"My goal my entire life has been to be in charge and have my own restaurant. So it's kind of like a dream come true. I love what I do and the opportunities that I've had."
Chef / partner Gabe Thompson has a lot to juggle with his four restaurants—dell'anima, L'Artusi, Anfora and L'Apicio—but unlike many chef/owners of the day, you'll still often find him on the line, making the kind of food he likes to eat. Working at Clarklewis in Portland opened the Texas native's eyes to what the breadth of Italian-inspired cooking could be. Now he works with a tight partnership to cultivate his ideal menus and environment, where respecting the product, those who make it, and those who eat it all matter.
We met up with Thompson at L'Apicio in the East Village, his newest and largest restaurant that we reviewed quite favorably in December.
Here's how he got here.
You worked in Portland and Austin before calling New York home. How did that happen? My best friend and I were running this restaurant in Austin, and we felt like it was the only place to really work there—at the time the food scene wasn't that great. I went on a trip to New York for a week and kind of fell I love with it. One Wednesday night I got a message from my friend and he's like, "dude, the restaurant's closed," and I was like, "fuuuuuuuuck!" So I decided to make the decision to come to New York.
When I arrived I trailed at Babbo, Le Bernardin, and the restaurant at the Ritz, and I got a job at every single one. I took the Le Bernardin job, but I didn't like it.
Why?! I don't remember why, because it was a fantastic restaurant and I saw things I had never seen before in my entire life, and worked with amazing ingredients. But there was kind of a mood or way you were spoken to and I just didn't jive with it. I didn't dig it.
Like, yelling and throwing things? Not throwing things, but yelling. When I look back it was all appropriate and it was silly of me not to like the job. I was also older than everybody that worked there and I had 22-year-old cooks who could run and cook circles around me kinda being dicks. I didn't want to be treated like an asshole by a 22 year-old kid, you know?
Was fine dining at that level just not your thing? It was the kind of environment where they tore you down and then built you back up in their image. And they would discount any experience you had, because it didn't matter, because "this is Le Bernardin, so it doesn't matter what you know."
Did anything about it stick with you when you opened your first restaurant? I was stressed out going to work and I didn't like that feeling. So I try to have a work environment where everyone wants to be here. It's still work, but I don't want anyone to feel like it's a drag.
Other than staff, what were your goals when opening dell'anima? I've learned a ton and changed a lot since we opened that restaurant, but the whole point of dell'anima was that I wanted to serve my food to "a few people." I wanted to have stuff on the menu that wasn't as crowd-pleasing as it should have been.
So you were intentionally putting out a menu for a focused kind of clientele? I wanted to have tripe and bone marrow on the menu and all this kind of stuff. But I was cooking for myself—I wasn't cooking for guests in the beginning. And I didn't figure that out until we opened L'Artusi. When we opened L'Artusi, our General Manager (who's now our Director of Operations) Kevin Gary opened my eyes to hospitality in a way that I hadn't really thought of before. There he taught me that the guest is always right, basically, and whatever the guest needs we need to provide if we can.
Did that understanding continue to progress? I was very self-centered and unaware of what everyone else was doing around me, and as I've kind of grown up I've realized every single person around me brings just as much to the table, and that we're all here for the same reason. So the partnerships have gotten stronger and more like family in a way.
Do you feel like your success is largely because of these partnerships? Everyone in our group brings something that everyone else is lacking. I'm not a good businessman, but one of my partners is. I don't know anything about wine or beverages, but obviously Joe [Campanale] is a genius with that kind of thing. Another guy we work with is born and raised in Manhattan and has worked in some of the best restaurants since he was 19, so he brings a tremendous amount to the table. Kevin has this way of helping us create our company culture of how we treat our employees and guests. And of course my wife Katherine keeps me in line and from being a dumbass, and does all of our desserts. Together I feel like we can pretty much do anything.
What do you enjoy about being the chef versus working as a cook in someone else's kitchen? I'm kind of a terrible employee, because I want everything to be my way. My goal my entire life has been to be in charge and have my own restaurant. So it's kind of like a dream come true. I love what I do and the opportunities that I've had.
Your family is literally incorporated into your business because of Katherine. And you have a son, as well? Luke. He'll be two in a couple of weeks, he's a stinker.
I've heard he's a little scrappy guy. And that I should ask you how he got his name. Katherine was getting her hair cut and the girl who was cutting her hair kept talking about her roommate, Luke—Luke this and Luke that—and we had been struggling for a guy name. Her favorite movie is Cool Hand Luke and I love Star Wars. So I was like, "Well, we can say we named him after Paul Newman and Luke Skywalker instead of someone's roommate." But, yeah, it suits him well, I think.
You've got a lot of chefs working for you now, and I hear you really like to both still cook daily and teach. What do you most want to pass down to chefs learning from you? In kind of a selfish way I want to teach them what my ideal or vision or flavor is. And in regards to my chefs de cuisine and sous chefs and all, what I want to get them to do is carry on the culture of the restaurant—how they communicate correctly...
What does that mean to you, to "communicate correctly"? To not be condescending when you're trying to explain something. To make people feel safe and happy at work.
The bigger this gets, the less of my personality is in each kitchen. So it's about making sure that that gets translated through my chefs, to make sure we're not having a kitchen that's the kind of kitchen I never wanted to have. That's kind of the hardest part, because it's really easy to teach someone to cook or season properly. It's really hard to teaching people to be nice and patient and conscientious about how to treat people.