Chef Chat: Leia Gaccione on Reinventing the Wheel

The Morristown/Madison restaurateur dishes on launching a seafood pop-up and hosting the new documentary Her Name Is Chef.

Leia Gaccione

Host Leia Gaccione (middle) and the cast of Her Name Is Chef. Adrienne Longo Photography

After rising in celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s organization to chef de cuisine and executive chef, Leia Gaccione went out on her own. In 2015 she opened South + Pine in Morristown and, in 2018, Central + Main in Madison. She closed the latter due to Covid-19 from March through June 2020, then again in December (“winter, slow time of year”)—and reopened on March 31 with a new seafood pop-up. 

“When everything went down last March, we had the opportunity to rethink our business,” Gaccione says. “I thought it was a great time to reinvent the wheel here, so that’s what we did. Fast-casual [food] makes a lot of sense now. You walk in like [you do at a] Smashburger, sit down and someone brings it over to you, but the quality of the food is still the same—made to order, sustainable and made with love.”

Gaccione is also the host of a new documentary, Her Name Is Chef, which focuses on six successful female chefs: Fatima Ali, Elizabeth Falkner, Esther Choi, Hillary Sterling, Caroline Schiff, and Juliet and Justine Masters. Her Name Is Chef highlights the women’s kitchen triumphs, how they cut through industry clichés, and their hopes to change the conversation around female chefs in leadership roles.

We caught up with Gaccione to discuss her latest ventures.

[RELATED: Catching Up with Chef Christine Nunn]

Table Hopping: What kinds of plates are on the new menu?
Leia Gaccione: Fried clam strips, lobster rolls, fried Oreos. The fish tacos have this Old Bay–cornmeal–rice flour batter on them, so they’re gluten-free, topped with a lime crema, pico de gallo, and fresh radishes and lime wedges.

TH: Do you have a favorite item?
LG: The lobster nachos, I think, are really special. We’re putting this queso sauce on them, with four different kinds of cheese and lobster meat that’s warmed up with a little garlic butter. And just a little pico de gallo on top with some micro-cilantro. That and a cold Land Shark outside, and I’m done.

Central + Main’s new lobster roll.

TH: Do you have a sense of how long you’ll continue this?
LG: We’re calling it a pop-up because I want to see how it goes, but if it’s successful it could stick. Maybe when the cooler months come around, we could incorporate some more fall and winter dishes. I think we have the flexibility to go along with the seasons.

TH: How did you get involved with Her Name Is Chef?
LG: In May 2018, a gentleman named Peter Ferriero reached out to me and said he was thinking about a project focused on female chefs, and he wanted me to be the host of it. To see such strong women have the same kind of doubts at certain points that I have had in this industry was really reassuring and heartwarming.

TH: What was one of your favorite things about working on the project?
LG: We all have different paths in the culinary industry, but there are so many similarities. And I think whether you are in the food industry or whether you’re a male or a female, when you watch this documentary, you can really relate to what the women are saying. It brings to light some very important conversations about the way that women are treated in this industry, and some of the hardships that we face. And overall, just talking to the chefs so intimately was really special to me.

TH: What do you hope Her Name Is Chef will do to change the conversation around women in the culinary arts?
LG: I started in the culinary industry 20 years ago, and it is a very different place than it was then. I think it has a lot to do with who you work for. For me, I was very fortunate to have worked for men who were supportive of having a woman in a leadership role in the kitchen. I think it’s important that we continue to talk about this, because we want women to feel more comfortable in this industry. Eighteen percent of the workforce is in the hospitality industry and kitchens; only 7 percent of head chefs are female.

TH: Anything you’re especially looking forward to in the warmer weather?
LG: I’m really looking forward to getting a little bit back to normal, whatever normal is. Getting over the Covid hump, and looking forward to the sunshine and longer days.

Central + Main is located at 3 Central Ave. in Madison. You can stream Her Name Is Chef from a list of cinemas and theaters; it will also soon be available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes.

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