First, We Eat: Tara and Michael Gallina of Vicia in St. Louis
Hometowns often have a way of suctioning their natives back in if they stray too far. Such was the case for chef Michael Gallina, who grew up in the St. Louis suburb of Brentwood. His wife, Tara Gallina, is originally from Boca Raton, Florida, and they met at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a hybrid farm and restaurant just north of New York City where they both worked. Michael was delving deeper into his craft as a chef, while Tara took on a farming and service apprenticeship. “I never thought I’d even date a coworker—let alone marry one,” says Tara.
After much deliberation over the concept, genre of food and location, it was in St. Louis that the duo was able to develop, plan and finally open their own restaurant. They called it Vicia, meaning “vetch,” a restorative crop which farmers plant to enliven soil with vital nutrients. Here, they were able to craft something truly their own.
The interior has the crafted feel of a performance space in which all of its inhabitants are in on what’s supposed to happen at each moment, where the food is prepared like a painting or a song. The restaurant was also recently announced as a semifinalist for the James Beard awards in the Best New Restaurant category.
How did you both make your way into this industry?
TARA: I went to the University of Central Florida, where I studied journalism. Soon after, I started working for a payroll software company, basically running the H.R. department. But I just knew I couldn’t sit behind a desk for the rest of my life. I applied to The French Culinary Institute in New York City and lived there for several years working various jobs. Then I accepted an apprenticeship at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
MICHAEL: Neither of us knew this was what we wanted to do. I went to Webster University and then transferred to the University of Missouri, but eventually decided to head to the West Coast and attend the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. I got connected to chef Daniel Humm and moved to New York City with him when he went to take over Eleven Madison Park. I met Dan Barber in New York, who is the co-owner of Blue Hill Farm and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and worked with him for about nine years. Growing up, I remember my grandfather loved different types of food and would get us out of our [suburban] shell. He’d be like, ‘Let’s go to this new French restaurant in the city.’
What quality do you think is absolutely necessary to be a great chef?
TARA: That’s what I was going to say.
How do you balance a restaurant and a relationship?
TARA: It’s not easy. I think we’re in a unique situation, because as long as we’ve known each other, we’ve worked together. We don’t really know another way. We both also have our skill sets that we focus on: mine is service and front-of-house operations, and Michael is back-of-house operations. We’re lucky that we’re not having to entrust either of those areas to someone who isn’t as invested as we are. But it does not come without its challenges. We’re two people who are very passionate about what we do and maybe slightly hard-headed sometimes. We have our moments. But it’s usually just because we want everything to be perfect. It’s not personal.
MICHAEL: But we’re able to turn it off once we get home. And we have two little dogs, so once we see them and settle down, we can deal with whatever it is tomorrow.
T: You have to. We’re really lucky that we get to do this together. It’s really hard to have a spouse who doesn’t work in restaurants. You work crazy hours, it’s a lot of stress and pressure, and there are a lot of things that are really hard to explain if you’re not here. I wouldn’t know how to translate what happens in a day here to someone who wasn’t living it with me at the same time. We both get to contribute to our success. It’s really personal.
M: We’re talking constantly—whether it’s on the way to work or talking about ideas and putting the menu together. Or it could be about staffing, or what’s going on in the back and front of house. We’re always talking throughout the day.
What was the inspiration for the prosciutto-wrapped sunchoke recipe you shared?
MICHAEL: I’d say most people don’t know what a sunchoke is and would probably be terrified of eating it. But they’re really sweet, nutty and very creamy.
TARA: It’s a tuber, in the same family as a sunflower. They look like little potatoes with a similar starchy texture, but much sweeter.
M: We used prosciutto to make it more appealing—kind of like the opposite of pigs in a blanket. To start, we roast the sunchokes in the oven until they’re nice and creamy and cooked-through. Then, we stuff them with a little blue cheese, which gives them some tang, and wrap them in prosciutto to bring in a salty taste. It really seasons itself, so we don’t have to add any salt or seasonings. We just drizzle a bit of vinaigrette on top, which is a mixture of reduced balsamic and a bit of sesame oil.
T: It hits all of the notes on your tongue when you eat it, for one little bite. It’s a great party snack. Very simple, but there’s a lot going on. It’s so delicious.
Congratulations to Michael Gallina, who was recently named a best new chef in America by Food & Wine in 2018.
This story originally appeared in Issue 2. Click here to purchase the full issue, or subscribe at alivemag.com/subscribe.
All photos by Attilio D’Agostino.