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From Bagging Groceries to Restaurant Chef, Katie Gallego's Culinary Journey

Welcome back to Up-and-Comers, a column dedicated to the rising stars of Seattle's food and drink scene.

Katie Gallego
Katie Gallego
Gruman & Nicoll Public Relations

Chef Katie Gallego burst into the spotlight in March, when she was named head chef of Vespolina at 24 years old, following Jason Stratton's sudden departure from his restaurants. Following Vespolina's closure, Gallego, now 25, finds herself at the just-opened Orfeo, where she's working as sous chef.

Eater caught up with the Seattle native to learn more about her background and what led her star to rise so quickly and at such a young age.

How did you get started cooking?

I started out when I was 12. I went to a cooking camp with Kaspar Donier [owner of Kaspar's Special Events and Catering]. It’s kinda like a kids cooking camp my mom put me in. I kind of had this a-ha moment when I was there, taking carrying trays, and going to the dish pit, and making the food, and at the end of the week, we got to serve it to our parents.

It’s just this feeling of "oh my god, this is so much fun." The hustle, the bustle, the adrenaline rush, everyone’s kinda scrambling, nobody knows what they’re doing, but trying to figure it out, and I think that adrenaline rush sparked something.

What was your first kitchen job?

I didn’t go home after that and become a kid cook or anything. My mom was a little disappointed that she said "you went to this camp, and you don’t do anything at home." But in my second job at PCC Natural Markets was bagging groceries and one of my supervisors really liked me and my work ethic. She said, "Where would you like to go in this company?" And I was like, "Well, the deli seems like a lot of fun." I had no experience, and she kinda just threw me in there. And so that was kind of my first kitchen job.

How old were you?

I was 16 years old. I was in charge of making the dips and spreads. But because I wasn't 18, I wasn't legally allowed to push the button on the Cuisinart. I would be able to measure everything out, chop everything, but I couldn't push the damn button on the machine. So that was pretty funny.

I worked there for a couple years. My kitchen supervisor said "You have to go to culinary school."  So I took his advice and enrolled in culinary school at Seattle Central. That summer, I also got a job with Kaspar, and we always kind of joked, "You’re my first alumn from the kids cooking camp."

My culinary school experience was kinda like boot camp. I was working with Kaspar, working at PCC, and going to school, and anything that school couldn’t teach me or wasn’t gonna give me insight on, Kaspar was there to push me, give me the secrets.

That seems like a lot to balance at once.

It was a lot of fun, but I would always come to school late because I had two other jobs. It was a lot to balance at once. Starting out in the industry, it was kind of like, "alright, here we go." I was going to school during the day starting at 6:30 or 7, and then going to work for Kaspar at night, and PCC on the weekends. After my first quarter I had to drop PCC because it was just too much.

With Kaspar, we did parties from 10 people to 1,000. We'd go to people's homes and cook for a party of 12 or go to random office buildings and out of nothing, set up the kitchen. I think catering gave me a lot of experience: work with what you have, do it on the fly, make it happen. It gave me a work ethic.

How did you enter the Jason Stratton universe?

In the spring before I was about to graduate, I went to Spinasse for the first time. My friend took me there because I was working on what's called your C.O.D, the "Chef of the Day." She knew I wanted to do Italian because my grandmother is Italian. When I went to Spinasse, it changed everything I thought about cooking. I felt totally transformed, like I was in Italy when I was 15.

This was before Spinasse expanded, so you walked into the middle of the dining room because there wasn't a hostess. And the person who greeted us was actually Jason Stratton. He was working the floor that night. And I remember seeing the kitchen and feeling like I was in somebody's home. From that moment on, I made the choice that I had to work there.

The next week, I was volunteering at an event through school, and Jason was there, so I got to work with him directly. After that experience, Jason was like, "we're hiring at Spinasse, we'd really love for you to be my sous chef." I gave Kaspar my notice and started working at Spinasse a couple of days a week after school.

What were your first days like at Spinasse?

Being young and angsty, I thought I knew a lot. But being in that kitchen with Jason and Carrie [Mashaney], it was a different level of expectation and detail, even little details I had never thought of. It was fine dining.

It was another boot camp, and starting everything all over again. But Carrie became one of my biggest mentors. It meant a lot to have a female mentor of her caliber. She took me under her wing. There were days when I was scared of her, too. If I was giving her attitude, or questioning something, she would take me aside and give me a reality check.

And then you moved onto Artusi?

Jason hired me to open Artusi with him. But he didn't know that I was underage, and Artusi is a bar. So I had to wait until that August, when I turned 21. We went through a lot at Artusi, making it is what it is today. I have a lot of pride in that restaurant. It was Jason's baby, and I took so much pride in that.

I also learned so much about amaro, and wine and food. And because it's so small and there's an open kitchen, I learned how to be a very clean cook. It turns out I'm very meticulous, I'm a little OCD. I like things at 90-degree angles.

I worked at Artusi for about two years and then went back to Spinasse and cooked pasta for another year and a half or so. I learned every station at both restaurants.

I remember the day that Stuart Lane offered me the position of sous chef at Spinasse. I did not see it coming, and I remember being in total surreal shock. It was my dream, and I worked my way up.

But I was 23 at the time and I kind of had this complex. Watching all of my peers in culinary school working at six different places for six different chefs, I thought ,"I'm not doing enough." But at the same time, I felt blessed to have stayed in the same place and learn the ins and outs of the company. And I was lucky to have been Jason's protege. I take deep pride in that.

And then you moved on to Vespolina?

Jason asked me over a cocktail to become the sous chef at Vespolina. It was another opportunity and another moment of surrealness, where I wasn't necessarily ready for that question yet. But it was another incredible opportunity.


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