TBT to the Beginning of Vicia: A Homecoming
Remember when Johnny Fugitt told us to wait for it... Here's a look back to our preview of Vicia before the Gallinas opened the doors early last year. And a big congratulations on being James Beard Award semifinalists for "Best New Restaurant," a nationwide category.
Gallina’s Bring World-Class Pedigree Home to St. Louis
Written by Johnny Fugitt
Photographed by Carmen Troesser
The most anticipated St. Louis restaurant opening of 2017 may occur before the vestiges of ringing in the New Year are stowed.
Tara and Michael Gallina set the food scene abuzz in the fall of 2015 when they departed upstate New York’s acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barns for Michael’s hometown of St. Louis. Blue Hill at Stone Barns is considered one of America’s preeminent restaurants with chef-owner Dan Barber’s notoriety reaching rarely seen heights in the culinary world.
“After we were married in the summer of 2015,” says Tara, “we knew the time was right to set off on our own path and were so fortunate to have the blessing of Dan Barber and the Blue Hill family to pursue our dream of opening our own restaurant.”
A Brentwood native, Michael’s culinary career carried him to renowned kitchens around the world from San Francisco and New York to Sweden and Spain. There’s just something about the Gateway City, however, that beckons one home.
“St Louis is home to Michael's entire family and we were keeping a close eye on the food scene here and loved seeing how much the city's culinary scene had evolved,” continues Tara. “Michael is really passionate about taking what he has learned over the last 15 years and sharing that with his hometown.”
Blue Hill at Stone Barns is known for featuring the freshness of local ingredients and the greater St. Louis area offers many of the same products as the Hudson Valley. “There are a number of similarities between the growing climate in the Midwest and upstate New York,” says Tara, “so we have been excited to discover a lot of the produce and foraged ingredients we grew to love there available in this market.”
Over the past year, the couple hosted pop-up dinners around St. Louis under the moniker Rooster and The Hen. “We had the idea to host pop-up dinners…as a way to introduce ourselves to the St. Louis community,” says Tara. “We originally planned one or two, and next thing we knew we had them lined up once a month through the summer.”
Only getting busier through the fall, the Gallinas ended 2016 with a total of twenty pop-up dinners. Rather than detract from their vision of opening a restaurant, these events brought Vicia to life. As Tara states, “We have been able to connect with our guests, and the food community, in ways that would have taken years if we just jumped right into opening Vicia. It has also helped shape our concept into something we feel is the right fit for our community.”
Much of the behind-the-scenes work of opening their new restaurant required building relationships with local farmers and artisans. As Tara states, “We have been really fortunate to spend the last year getting to know the farming community in and around St. Louis. It has been amazing to get to spend the time driving out to a number of these farms to connect with them first hand and discover how we can work together.”
“Some produce partners that we're particularly excited about are Earthdance Organic Farm School, which is an urban farm in Ferguson; Bohlen Family Farms in Perryville, which is run by two young brothers who are growing some really exciting experimental crops which we love; and Three Rivers Farm in Elsah, Illinois, consistently provides us with some of the most delicious and beautiful produce we've ever seen. They are all growing really incredible produce and paying close attention to the health of the soil, a practice that is really important to us.”
The focus on ingredients doesn’t end with produce. Cream from Rolling Lawns Dairy of Greenville, Illinois, will be used throughout the menu and brew partners will include Andy Hille of Rockwell Beer Company.
This all comes together at Vicia’s new space in the Central West End’s Cortex Innovation Community. “We are building a large, stone grill in our outdoor dining area that will allow us to play around with cooking over coals, wood, and other materials, so if there is any common theme running throughout the menu it will be dishes cooked over live fire. The grill will be on display for our guests to walk up and discover.”
These efforts culminate in a restaurant showcasing the Gallina’s story with a snapshot of greater St. Louis’ agriculture. Tara calls the restaurant “a personal reflection of who we are and what we've experienced working at some really incredible places.”
Just because it’s a homecoming, of sorts, for the Gallinas doesn’t mean the process of opening a restaurant has been comfortable or easy. The combination of a high profile professional background, and the aperitif of the Rooster and the Hen pop-ups, has crescendoed St. Louis’ anticipation of Vicia. As Tara concludes, “We push ourselves hard every single day and want to create something really special. I think the pressure is what keeps us going. We can't wait to open our doors and share what we've worked so hard to create with this city!”
Johnny Fugitt is author of The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America.