Kitchen Queen

By staff May 1, 2006

Judi Gallagher is not a breakfast person. She never eats it. She is not even a morning person. But still, when she has an early day of TV tapings and arrives at the John Karl Salon to have her hair done, the conversation will be about food.

This is a preview of Judi's whole day. She lives in the world of food, and it's a rare person who doesn't like to talk about food. Even more than love, food is the great human passion. You don't need love to live, but you do need food. When people talk about it they use the most passionate expressions that language can summon. "Sooo good..." "I love it..." "Heaven..." "To die for..."

Salon owner Richard Day is doing her hair. They discuss a recipe Richard prepared over the weekend. Something wasn't perfect. Like a TV cop on one of those autopsy shows, Judi questions him. Had he done this? Had he done that? After some deliberation, Judi decides it was probably the bitterness of the white wine.

Judi has a strong profile and is what is known as "a big girl." She is almost six feet, two inches tall, and her height gives her a considerable physical presence. Thin and fluid, she has the body language of a comedian. Her hair, to which Richard is attending at 8 a.m., an hour before the salon opens, plays an important part in her look. It is ash blond, long and can assume a variety of styles. Sometimes she suggests a Junior Leaguer. Sometimes a country and western star. Part of her role is that of a performer, and she has grown into it. At 45, she is now approaching her peak.

Judi is one of a new phenomenon, the channel-surfing celebrity. "It's hard to miss me," she jokes, and indeed it is. She's on SNN6 with Gulfcoast Cooking on Saturday and Sunday, on Channel 21 with Suncoast Cuisine on Thursday and Suncoast Cuisine Too! on Monday. (And there's another TV show in the works for Naples.) Then she does two radio shows on WIBQ on Thursdays. All this, plus the appearances she puts in at charity events, has made her one of the most recognizable faces in Sarasota.

The salon is coming to life. The employees are arriving and setting up. One eats a Danish. One combs out a wig. Richard and Judi discuss the finer points of pasta. "It's my drug of choice," Judi confesses. "I love, love, love pasta."

Judi makes a quick stop at her house, which is off McIntosh Road in the eastern part of Sarasota, to pick up supplies and five changes of clothes and arrives at the Chef's Table, a gourmet cooking supply and wine store off University Parkway. She carries all her supplies to a cooking demonstration area in back and begins to set up. Jim Ramer and Scott Anzalone also arrive with their camera and sound equipment. Once again the subject of food comes up. Jim has worked with Judi for years, and the three of them immediately start discussing a new restaurant.

In a matter of minutes everyone is ready to begin taping.

It quickly becomes apparent that each Gulfcoast Cooking segment is not just a cooking demonstration but also a theatrical challenge. Judi has two minutes to greet the audience, describe what she's going to cook, show them how to do it, throw in a cooking tip, then present the finished product, all garnished and looking delicious. For reasons having to do with the editing, she must do it all in one take. She does not use cue cards. Every step, every gesture must be carefully planned. She admits to lying in bed at 2 a.m. trying to figure it all out.

The first segment, shrimp and pasta, goes perfectly. A short break is taken, while the cast, crew and I devour the shrimp and pasta, then it's back to work, this time with a stuffed swordfish, also devoured. By this time I only eat half of mine, trying to save room for what's coming up next-chicken piccata.

But something goes wrong. Judi forgets the garlic, the parsley and the cooking tip. "How can I be so stupid?" she wails.

"Are you going to try it again?" I ask.

Fortunately she is, and this time it's to die for.

Judi has a rare couple of free hours in the afternoon, so we go over to her house, which is in a quiet family neighborhood. We have a snack of melon with prosciutto, olives from the olive bar at Whole Foods, flat matzo-like fennel bread, salsa heaped on small slices of Italian bread, three kinds of cheese, including a runny Camembert-and Diet Coke. I ask her how she manages to stay so thin, and she tells me she watches her carbs, although I never once during the entire day see any evidence of this.

Food is something associated with mothers, so I was curious to know what Judi's was like. Interestingly, Judi, who loved her mother dearly, says she wasn't a very good cook. "No spice," Judi says. "And she overcooked everything."

But her grandmother-she was the cook in the family. A little old Jewish lady (Judi showed me pictures), she used to travel, laden down with gefilte fish and borscht, by train from her small apartment in Yonkers up to Connecticut, where Judi lived with her father (a salesman), her mother and her sister. Judi's grandmother would spend the next two days in the kitchen preparing a traditional Jewish holiday meal, with Judi as her rapt pupil.

"I always wanted to be in the kitchen," Judi recalls. She says it the way other people say they always wanted to be in the theater. "I always wanted to scramble the eggs and make the pancakes. I always watched Julia Child."

By high school she knew she wanted to be a cook, an idea her mother thought unwise in those days before cooking and chefs had become a national obsession. A dietitian might have been a suitable profession, but not a cook.

Nevertheless, Judi had her way. She attended Johnson & Wales University, the famous culinary school, in Providence, R.I. "The first year was like boot camp. We were up at 5:30. It was all about slicing and chopping," she recalls.

When Judi left home for Johnson & Wales she fell into the restaurant culture, and she's been there ever since. It's a strange place to the uninitiated, as full of human foibles and larger-than-life characters as a Shakespearean play. When restaurant professionals get together they tell tales of their past adventures-the drunken chef, the crooked partner, the psychotic waitress, the inspector on the take. Judi has seen them all.

