“Everything I’ve been doing in the past year or two is nothing you can write on a resume. It’s more like, this is my progression of maturity to get me where I need to be to be a happy cook and to do a good job … nothing you can write down in a book and teach a bunch of kids in culinary school,” says Josh Galliano, head chef of The Libertine in Clayton. Today, he has combed and slicked his hair firmly in place, and the sleeve of his shirt reveals the edges of a tattoo that covers most of his left bicep. Born and raised in Louisiana, you’ll see Creole influences in his food–things like fried chicken on the menu every other Sunday. “You produce better food because you want to. You don’t produce better food because you’re depressed about what you did the day before. That was that maturity thing that I hadn’t quite figured out,” Galliano says of his earlier career. “I always wanted to have a certain kind of notoriety. Not fame. Not money. Just a certain kind of awareness–‘You did a good job.’”
During his time working as a chef in St. Louis, Galliano has received multiple James Beard Award nominations, commonly referred to as the Oscars of food, and was named Best New Chef: Midwest in 2012 by “Food and Wine”magazine. Today, he’s conscious of the potential for danger that comes with relying too much on these accolades. Galliano has spent his career, in his own words, “learning how to be a chef, rather than just learning how to cook. There’s a difference.”
He didn’t think about cooking as a viable career path until his second year of college at Louisiana State University, which didn’t have a cooking school. His first cooking job was at Macaroni Grill, and some of his chef friends still playfully tease him about it years later. “I’m like, ‘What did you want me to do? Red Lobster?’” he says. Macaroni Grill is where he learned vital skills that would define the rest of his career in a culinary setting: speed, how to decipher a recipe, how to follow directions, how to work in a regimented environment. It taught him when to be playful in the kitchen, and when to be serious. “You’ve gotta know when to be loud, when to shut up.” According to Galliano, professional kitchens, each their own delicate hierarchical machines, go something like this: “This dude’s the boss, that dude’s the second boss, and you better listen to this guy because he can make your life hell–and so on and so forth.” He still looks at it as one of the more formative positions he has held. “I probably didn’t appreciate it much at the time,” he says.
“I didn’t grow up in luxury. My family was working class.” The chefs he knows and respects ascended through the business the old-fashioned way. “We don’t have trust funds. We don’t have a lifestyle that is supported by someone else. Most of the people I know who are cooks, and the ones that I respect, are guys who just busted their butts. All the guys and girls who are back there with me are fairly like-minded,” he says, motioning back towards the kitchen. “We all just want to come in, cook really good food, and go home.” He pauses. “And maybe drink a little bit.”
One of his earliest culinary memories occurred back in elementary school, where he remembers signing up for a cooking contest. “My mom helped me make three dishes that all got ribbons, or whatever,” he remembers. They stayed up together all night making sure everything was ready for judging the next day. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is cool!’ I guess that’s the beginning.” He can’t remember the third dish they made, but he does remember making shrimp scampi and an Italian sausage omelette. “I should ask my mom,” he says to himself.
Galliano worked in restaurants all through college at Louisiana State University, and spent six years acquiring a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in political science before choosing restaurant work over academics. “Oh, it was so boring,” he says. “I did not like the research. I thought that it had no actual real world effect.” Although he finished his master’s degree, his only options seemed to be research or writing papers and hoping they’d get published. “How does that help with social justice issues, or how does that help with getting an election in a third world country to be a little more fair?” he asked. “None of my professors really had any good answers. They didn’t need people like me.”
Galliano ultimately decided to go back to school, but this time he went abroad, deciding to enroll at Le Cordon Bleu in London in 2002. “I only know English,” he says dryly. He was also granted a work visa that permitted him to work 20 hours a week while attending school. While finishing his first trimester in London, he received a notification that he’d officially earned his master’s from LSU, and the school mailed the diploma to his parents’ home in Louisiana. The program at Le Cordon Bleu required five days of strenuous work per week, and he managed to find a job at a restaurant that supplied room and board to employees. “They took me in, gave me a place to stay. I ate there–it was very, very lucky,” he remembers. His routine was intense and simple. “It was more than just work, go to sleep, work, go to sleep, go to school. It was trying to understand, ‘What the hell is food supposed to be?’ It was like coming to maturity for me, somewhat coming-of-age, in a culinary sense. It all just all started clicking. I got it,” he says.
At the restaurant, he started out on the bottom rung. “I was American, so I was a piece of shit,” he says. “We were not considered to know food, or much about food. And that’s fine.” However, there were opportunities to move up the ranks, most of which involved welcoming tedious tasks and working long hours. He recalls frequenting British restaurants the morning after some of the more difficult shifts, and ordering a triple espresso. “You’re covered in scars, with burns and cuts and everything–then they piece it together. ‘Oh, you’re a dumb cook. We’re going to take care of you,’” he says.
