augustino’s in his hometown in upstate New York -at the age of nineteen. “I thought that I was going to be the big shot,” Gallante says. “But I realized how little I actually knew and how much I wanted to learn.” That same year, he was accepted in the Culinary Institute of America, so he made the tough decision to close his pizzeria.
After graduating from culinary school, he went on to work in some of the top Italian kitchens in the country, including Lidia Bastianich’s Felidia. Being named Chef de Cuisine at Bouley in 2001 was a real turning point in his career and Gallante went on to helm the kitchen at Cru, a Michelin-starred eatery that closed in 2009. Recently, he returned to the New York dining scene with Ciano, his best effort with his own, unique brand of Italian cooking. Instead of farm to table, he describes his menu as “farm to fork” with dishes, like lobster with whipped burrata and a pickled ramps salad or early spring vegetable minestrone with pancetta and garlic croutons.
Gallante hopes to open more restaurants someday soon. “Every chef has a dream restaurant something fancy and high end. I’d actually like to open a fast, casual place, like the place I worked at as a kid,” he explains. And as for the rest of the Italian eateries in the city: “I would say that some of the best and most inspiring Italian food in the world is being cooked in the United States, especially right here in New York.“
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Ha, some will say that I need to grow up first! I didn’t have a specific career in mind, but I used to dream about success. And like every other man in the world, I refuse to ask for directions.
What was your first job in food and what did you learn?
It worked at a weekend and summer resort spot upstate. I learned to keep my mouth shut, think ahead, work fast and keep to myself.
You opened your first restaurant at 19. How did you handle such that kind of responsibility at such a young age?
I thought that I was going to be a big shot and that I knew it all. It was my first reality check in the food service industry. It was an eye-opener that allowed me to realize how little I actually knew and how much I wanted to learn.
You went to culinary school, but would you recommend the experience for all chefs?
Yes. It offers a good foundation of the fundamentals that you need to enter the industry, to learn and to progress. However, media training could get you almost as far these days too. You had better be damn good in front of a camera though, if you can’t actually make an omelet or roast a chicken.
What’s the most important thing you learned from David Bouley?
Not to repeat other peoples mistakes when you’re accountable for those actions.
You started out making pizza, so where are some of your favorite pizzerias in New York?
Keste, Motorino, and Artichoke. All different and all great. Pizza is my favorite food, go figure.
In a city crowded with Italian restaurants, how do you keep Ciano fresh and original?
We focus on the season and do our best to work with the best ingredients available. But it’s not just ingredients. We work on consistency and execution every day. Everyone uses the same ingredients, but consistency and execution can set you apart.
Have you traveled through Italy for menu inspiration recently?
I haven’t in the past few years. I have three kids now. That said, and this is just my opinion, I would say that some of the best and most inspiring Italian food in the world is being cooked in the United States, especially right here in New York. But I do I love Italy it’s my favorite place to travel. They have ingredients and environment over us. Again, this is only my opinion.
Describe your ideal meal at Ciano.
For the experience, I like the Chefs Collection Menu; A multi-course spontaneous menu that’s usually what we’re working on for our next menu change. For dinner, Assagini (Robiola & Grilled Ramp Crostini; Chicken Liver Crostini, Housemade Salumi & Terrines); Burrata with Broccoli Rabe Pesto; Cortecce with Octopus, Calabria Pepper and Garlic Bread Crumbs; Lamb Loin with Morels; Roman Vegetable Stew; Rhubarb Strudel with Mascarpone and Yogurt Sorbet.
Ciano also has a great wine list. Do you and your sommelier work closely together to come up with pairings?
John Slover is awesome and we work really well together. There is a great mutual respect for one another’s knowledge and the result seems to be very well-received by our guests.
What did opening Ciano mean to you?
Ciano wasn’t a multi-million dollar glamour project. It’s a business. It’s not a showcase. I wanted to prove to myself that I could be a chef and a restaurant operator. Being a partner is what I was after day in and day out.
Any plans for the future?
Who knows…cooking somewhere for someone. I do want to open more restaurants. Every chef has a dream place something fancy and high end. I’d actually like to open a fast, casual place.
Address: 45 East 22nd St., btwn. Park & Broadway
Photo Credit: Kelly Neal