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Central Stage: Gallerie Bar & Bistro

Each month, traveling chef and (614) contributor Will Johnston will take on a new job somewhere in the food chain, exploring the many stops on the journey from farm to fork to your face. In this month’s installment, he crashes the kitchens at Bill Glover’s impressive Gallerie in the downtown Hilton, the epicenter of Columbus’s burgeoning culinary reputation.

Collaboration

Bill Glover is clear that the desire to work in concert with others—a willingness to collaborate—is integral to his kitchen’s success. The fruits of this notion are on full display when I arrive for my shift. Greeting me in his spacious (for a chef) office, overlooking a bustling Friday afternoon stretch of High Street, my eyes are drawn to a collection of framed and signed menus covering most of the walls; each one adorned with the signatures of regionally and nationally renowned chefs, a compliment of culinarians that Glover has worked with in one venue or another. Chef’s newest acquisition, as such, is from a recent James Beard dinner and it hangs in a place of honor directly behind the desk. Scrawled across its surface are the names of some of the country’s most exciting chefs, including a host of heavy hitters from the home team. This menu is one of a dozen such documents on display. Some are fresh from the presses, others stained from use and perhaps collected as an afterthought, their utility spent when only sentiment remains. And each is etched with the Sharpie’d signatures of the cooks who brought to life the dishes described therein; each chef a cosigner, underwriting Glover’s notion that our best food is the food we make with others.

To that end, Chef makes me a quick introduction to key staff, ensuring them all that I was “a real set of hands,” and with that, we launch directly into our work. He informs me that the restaurant is hosting a special six-course dinner in conjunction with Athens, Ohio’s favorite brewery, Jackie O’s, and that the evening’s menu will feature curated small plates paired with some bespoke beers. Discussing the creation of the menu, Chef Glover gives an example of what fruitful culinary collaboration can look like: “Brad Clark, the brew master at Jackie O’s, invited me to their cask-aging facility to taste some of their reserve beers that might work well for the dinner. So there we are, standing among the rows and rows of wooden barrels where they age the beers, and Brad is using a pair of vice grips to pry flathead nails out of the casks, and pulling warm snifters of beer for us to taste. We spent the afternoon sampling, giving tasting notes, and spit-balling the menu.”

He goes on to explain that this give-and-take with the people who produce the food, those who understand their product on a granular level, are an invaluable source of knowledge and insight.

“They want the food to be just as good as you do. Why wouldn’t you listen to that?”

Sourcing

We move on with our work, gathering mise-en-place for the night’s meal, the myriad ingredients, and products that constitute each of the the six plates. We gather a mélange of micro-greens that will be used to accent and garnish each dish. There is chickweed, a precious white flower rimmed with soft green leaves and a taste like distilled spring. There are Calvin pea tendrils, with their delicate stalks and verdant round shoots that look like thyme—so named for Calvin Lamborn, inventor of the sugar snap pea. There is Emerald Crystal Lettuce and Sea Beans and Flaming Lucky Sorrel and Variegated Baby Nasturtium. Each of these spectacular ingredients, explains Chef Glover, is grown with the utmost care at The Chef’s Garden, the Huron, Ohio hub for some of the country’s best produce.

The produce isn’t the only Ohio representative on the menu that evening; Chef Glover also takes special care when sourcing his meat. The sixth course, a strip loin, plays host to beef raised outside of Athens at R.L. Valley Farms. Glover draws my attention to the fact that the cows are partially raised on the spent grain from the brewing process at Jackie O’s, a serendipitous link in the farm-to-table food chain. The fourth course features Longblack Hogs, a heritage breed raised at Anderson Farms in Granville. Chef Glover was an early adopter of the hand-raised hogs reared by Jamie Anderson, better known as the proprietor of Ray Ray’s Hog Pit. On sourcing Ray Ray’s pigs, Glover says: “James knows his hogs and his land. I think he’s raising some of the best pork in Ohio.”

This dedication to locally sourced ingredients permeates as much of the restaurant’s menu as possible.

“Other than some seafood,” Glover explains, “our goal is to source as much locally as possible. And not because it’s trendy, but because we really believe that local products are the best for our kitchen and what we are trying to do.”

 The Staff

As we move from prep to service, I come into more contact with Glover’s cooking staff. My principle workmate is Chef de Cuisine Josh Kayser, a thin, hard-looking cook with a menacing scar at the corner of his right eye. He looks like a young Tywin Lannister in a chef coat, battle-tested and hardened by years of service in busy kitchens. To my surprise, he is soft spoken and earnest, speaking with that special, long-held passion of cooks who, despite it all, still love food. This attitude is contrasted by the loud, showy engagement broadcast by younger guys. Like Joe, the toe-headed junior chef who has decided to stay late that evening and help with the beer dinner, despite having worked a full day already, because he “wants to learn.” Joe, with his jokes and laughter, provides the kitchen with a levity that keeps everything steady; his energy is infectious, and, when channeled toward a plate of food, can become a means to a delicious end. And Anna, the young pastry chef, whose glasses slide off her nose as she bends intently over a plate and works with the calm intensity of a battlefield surgeon.

“We didn’t get stuck with these cooks, these cooks are here because we wanted them,” Kayser says. “Everyone here is handpicked. And they stay with us because they know that we are training them for bigger things. The way I see it, I want to train the kind of cooks that are sought after by other restaurants. Their skill is a big part of what we have here.”

The Kitchen

The only part of Chef Bill’s philosophy that I found troubling was his insistence that his facility, the physical space itself, plays a role in what separates Gallerie from other restaurants. Some of the best food in the world comes out of the most unassuming places, like the tiny galley kitchen at Sage American Bistro, where Chef Glover established his rep as a standout chef years ago. But, as we begin to plate the dinner it becomes clear that, at least here at Gallerie, the space is integral to the final product.

It’s hard to explain to people who don’t work service in a busy kitchen, but the ample accommodations and beautifully appointed work stations are liberating. In a small space—a more modest space, perhaps—there are a million extra stresses on your mind, everything from the constant need to “work clean” to the smell of the sweaty line cook standing next to you. Believe me, the first time someone burns the back of your arm with a hot pan you learn a thing or two about the physical pressures of the culinary world.

But in Chef Glover’s kitchen, on that night at least, things felt…easier. Less stressed than you would expect, given the fact that you are plating meticulously presented food for a room full of strangers, any one of whom could probably cook you under the prep table. Afterward, I find myself pondering the freedom afforded by the space, afforded by what Chef Bill and his team have built. And I wonder about the other chefs, the ones from the posters in the office, the collaborators—I wonder if they felt it, too. When we are in a special place there is a primal need to leave something of ourselves behind; the “JOE WAS HERE” impulse. At Gallerie, among that hallowed wall of autographs, we see that chefs, at least in this capacity, are no different.

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