Food Forethought: Chef Christina Conde of Gather

Christina Conde

Food Forethought is our ongoing Q&A feature with local chefs, mixologists, servers and restaurateurs. This month, we talk with Chef Christina Conde of Gather at Grant Park Market, 519 Memorial Drive. Find out more at grantparkmarket.net.

Gather has an open kitchen, which guests often like because they can see all the cooking going on. What are the pros and cons of an open kitchen from a chef’s point of view?
I never worked in an open kitchen before Gather. I never really understood the value of being hidden in the back cooking. The kitchen life is a very different life. There is a lot of pressure and a lot of moving parts going on at all times. We laugh, we play, we yell, we say things that sometimes could offend the public, so it was an adjustment for sure. But having an open kitchen it is an excellent way to connect with our guests and that to me is the most important thing.

Kitchens are an intense atmosphere. What does your kitchen sound like? Is it deadly silent, does somebody pick a radio station or playlist, or do you just fling witty banter?Heck no, we are far from quiet! We definitely fling the witty banter. We have an awesome team with all types of personalities, and we all love to laugh and joke around with one another. I don’t have much tolerance for drama or negativity. We try to keep it a positive place to work. Music is a must in a kitchen. However, because we are an open kitchen, we have to be a little more mindful of our tunes and how loud we play them. So it’s usually just headphones.

In addition to the open kitchen, the entire Gather restaurant is right inside the space of Grant Park Market with just a blue velvet rope between them. Do you have pretty good people-watching opportunities from the market side?
Absolutely, although I am usually in back and don’t get to do it often enough, but I usually get the good stories from my staff.

Seared se scallops at Gather.

Because it’s also a place to shop and children often tag along on those types of errands, Gather’s guests frequently include kiddos. You’ve got a classic kids menu, but what do you suggest for parents who want to stretch their youngsters’ palates a little bit?
We really want to accommodate our little people. Children are picky eaters in general so we want to make sure they are just as happy as the grownups. Our chicken milanesa is on both the lunch and dinner menu. It’s basically a thin slice of fried chicken with a little extra love in it. I would suggest trying it. It’s always been a family staple in my house and my entire family loves it, which is why it made it on the menu.

Gather has three menus—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A lot of the lunch stuff is also on the dinner menu, but what are your feelings about breakfast for dinner?
Truth is, breakfast is my least favorite meal of the day. Just give me my Yeti full of coffee and I am good until late afternoon, when I finally remember I haven’t eaten yet. I realize that there are a lot of people who still eat in the mornings, so we created a breakfast menu for them, but dinner is my baby. It is where I get to be most creative and showcase my passion for food. I guess if there’s a way to make a deconstructed breakfast at dinner that is not so breakfast-like, I would, but otherwise I keep those two separate.

The dinner menu emphasizes Spanish tapas. What is one thing you wish everybody understood about a meal made of small plates?
It says it all in the name itself. Gather. Gather is a place for friends and family to come together in your local neighborhood. Tapas are a great way for friends and family to gather and share great food, drinks and laugher.

Some of the beer and wine served at Gather is also available to buy in the market. Does the market side influence your menu? Or vice versa?
Our menu is a combination of the menu at our sister store, Candler Park Market Deli, for lunch, but we also wanted to showcase food that would pair well with beer and wine. That’s why tapas work so well. The owner, Greg Hutchins, is quite the wine connoisseur, so we try to choose foods that pair nicely with wine and beer drinkers.

Barbecue pulled chicken sandwich at Gather in Grant Park.

Whats the difference between how you cook at home versus at work? Are there things youd never cook for yourself at home? Do you use your own kitchen as a lab, or save experiments for the restaurants kitchen?
I always cook with passion and love in both kitchens. It’s my love language. I do try, however, to get a little more creative and think outside the box a little at work. I am constantly looking for new ideas and trying to challenge myself. I also try to empower my team and encourage them to try to create new and exciting dishes for our specials.

Where do you get food inspiration? Do you study other restaurants or particular chefs, certain books or magazines?
All of the above. Its funny because I don’t watch TV, but if I do, it’s cooking shows or food channels or documentaries. I feel like you can never stop learning. A friend of mine just recently asked me if I am a picky eater when I go out to eat. I said “no, I love trying new things and love all food.” As I said this, I was picking apart the food, rating it, saying what I would do differently, et cetera. I guess I am just more of a critic than a picky eater. As a chef, you tend to get comfortable in your own cooking styles and can get complacent. I love learning new things, trying new plating styles, different cuisines. I never want to get tired of cooking and bringing smiles to people’s faces. It’s what I love.

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