A young man, also named Josh, emerges from the back of the kitchen, ostensibly to ask Galliano a question. “What’s up, Josh!” Galliano says, suddenly. “That’s my sous chef–he’s an awesome guy.” Galliano tells young cooks, “I will teach you this dish, and maybe while we’re picking it up or cooking it I’ll tell you the background of it, but what are you doing beyond cooking? What are you doing to be a better cook? Going out to eat? Reading books?” His apprentices aren’t taken on lightly, and he has them learning the basics of Southern cooking he grew up with: variations of grits, fried chicken, and creamed corn, which are staples on the dinner menu at The Libertine.
Galliano came to St. Louis with his wife after Hurricane Katrina struck, having just returned from working at the prestigious Restaurant Daniel in New York City. “I had no idea this storm was going on. My girlfriend [now wife] was like, ‘You know there’s a hurricane coming.’ Since she grew up here, it scared her. I grew up down there, and I’m just like, ‘Yeah, ok. That’s fine.’ We’ll have a day off work–that’s basically what I figured.” Eventually they evacuated to Galliano’s parents’ house 20 miles west of New Orleans. “We still don’t have an idea of what’s about to happen. We’re like, “‘It’s a big storm,’ … my dad wasn’t making anything better. He was like, ‘We’ve got a boat out there, it’s fine! This house has gone through plenty of hurricanes.’” Then, the onslaught of rain began. “You get all the news coverage–instant depression,” he says. “Like, ‘I can’t believe what’s going on.’ We would sleep as a coping mechanism.” His family was unharmed, but the city was left in shambles. The images of floating houses and cars were plastered all over national news, as the seventh most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded ripped through New Orleans.
Left reeling, Galliano and his girlfriend drove to the Midwest to visit her family in St. Louis. At the time, he didn’t predict that they’d stay here. “I was dead broke–I needed a job. I didn’t know anything about St. Louis,” says Galliano. He began working at the esteemed restaurant American Place on Washington Avenue, which was opened by New York restaurateur Larry Forgione. “I don’t know why the hell this is in St. Louis, but I’ll go check it out. Maybe I should start applying for jobs in Chicago? Maybe I should see if I’m going to have a job when I go back to New Orleans? I don’t know what is going to happen,” he remembers thinking. American Place closed in 2010, but by then Galliano had already left to work at Monarch in Maplewood. He knew Monarch’s partner, Aaron Teitelbaum, and liked the way he ran the front of the house.
He pauses now, briefly touching on the “learning experiences I didn’t appreciate at American Place that I should have … I still had a chip on my shoulder. I still wanted to have this idea of greatness, and I don’t know why,” he says. “I needed it to come from within myself, and I didn’t know how to do that. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin as a chef or as a cook … and it wasn’t really until Monarch closed so unexpectedly, in my world, that I really started figuring out, ‘I gotta make sure I get this right.’”
A large delivery truck comes to loud halt outside, and Galliano excuses himself to attend to the delivery, which winds up being 30 extra pounds of unnecessary product. Screwups happen. “I feel like my memory is pretty good, but also at the same time kind of shoddy. And then I’ll have friends remind me of certain things I did that are fairly embarrassing–not college years embarrassing, but, ‘I can’t believe I did that,’ or ‘screwed that up’ embarrassing.” Early in his career, Galliano remembers making pâté with pork for three separate parties. Unbeknownst to him, one of them happened to be a bar mitzvah. “You apologize profusely, but that’s someone’s special day.”
Galliano now lives in the southern Illinois town of Okawville, a 40-mile commute to work every morning. It’s his wife’s hometown, and they live in the house she grew up in on a family farm with their three children: Emil, 5 ½, Tetra, 4, and Sawyer, 2. “Emil is like a spitting image of me and my family. We’re all New Orleans-Italians. Poor kid, he’s got a unibrow … my son’s way too smart. We’ll argue, like, ‘No, you need this Lego to go here.’ He’s like, ‘No Dada, I got this.’ My middle girl’s cute as can be. She wants to have princess parades all the time,” he says. “It’s pretty neat.”
Galliano takes a sip of black coffee, then sits it back down on the dark plank of wood that serves as one of The Libertine’s bar tops. “I would like to say I just made some really good decisions about how I worked and how I conducted myself in St. Louis,” he says. “I wasn’t an asshole. I wasn’t trying to be like, ‘I’m better than all of you because I’ve cooked in New York.’” He ultimately found his niche at The Libertine, where he creates eclectic delicacies guided by influences that come from all over the world, with continual homages to his home in the South. “That’s what Libertine’s been: getting it right, making sure that I’m happy with myself, happy with my food, and not sitting there beating myself up about how the food could have been better.”
To learn more about Josh Galliano and The Libertine, visit www.libertinestl.com.