A month ago, we told you about three new food delivery services you should get acquainted with if you’re looking to spice up your weeknight meals. The founder of one of them, Kate Galassi of Quinciple, was kind enough to sit down with us for a chat about her early career as a produce buyer for New York City restaurants, what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated field, and how—and when—she knew it was time to go into business for herself.
Long before you started your company, you worked as a produce buyer for several prominent NYC restaurants. This is one of those dream jobs I feel like people imagine for themselves (“I wanna go food shopping for a living!”), but it never really occurred to me that it was a real thing until you told me about it. Can you tell us how you got into this rarified world?
Kate Galassi: I fell into my first produce-buying gig at The Spotted Pig by accident. A friend had heard about the job opening from another friend and on a whim, I applied. I had always wanted to work in a restaurant. They’ve always been hugely romantic for me. But I didn’t want to be a cook or a waiter and so this seemed perfect. I had already been working at the farmers’ market for a couple of years so it made sense. But when I applied, I figured there was no way I was going to get the job. I was a vegetarian at the time and [Spotted Pig chef] April Bloomfield is known for her burger and pig’s ear salad and all kinds of other meaty delights, so I was sure she wouldn’t hire a vegetarian. In the end, my passion for the market—and the farmers I already knew—was more important than my not eating meat. And pretty quickly, I realized that this was exactly what I should be doing. That was about five years ago.
Are there any particularly funny or embarrassing stories you’d like to share about your time working with restaurant chefs?
KG: I think the most embarrassing story from my time in restaurants involves an escarole salad on [Bloomfield restaurant] The Breslin’s menu. It’s a really fantastic salad with Gorgonzola, walnuts, and pears. The kitchen used only the white and pale yellow hearts of the escarole – the parts that are the least bitter and the most sweet. Sometimes our delivery of escarole would come in from a distributor and the hearts wouldn’t be pale enough, so I would head over to Whole Foods to buy escarole. I would take the rubber bands off each head of escarole to see if the center was pale enough. I’d have the produce guy bring out more cases of escarole for me and I’d be standing in the produce aisle, surrounded by 100 heads of escarole looking for the whitest hearts. I got a lot of strange looks, but it was worth it. That salad was amazing. And it was those chefs at The Breslin and The Spotted Pig who taught me how great produce is supposed to look.
Your popular Tumblr Lovage Me Tender is full of artful close-ups of all the produce you encounter and, I presume, feel the irresistible urge to “lovage” real good. “Lovage” was one of those words I might have only encountered once or twice in my life before I actually tasted it and realized how delicious it was. What exactly is lovage, what to do you use it for, and where can we buy it?
KG: Lovage is an herb that’s in the same family as celery. It tastes a lot like celery, but amped up 100 times. It’s got an anise note too, a bit like fennel. It’s definitely not for everyone. But I love it because to me, it has the ultimate herbaceous aroma. It’s very popular in Germany and Eastern Europe where it is commonly paired with potatoes, especially in soup. But my favorite use for it is in cocktails. When I worked at Compose, a short-lived restaurant in Tribeca, there was this incredible team of bartenders, and I would often bring them lovage from the market. They used it in all kinds of cocktails. My friend Hannah Kirshner (the brains behind Brooklyn magazine Sweets & Bitters) invented a cocktail called Lovage Me Tender, and that’s how my blog got its name. Lovage is best in spring. It starts to yellow in hot weather. You mostly find it at the market, but it’s easy enough to grow at home.
Photo by Julia Gartland
About two years ago, you left behind your old career to found a company called Quinciple, which delivers personally sourced and almost entirely local ingredients (with recipes!) to subscribers every week. Leaving your routines and starting a company is really daring and risky; when and how did you know it was the right time to do something like this?
KG: When I first met my Quinciple co-founder Markus Jacobi through a mutual friend, he had already spent the past six months working on a project to home deliver local food. When he started asking me questions on sourcing, I immediately, instinctively knew how I would approach such a challenge. I guess for me, it was the best feeling of clicking with a problem ideally suited to me. These days I often tell people that that’s what they should be looking for—a problem where they have very strong feelings and opinions and know they could solve it better than anyone.
As an entrepreneur who is your own boss, how do you organize your day, keep yourself motivated, and keep moving forward? What’s more, as a food lover who also works with food professionally, do you manage to keep your work life and personal life separate?
