Meet Michelin Star Chef Conrad Gallagher

"Michelin is the only guide that counts." - Chef Paul Bocuse | Do you believe that? There are slews of people who make it a part of their bucket lists to visit as many Michelin-rated restaurants as possible. The Michelin star's impact on a restaurant's success and a chef's career is almost immeasurable. It is an honor and perhaps a curse for those who lose their ratings. When Orange County heard that a Michelin starred chef was in town, the buzz was nearly palpable. I first associated Chef Conrad Gallagher in Orange County with Ways & Means Oyster House in Orange just outside of Old Towne, a restaurant that opened just a few months ago in late fall of 2013. Duc and I attended a media tasting there and found some favorites on the menu as well as an impressive wine pairing selection. Then, nearly as quickly as he had come, Conrad left the restaurant to work on his own project - Vanity Catering & Events, a boutique catering and events company. It was curious that he would shift gears but once we got to know him and his story, it only made sense why this dedicated and passionate chef would veer in that direction. Luckily, Orange County gets to keep him despite the "move."

We hadn't met him before we had tasted his food for the first time in Orange but I knew that I would love to meet the man behind just about my favorite crab cake ever tasted. Without a restaurant kitchen at his beck and call, he has started using the glorious Hood Kitchen Space in Costa Mesa to both prepare for his events and teach cooking classes. That commercial kitchen space has really been home to loads of our favorite powerhouses in the area so we weren't surprised that Conrad had selected it as a temporary homebase. We visited after one of his four-hour-long cooking classes and were certainly in for a special treat (more on that later). He was fervently excited to show us what unique honor would be bestowed on us, and I assure you, it was magnificent.

When did you first start cooking?
"I grew up in a small farm town in Ireland and when it was potato or hay or corn or whatever season, my father would do his crop and the whole neighborhood would help. He'd replicate the favor when it was their time to harvest because they only had a few warm days to work. All the workers would need to eat three meals a day so the women cooked like my mother, granny, and sister. I would prefer that than being out, breaking my back, so by the time I was 8 or 9, it was easy for me to cook for 25 people."
After helping out his small town, Conrad was exposed to the hotel food industry after one of his father's friends, a hotel owner, needed extra help washing dishes. The budding chef spent weekends washing dishes and occasionally helping with food prep when he was allowed - washing potatoes and training with the staff in the summer of his adolescence (he was only 11). He "grew up very fast that summer" and fit in without much notice because he looked older than his age. By age 12, he was 6'3" and had a job in the kitchen, training and earning four culinary gold medals. He left for New York City in 1990 when he was a mere 16 years old and worked at the Plaza Hotel, Donald Trump's flagship property. His talent did not go unnoticed, and Conrad was swiftly recruited to Peacock Alley as Sous Chef under Chef Laurent Manrique.

One restaurant in the "Big Apple" was not enough - he also worked at Le Cirque, Restaurant Daniel, Le Bernadine and Park Avenue Cafe before moving to work at Alain Ducasse’s three-star Michelin restaurant Louis XV at Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, Monaco. It was another stepping stone to his career which eventually allowed him to open his first restaurant, Peacock Alley, in Dublin. This restaurant won him his first Michelin star at the ripe age of 24, making him the youngest chef in the world (at that time - 1997) to have been awarded one. Chef Conrad's career next took him to Las Vegas for consulting and opening restaurants but Sin City eventually took its toll on his outlook for his family. A very dedicated family man, he was worried about the influence of gambling and other shenanigans in the area on his children and wanted to find the small town feel again. Los Angeles was not quite the perfect spot but after a holiday event with friends in Irvine, he decided on Orange County.
"We said no more moving, for the kids. I will never move again even if I hate it. I'm Irish - I'm used to being miserable but gratefully, my wife's happy and my three kids are happy."

What direction do you think food is going now?
"It's now following the integrity of the ingredient. People care where their chicken came from and who their produce farmers are now. I encourage it. I say that instead of spending one hour shopping and four hours cooking, people should spend at least two hours on each or even more on the shopping for the right ingredients."
We could tell from the way that Chef Conrad moved in the kitchen, talking while cooking, that he was a man of many talents and much drive. He was calculated in his movements but free-flowing as any artist in his element. He immediately charmed us when he pulled out a vacuum-sealed 40-day aged Holstein ribeye from his personal collection at home. Here I thought we were the ones trying to get him to talk! How great is it that he ages his own steaks at home and that his own children claim to "know the difference" between a 42-day aged and a 43-day aged steak? This beautiful beast was to sit on wild arugula, barely seasoned to showcase the aging process, and topped with a decadent duck egg (they average at $6 each). For scale, Duc snapped a shot of the egg next to a clove of garlic - look at that egg! We were drooling already.

