Chef Stephen Gallagher took the road less traveled on his way to a career in the kitchen and as eventual owner of rustic Italian cuisine venue The Trattoria in St. James.
Gallagher, 43, recalls collecting shopping carts in the parking lot of a King Kullen supermarket. “It was cold out there and someone quit from the bakery and they asked me if I wanted to work inside and I said sure,” he says, adding that although he wasn’t baking, it was good just to work inside.
However, baking would not be in his future.
Gallagher says a friend told him about a restaurant in Stony Brook, The Country House, that was looking for a cook. “I just showed up there and got hired,” he says, recalling that he learned many different aspects of cooking from that first job. “I realized I had a natural aptitude for cooking.”
And while Gallagher did attend formal culinary school at NYIT, he’s not a fan of would-be chefs making it a priority.
“I tell young cooks not to go the culinary school route because all in all, you’ll learn what you need to know about cooking by working in a restaurant and not necessarily in a classroom,” he explains. Gallagher says the main reason he discourages culinary school is the high cost.
Before purchasing The Trattoria in 2013 from owner Eric Lomondo, Gallagher had formative cooking experiences at several local LI restaurants, including Star Boggs in Westhampton and The Jamesport Manor Inn.
He also spent time in the U.S. Virgin Islands, as chef de cuisine at The Buccaneer Terrace Restaurant on St. Croix before moving to Colorado to work under Chef Bertrand Bouquin at The Summit Restaurant of The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.
“The Broadmoor hotel had a very high-end restaurant,” Gallagher recalls, having seen both former vice president Dick Cheney and motivational speaker Tony Robbins at events there.
In 2009, Gallagher went to work for chef Eric Lomondo at his causal family of restaurants, which include Orto in Miller Place.
He started as chef de cuisine at Kitchen a Bistro, before becoming executive chef of Kitchen a Trattoria. Then in November 2013, Gallagher purchased the restaurant from Lomondo, and renamed it The Trattoria.
Gallagher explains that some of the biggest challenges owning The Trattoria include the steep learning curve going from being executive chef to owning the place.
“I thought I knew everything about the restaurant business but there was a lot to learn. That initial first year, getting my bearings, figuring out which way was up, was a real challenge.”
He also credits his friend Lomondo for giving him much–needed support during that time. “Going from employee to owner is a huge difference and Eric helped me out a lot,” he says.
When Covid hit, Gallagher says he shortened his days open from 7 to 5 and at first had to lay off several staffers while pivoting to handle takeout only. “Unfortunately, though, the takeout business wasn’t really enough to cover my expenses, so I did take a hit financially.”
But he says that the St. James community is “great place to operate a business” because the residents are so supportive, adding that people show up several times a week for dinner.
Gallagher adds that he continues to figure things out and that being a small business helps; his 28-seat restaurant has low overhead.
Asked about current business, he says he is “just about back” to where he was before the pandemic.
However, staffing shortages and high prices have also affected daily operations.
“I can’t even get a dishwasher…and I’m offering good money too.”
“I don’t know that people want to do it anymore,” says Gallagher, referring to staff working in the restaurant industry.
He also says that food prices are “through the roof, everything is absurd. Imported foods are especially high due to import tariffs.”
But despite pandemic-induced setbacks, Gallagher’s expertly prepared cuisine continues to not only attract but fill The Trattoria to capacity on any given night.
An extremely hands-on owner, Gallagher makes it a point to come out from behind the open kitchen and personally greet his customers and ask every diner how everything is.
Highly rated specialties include red wine brasato (braised beef) with creamy polenta, black pasta with calamari and spicy tomato, pork loin with farro, lasagna Bolognese, and Montauk fluke with vegetables.
For dessert, everything is made in-house and includes a flourless chocolate almond cake served with vanilla gelato and Nutella pound cake, also served with vanilla gelato.
Although no cocktails are served, a full wine list is available.
Asked about plans for The Trattoria, Gallagher says simply, “I’m just working on keeping it all going.”
532 N Country Rd, St James. It can be reached at 631-584-3518. Visit at thetrattoriarestaurant.com. Cash-only, reservations are required.
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