It resembled a locker room scene from before a prize fight: With white headphone buds tucked into her ears that matched her white chef’s coat, Julia Shay Mirek focused on her notes and nodded to the playlist she picked to get her fired up. Moments later, she laced up a black apron to fire, plate and serve seven dishes of food that could potentially change her life.
Ms. Mirek was among eight finalists Monday in a cook-off to be one of the four chefs that will take up a one-year residency at Smallman Galley beginning in June. It will be the second “class” at the Strip District food hall and restaurant incubator, which has attracted national media attention.
It’s a job interview in which the applicants both grilled and then were grilled by a panel of seven judges about their concept, recipes, influences, style, sourcing, favorite foods and restaurants, personal history and business plan. It was “Top Chef” meets “Shark Tank” and akin to serving a final meal to the firing squad before it loaded the rifles.
The panel included the four inaugural resident chefs along with Bon Appetit web editor Carey Polis, acclaimed Pittsburgh chef Kate Romane of Black Radish Kitchen catering and Brent Young, a Pittsburgh native and co-owner of Brooklyn butchery The Meat Hook, who is also a culinary partner with East Liberty’s Whitfield.
Ms. Mirek, a 15-year veteran of some of Pittsburgh’s top restaurant kitchens, made a dish called Globe Trotters, which creatively combined Vietnamese seasonings and flavors with pigs’ feet that could be a feature at a bistro concept she hopes to execute in the space. “That …” she paused, “was challenging.”
Not only the cooking, but also the interview. The Mt. Lebanon native didn’t expect it to be easy. The opportunity at stake is substantial.
The mission at Smallman Galley is for culinary professionals to hone their chops and is a potential major stepping stone to a restaurant of one’s own. Opened in late 2015 by Navy veterans Ben Mantica and Tyler Benson, it’s also very much a business. They’re picking possible vendors with not only a potentially great product, but also with a tight plan who understand how to run a kitchen.
“We know what we’re looking for, and everyone today did a great job. It’s going to be hard to choose,” Mr. Benson said of the new class, expected to be announced on Monday. He noted that they’ve winnowed down from roughly 50 serious applicants nationwide. “Overall, it’s about finding the right team. Like in sports — it doesn’t always hold that a team of MVPs will perform the best. The best all-around team will perform the best,” he said adding that they’re looking not only for great food but also chefs who are excited to be a part of the Strip and Pittsburgh.
They will have a tough act to follow. “The first class exceeded expectations both from an operational standpoint and from a financial standpoint,” Mr. Mantica said of that group, which includes Rafael Vencio’s Aubergine Bistro and Jacqueline Wardle’s Josephine’s Toast. Both Mr. Vencio and Ms. Wardle said they’ve learned a tremendous amount from their experience and formulating their post-Galley plans.
Look for Ms. Wardle initially to be selling her gourmet popsicles from a cart on Mount Washington in the warmer weather.
When open for business the food hall is a cacophony of clanging pots, hissing pans, sizzling grills, music, conversation and shouts of instruction from kitchen staff. During the cook-off, it was oddly quiet, adding a bit to the tension of the event. Among those vying for the four positions was northern Virginia native Jesse Barlass. He moved to Pittsburgh from Los Angeles a few years ago and has worked at Smallman Galley for nearly a year under current resident chef Jessica Lewis at her vegetable-inspired Carota Cafe.
Despite knowing most of the judges, his voice was still of a trembling timbre during the presentation. “Public speaking is not my forte,” he laughed. He prepared a take on chicharones and hopes to open a spot that focuses on Latin American cuisines with influences from 22 countries.
“I’ve been a sous chef for seven years now, and it’s time to go beyond that, but because I’ve moved so much I haven’t developed all the connections” to make that happen, he said.
Keyla Cook came to the United States 11 years ago from Sao Paulo, Brazil. She lived for six years in Clarion, Pa., and started cooking as a means to keep connected to her heritage and culture. After moving to Pittsburgh she started Feijoada To Go, a catering company specializing in Brazilian fare. She’d like to replicate the idea at Smallman Galley for customers to dine in or carry out.
Hoa Le presented dishes from her native Vietnam: a banh mi sandwich with pork prepared three ways and pickled vegetables paired with a bowl of bone broth pho. Her aim along with business partner and Greensburg native Nick Yakubisin is to create a fast-casual spot focusing on modern Vietnamese.
A few prospects wished to not be identified because they hadn’t told their respective employers they are seeking a spot at Smallman Galley. But if they’re selected, life could change for them quickly, as Stephen Eldridge learned. A new father at age 38 and chef in Phoenix, he and his wife, Susan, had planned to eventually move to the Keystone State to be closer to her family in York. She researched job opportunities and found Smallman Galley.
“On the Fourth of July, 2015, my buddy and I got in the car with my ingredients and a case of Red Bull and drove across country,” to Pittsburgh — essentially sight unseen — for the inaugural Smallman Galley audition. He got the gig with his concept, Provision PGH. He also found a new home.
Later this summer the couple hope to open a permanent brick and mortar version of Provision PGH in the city.
“It’s been interesting. We were the beta class. No one knew how it was going to be,” Mr. Eldridge said. “But, Pittsburgh is home now. We want our little one to grow up in a place she can call home. I love the four seasons here and the topography, and the rivers and bridges.
“It’s been incredible,” he said. “But I worked my butt off for it.”
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @gigs412.