There are as many paths to the kitchen as there are chefs. For Texas-raised Gabe Thompson, chef and partner at a growing portfolio of NYC Italian hotspots including dell’Anima and L’Apicio, the beginning was less than auspicious—think Spaghetti Warehouse and teeth on the floor.
“I was training as a server, and I got in a fight,” he explains. “Actually, I didn’t get in a fight—I got punched in the face. Got my front tooth knocked out. I kinda looked like a Frankenstein for a bit—I had this weird fake tooth with these weird fake braces, and I was really self-conscious about it, so I was uncomfortable talking to tables. I asked if they could move me to the kitchen, and they did.”
While getting socked in socked in the face isn’t the ideal way to kick off a career, the episode gave Thompson a chance to fall in love with the camaraderie of the back of the house, and he never looked back. When a former manager from Spaghetti Warehouse invited him to take a job at Austin’s Granite Cafe, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I’ve never learned more, ever in my life,” he says of his two years at the restaurant, where he worked under chef Chris Lanier. “He taught me how to value and respect ingredients, how to work clean, and how to be better than the best person in the kitchen. His attitude was, You’re not doing your job unless you’re trying to take my job.”
Thompson took that motto to heart, and eventually his hard work turned into job opportunities across the country, including Clarklewis—one of the restaurants that put the Portland food scene on the national radar—and The Little Nell in Aspen. Finally, he made the move to NYC to run with the big dogs at Le Bernardin and Del Posto.
In 2007, Thompson got his own stage when Joe Campanale and August Cardona partnered with him to open dell’Anima in New York’s West Village. It was an immediate hit, and just a year later, they opened L’Artusi and Anfora.
With each new restaurant, Thompson continues to refine his approach to Italian cuisine—bold, brash spicing anchored by classic technique. At the recently opened L’Apicio, in a larger space in the East Village, he faces his biggest challenge yet: “When you have a restaurant this big, you’re cooking for so many different kinds of people, and you want to reach out to every single one of them,” he says. “You don’t want to alienate anybody, but at the same time you don’t want to dumb it down to the point where your chef friends don’t want to eat there.”
Based on the food memories that informed his cooking, it’s clear that Thompson is a dude who knows how to straddle both worlds—from grandpa’s hot-as-balls pico de gallo to scallops at Jean-Georges. Here, he shares the 10 pivotal restaurants and dishes that have shaped him as a chef.
This interview has been edited and condensed.