As Conrad was cooking, he capitalized on the opportunity of having such a captive audience to show us exactly what he was doing with our meal. A barely seasoned steak, the ribeye was seared on the skillet with olive oil before being basted in a rosemary and thyme butter, simply shared by some tilted spooning. He shared this general rule of thumb: cook with oil and finish the cooking with butter. Also important, get the perfect ingredients if you want to make good food. I was grateful to get this one-of-a-kind instruction, and he was certainly an informative and helpful teacher. As aforementioned, Chef Conrad does host cooking classes at The Hood with themes such as The Italian Kitchen, The Classic French Kitchen, The Seafood Kitchen, The Gourmet Chef, Canapes, Finger Foods and Hors d'oeurves, and Sunday Brunch.

Tell me more about your cooking classes.
"The type of classes we do suits people. They are working professionals who work very hard all week. I have them walk away relaxed after getting involved and with a ton of step-by-step recipes. Every single person this morning has been here before, and the list keeps growing at a few hundred people a week. One guy who went to a professional culinary school stormed out once and then came back asking for me to teach him and 30 others every Tuesday because he learned more here than after 35 weeks at school. The classes also give me a chance to learn everything over again."
The "Cooking with Conrad Gallagher" cooking series at The Hood Kitchen are hosted at $95 per lesson or $450 for a complete set which are held Monday & Tuesday nights 6pm-9pm and Saturday & Sunday mornings 9am-12pm. It, however, is not going to be the only way you can experience lessons from Chef Conrad. We also got a sneak peek into a new concept that is still a work-in-progress.

What is this project you're working on next?
"I have plans to have a project called Showroom where I will do my tastings for my events and experimenting four nights a week through a permanent tasting menu. There will be 22 seats around the bar, and courses will be cooked and served by chefs with a lot of interaction. Showroom will be flexible in that it can be open when I want but it will still be strict. We'll sell tickets, not reservations, on an invite only basis. If there aren't 18 people for the next event, we won't have it. It will be a space for cooking classes, private events, photoshoots, everything. I want to really keep pushing OC but I don't want to be a pioneer or the guy who has no sign outside. I'm not that guy anymore who can rip up the menu every day. Hopefully the concept we create is liked - an eight-course course menu and five-course version as well as an eight-course vegan/vegetarian option."

Vanity Catering & Events, his current venture, will be focused on great food and great wine, targeting those who wish to put on events with tasting menus and emphasis on indulging in the best of the best in food, wine, and cocktails at a sit-down dinner. "We want to position ourselves as the premier cuisine caterers that is all about the food," he explained, giving examples of swordfish, seared tuna, and other specialties like a pea soup with cappuccino-like froth. Of course this does come at a pretty penny of a price but the business is not for those seeking "champagne tastes on a Coca-Cola budget."

How do you handle volume? You already have 2015 bookings.
"I see a gap in the market to do everything well and in high cuisine. For big events, once you think 500, it scares you but I don't want room for error so I break it down. I tell my chefs to think about 100 dinners. We'd set up five stations so each chef is to do 100 dinners and do them perfectly. I don't want to be the biggest caterer, just want to be the best caterer. I plan out everything and meet with them once a month, twice a month, once a week, and then every day before the event. It's meticulously planned so once you sign with me, you don't change anything. On the day of, you have no say - our people are in charge."

What has been the most challenging thing you've had to cook?
"Nothing has been too hard. I've always broken it down but let me tell you some fun stories. When I was in South Africa, I managed a chain of hotel restaurants as the group chef. Seven days a week all year, we served 20,000 meals a day in 110 degree heat. The last event every year was the most exhausting; on average, I would travel to four different countries a week. It was the Million Dollar Nedbank Golf Classic in the second week of December. 11 tons of spare rib - even in February, I could not scrub the smell of barbecue sauce off and my wife would make me sleep downstairs. 
Five years before that, I did a pastrami salmon (cured salmon for four hours and add mustard and finely chopped herbs). A company had a product launch and was hosting 32 lunches simultaneously. He said 'Close your restaurant for a week. I don't care about the cost. I need that salmon.' So, we covered all tables and turned the AC on full blast for six days. I tell you, I smelled of salmon for two months but no one else could really smell it. 
It was very multicultural in South Africa with huge populations of every kind. I always found doing events so complex there - we had to meet everyone's needs  and restrictions like for Judaism, Muslim, etc."

Every bite we had of the ribeye justified his culinary heritage and eventually we just had to pry into his family life. Would his children pick up his habits? Perhaps. As Chef Conrad said, "Connor will definitely be a chef. When he walks into a kitchen, he says 'Can I taste that? What's that?' and has a natural kitchen swagger." It may be hard work but his son must certainly be inspired by his own father. In addition to cooking for work, Conrad emphasizes and cooks Sunday lunches with the family where "iPads are off!" and they enjoy each other's company. I guess passion can carry across many things and for Chef, it is for love of family and cooking. Our sincere thanks to Conrad for spending time with us and Bryn for granting us that time.

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.