KG: Running a start-up is a huge amount of work, but it is also a huge amount of fun. I find that mostly, it’s not so hard to get up and go to work. The first thing that helps is having a great team, dedicated and hard working. But the best thing is getting to collaborate with more than a hundred creative, passionate farmers. That’s where I get a lot of my energy. As for keeping work and personal life separate, I’ve failed at that. About a year ago I started dating one of my vendors, who makes pasta for the Quinciple boxes. Our lives are consumed with food—at work and at home. We throw a pretty great dinner party. And we get to talk over tough business decisions together. It’s great to have someone to get advice from who is in the same boat, running a small food start-up.
What has been the hardest thing about starting your business that you were fully prepared for? What challenge did you not expect at all? Do you think you approach the business differently because you’re a woman, or do people treat you differently, for better or worse? The debate continues about whether female chefs are getting their fare share of recognition in the restaurant world, so I’m wondering whether you feel there are specific hurdles to overcome as a woman in that world.
KG: One of the hardest things for me is to feel like I’m doing a good job at all of my tasks. There are only so many hours in the week and something is bound to get ignored or not get as much attention as it deserves. I definitely struggle with self-doubt. I don’t really know if I can do this—run a business and write recipes and source the best ingredients and make sure that our parking tickets get paid. My sense is that self-doubt is more of an issue for women. But in terms of being hard-working and creative people who build businesses with good ethics—there are a lot of women really killing at that. As much as men, for sure.
Photo by Julia Gartland
When it comes to the issue of female chefs not getting as much of a spotlight as male chefs, I have very mixed feelings. My personal experience in restaurant kitchens was one where people treated each other very poorly. There’s a lot of yelling, a huge amount of stress, and often, people not doing their best at respecting their peers and those who work for them. And the thing is, women are just as guilty as men. Within the restaurant world, it’s well understood that everyone yells and gets angry. So most of the chefs who are in the spotlight—men and women—are not people I think should be professional role models. I just don’t believe in that culture. It’s part of why I left restaurants. Of course, it’s really important to mention that not everyone who works in a restaurant is a terrible person—it’s mostly the culture, not the people.
Tell us about some of the farms you work with, and how you went about setting up relationships with them and convincing them to work with you. A whole generation of what one might consider “typical” farmers are dying out in America, and in their place, much younger farmers with completely different outlooks and business models are trying their hand at the business. Is there a farm or food producer with a particularly interesting story that attracted you to it?
KG: I think I’m in this business because I find it easy to connect with the people who grow, raise and make our food. Overwhelmingly I’ve found farmers and food artisans to be incredibly hard-working and passionate people. The last farm I visited near Los Angeles was the perfect example of that. Vince Bernard worked as an air traffic controller before buying an orange grove in 1984. He and his wife Vicki drove around tasting fruit from different orchards that were up for sale. When they tasted the sweetest fruit, they bought that land. Vince farms without any chemicals. He uses seaweed to fertilize his trees and weeds by hand. His fruit isn’t waxed at all; it’s brushed clean and sorted on an antique machine built in the 1920s. All of these practices make him an unusual citrus farmer. But mostly, when I visited him (after a long day at the market, no less), I was struck by his unbridled enthusiasm. He should be retired by now, but he’s still clearing land to plant more trees so that his kids can take over the business and thrive. He’s undaunted by the encroaching suburban development and his growing water bills, which can be as much as $20,000 a month. I’m just in awe of someone like that. And the moment he says, “What should I plant on that new land?” I just think I have the coolest job. He’s so excited to work with Quinciple and all our citrus and avocados are picked to order for us there.
Photo by Ann Dinwiddie Madden
When you step away from work, what do you like to do? When you take a vacation, do you still consider it “research” for your job? What are some of the places you’d like to go next to experience new food cultures, and where do you think other adventurous foodies should be going this year?
KG: The next food trip I’m excited about is Sitka, Alaska in August. I’ll be visiting one of my sources for wild salmon up there, Sitka Salmon Shares. They work with nine boats to catch the best wild fish and get it to the docks as fast as possible. It’s such a different kind of food community up there, so it should be fascinating.
When my boyfriend and I travel, for work or for fun, we’re always checking out new food spots. We can’t really turn it off. We both love markets—discovering new things. This summer in France we found these gorgeous Coeur de Boeuf tomatoes all over the place. You almost never find them in the States, but they were so tasty. And a purple-fleshed peach called Pêche des Vignes. I love regional food so I’m excited to travel within the U.S. to discover some regional specialties for our Quinciple boxes.
Giulia Pines is a New York-born, Berlin-based freelance writer and translator. Her previous work has appeared in The Atlantic CityLab, Fodor’s, Jacobin, Kinfolk, Vice, and Slow Travel Berlin.