A chef’s journey to his first restaurant opening

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Ten years ago, recent Culinary Institute of America graduate Cornelius Gallagher approached the New York-based Livanos Restaurant Group, owner of Oceana and Abboccato, with a business plan to open his own restaurant.

The then-30-year-old Bronx, N.Y., native had worked under big-name chefs such as Gray Kunz and Daniel Boulud and was ready to strike out on his own.

The Livanos family, which operates restaurants ranging from diners in New York’s suburbs to fine-dining restaurants in Manhattan, didn’t invest in Gallagher’s restaurant, but they did give him a job working under Oceana’s interim chef, who was struggling following the departure of executive chef Rick Moonen.

“I was there for about three weeks and I thought, I can cook a lot better than the chef here, so I told them the job wasn’t for me, that I was looking for a place where I could get [my own] three-star review,” Gallagher said. “The next day they made me the chef.”

Gallagher got his three-star review, from The New York Times, at Oceana. In 2003 he also was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Chefs.”

But Gallagher continued to harbor dreams of running his own restaurant, and those dreams came true last week, when he opened Dragonfly, a 69-seat restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that serves the chef’s interpretation of Asian street food.

The opening wasn’t easy. Gallagher had wanted to open a restaurant soon after he left Oceana in 2006, but the economy and the credit markets were not in his favor. After raising the capital with investors and through his own savings, he was ready in September 2008 – the exact time the economy and lending markets fell off a cliff.

But his restaurant is now open, and in between working 120 hours the week prior to the opening and 110 hours during the restaurant’s first week, he took time to discuss his new restaurant with Nation’s Restaurant News.

What did you do when your plans to open fell through in late 2008?

[My] thought process was to open a restaurant where I was the owner-operator, with investors but no other operational partners. I’d seen friends who opened with operational partners, and they ended up fighting. I wanted to open a place where I’d be the guy to make the decisions.

[After 2008] I fortunately wasn’t in a position where I had to make rash decisions, so I took my time.

My friend [former Tribeca Grill chef] Don Pintabona introduced me to the Bohlsen family on Long Island and I spent almost three years working for them. I opened two restaurants — an Italian place called Verace, and as Asian place called Monsoon. They’re very smart operators and just good guys to know. They taught me how to run a restaurant as a business.

They also took me to Asia for research in opening Monsoon. We went to Koh Samet and Bangkok in Thailand, Cu Chi and Saigon in Vietnam and Hong Kong in China. I was completely blown away at how gorgeous everything was, especially Thailand.

I mean, Vietnam was incredible, and vegetable preparation is first and foremost there because it’s a poverty-stricken country. But Bangkok is kind of the New York of Asia. It’s a confluence of surrounding cultures. You’ve got Chinese and Malay and it’s very interesting.

Has that experience helped with the development of Dragonfly?

Yeah. My goal with this restaurant is to take my years of [learning culinary] techniques and apply them to Asian food.

But the food’s not how they’d do it in Thailand or Japan. It’s New York style. I like the raw fish of Japan, the vegetables of Vietnam, the spices of Thailand and the combination of sweet, sour, hot and salty from China, and I’m using that for the food at Dragonfly.

What dishes are selling well?

My glazed shrimp. It’s pan-roasted with coconut, yellow curry and fish sauce, and finished with a little lime, snow peas and pea shoots. The fish sauce gives it that funky, umami kind of flavor. It works in the same way that bay leaf does to give it a different kind of aftertaste.

We also have braised beef cheeks that we’re selling a lot of. We coat those in spices and then braise them in a spiced tomato marinade. We also do wasabi tater tots with spicy mayo. They’re kind of oversized with Gruyère cheese inside, and you dip them in the spicy mayo made with Sriracha sauce and sesame chile oil. We put that in a ramekin and top it with a roasted sesame seed.

What’s you’re average per-person check?

It’s around $45. That’s with an appetizer, entrée, dessert and a drink or a glass of wine. I want to charge what everyone else in the area charging but deliver a better product.

How’s business?

The first three nights we did 100 covers each night, and since then we’ve been doing great. We’re very fortunate.

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary