Returning to his Midwestern roots, Blue Hill alum Michael Gallina showcases his love for local produce-driven menus.
When chef Michael Gallina was growing up in St. Louis, the city was best known for BBQ and Americanized Italian (see local favorite, the "toasted ravioli.") But in recent years, the city has diversified in a major way. With chefs like Gerard Craft pushing the boundaries of what St. Louis restaurants could do, there was an opening for chefs to continue expanding and pushing the frontiers in the Gateway City. And that's precisely how Gallina ended up opening Vicia, a vegetable-forward, fine-dining restaurant in the St. Louis Cortex Innovation Community.
After moving away from St. Louis to pursue a culinary career, Gallina ended up at an almost-nine year stint at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, eventually becoming Chef de Cuisine and meeting his wife, Tara, who was working her way up to lead bartender and one of the most senior service captains. It was Tara who suggested moving back to St. Louis to open a restaurant.
"When I met Tara and we decided to get married, the idea to open our own place became much more real, but we both felt that doing it in New York was never going to allow us to really own our own business and balance the lifestyle we were craving," said Michael. Exploring St. Louis with Tara on visits home took him outside his usual neighborhood haunts, and what they discovered was a vibrant food community that seemed to have a home for his style.
"We were both really impressed with the level of food being created and the overall warmth of the restaurant community," said Michael. "Chefs here were excited to welcome others into the mix." So, they moved back to St. Louis with a plan to open their very own restaurant in 2017, with Michael running the kitchen and Tara as general manager.
One of their first moves was to get to know the local farming community and base the seasonal menu at Vicia on the availability of produce. The regional products that they feature on the rotating menu go from the more obvious to the unusual, with local Missouri wheat from a collaborative turning up in an excellent berry risotto.
"More than anything what we have really tried to do is let the local farmers in our community drive what’s on our menu," said Michael, who is the restaurant's executive chef, "and in the Midwest, there are an incredible amount of amazing vegetables, grains, fruits and herbs being cultivated by thoughtful caretakers of the soil." Even though they are no longer at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the Gallinas still take chef Dan Barber's ethos and training to heart.
"Dan’s mantra that we have to support the whole farm is something I think about every day," said Michael. "The major takeaways that I feel were really unique to Blue Hill that I was fortunate to learn were centered around food waste, relationships with farmers, and the potential to breed fruits and vegetables for flavor."
That commitment to utilizing the farming community with an emphasis on wasting as little of the ingredients as possible goes through the whole menu. Tara added, "Our philosophy of celebrating the seasons, focusing on thoughtful small farmers, and utilizing everything from root to flower translates across our entire menu, including beverages and dessert." So that means yogurt whey and fennel turn up in the cocktails, and sunchoke anglaise on the rice pudding.
But while you can sneak vegetables into the sweets and the booze, was St. Louis ready for "Naked Vegetables" as a starter? In a word, yes. While some customers are surprised, delighted (or occasionally confused) by the vegetable-forward menu, that's all part of the experience.
"Some of the items may be new to our guests, but it sparks a conversation with our staff and allows us to tell the stories of the farmers if guests are inclined to hear them," Tara said. "We, of course, have people that are not used to a vegetable-forward way of eating, but all we ask is that they come in with an open mind, and more often than not, they leave sharing how surprised they are at feeling totally satiated and happy after eating so many vegetables!"
She also emphasizes that the top priority is for guests to have a great time, regardless of whether they are leaning towards the grilled daikon steak or the Berkshire pork for their main. (Yes, there are indeed animal protein options for the dedicated carnivores in your party).
A signature entrée is their vegetable shell tacos, one of the only dishes they have continuously left on the menu while tweaking the exact components. "We use ingredients like purple top turnips or kohlrabi and thinly slice them to make taco shells, then serve them on a Lazy Susan with variety of seasonal garnishes," said Michael. "Our latest version features falafel we make with spent juice pulp, harissa yogurt, hummus, carrot hot sauce, pickles, and herb salad." Guests can choose from items like the Juice Pulp Falafel on the à la carte menu that's meant to be shared family style or go all in on the chef's choice tasting menu, which can be customized to accommodate a variety of food allergies and exclusions.
Having been open for just a year, Vicia has already garnered a James Beard Award semifinalist nod for Best New Restaurant. Michael's goal? To have guests discover new vegetables and local ingredients and to hopefully try them in their own kitchens after they've left.
Vicia, 4260 Forest Park Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63108