She and her first husband owned two restaurants in Gloucester, Mass., but after they divorced she was left without the restaurants but with a son, Eric, to support. So she turned, naturally, to food. She began making desserts for Boston restaurants, including such well-known places as Legal Seafood. "I used recipes for oatmeal raisin cookies I've been making since third grade," Judi says. The company flourished.

But between the cookies and Eric and managing various restaurants, there wasn't much time for a personal life. That is, until Paul Gallagher, who today is assistant principal of Riverview High, kept coming in to one of the restaurants she managed for lunch. He would always order a burger well-done.

He and Judi hit it off. Then they really hit it off. The staff could feel the heat as the two of them discussed what was-and what might be-on the menu. Unfortunately, Judi made it clear that as far as men were concerned she had one strict rule above all others: She could never date a man who ordered his meat well-done. Being Judi, she was serious.

The next day, after what must have been an agonizing night, Paul came in and, in a loud voice, ordered a burger-rare. They've been together for 17 years, married for 10. Their wedding was a three-day affair, during which family and friends gathered in the Berkshires for a series of meals at various renowned restaurants.

When it comes to raising money, Sarasota's cultural groups have something surefire to offer their donors: art. But the service organizations-nonprofits for disadvantaged children and various diseases (in fact, every disease)-have something just as good: food.

The food-charity connection lubricates most of Sarasota's social life. Caterers and restaurateurs are well-known figures here, and the town is restaurant mad. Most local restaurants are very generous at participating in some way or other at charity events, but human nature being what it is, they also realize that it's good for business. The goodwill (and good food) brings in more customers.

Judi's consulting business focuses on helping clients win this kind of exposure. She also does projects involving food cost and staff training, but her "true niche," as she puts it, is what she calls "grass-roots marketing. I take people by the hand and show them my client's product."

Tonight she's taking the hands of some of the town's more prominent fund raisers and showing them Fleming's rib eye. The steakhouse, part of a very upscale chain based in Newport Beach, Calif., is one of her major clients.

The goal is twofold. First, to inform them of the various ways Fleming's can offer them at-cost events and thus spread out their charitable budget. Second, to provide an evening of informal networking and idea swapping. And, to be frank, there's a third goal also: to dazzle them with food beyond their wildest dreams.

Present are Aundria Shootes from the All Faiths Food Bank, Estelle Crawford, development director for Girls, Inc., and Judy Graham, a prominent interior decorator who's been volunteering on boards for most of her career. Judi is there, of course, as well as Fleming's operating partner Dan Schaefer and Debbie Allen, manager of Fleming's "private dining" division.

The room we are sitting in would be perfect for a private party, and it was in fact designed for that use. It's slightly raised with beautiful wooden shutters that can shut it off from the main room, so it's part of the restaurant yet somehow more exclusive. The entire restaurant is beautifully designed, full of gleaming wood and brass, like a modern version of an elegant men's club. It's hard to believe that the Social Security office is up on the second floor.

As Dan welcomes the guests, a plate of appetizers arrives, and these are enthusiastically discussed by all. Dan offers a lesson in steakology. "If you really like the flavor of fat," he says, "order a bone-in rib eye." Another hint: If you like your steak between medium and medium-well-done, say medium-plus. But don't say medium-rare-plus-there's no such thing.

Gradually the conversation comes back to fund raising. I'm impressed by the expertise involved. I've been active in various charity events over the years, but these women are on a whole other level. They discuss the finer points: how to divide up a room, how to "do an ask," how-if you're smart-you never schedule an event on a Sunday night. And most important in Sarasota-how to approach Northern Trust.

Cocktails arrive. Judi holds up her glass. "Here's to raising a ton of money!"

Soon the ideas are flying fast and furious. Judy Graham tells how Judi Gallagher is doing two programs for Mote Marine, where Graham is a board member, both of which will feature Mote's farm-raised shrimp. It's for the Mote Building Fund.

"Help us raise our roofs. Or is it rooves?"

"It would be really creative to serve some dish that looked like a tin roof."

"Maybe we can get the wine donated."

"A creative menu."

"Place settings with hammers!"

"Maybe somebody can pay to drive in the first nail."


Judi became seriously interested in charity events after the deaths, from cancer, of her mother and sister. She says she feels her fund-raising efforts honor their memories. In addition to helping to plan events, Judi is often the draw. She can do a cooking demonstration anywhere and has brightened many an otherwise limp and skimpy charity luncheon. She has a technique of wandering through the audience, encouraging, almost empowering. Quite a change from the young woman who was so self-effacing she once took an assertiveness training course.

Judi's other big project these days is her first cookbook. When she describes it, it sounds almost like her autobiography-recipes and stories from all periods of her life.

As we waited for our cars after dinner at Fleming's, she told me more about it. One story in particular meant a lot to her: She had recently visited the French Culinary Institute in New York and wrangled an interview with famed chef Jacques Pepin, Julia Child's TV partner (Child herself was well over six feet tall) and a legend in the world of cooking. Together they made his famous crêpes. The segment will be shown on Suncoast Cuisine this month.

"I was so nervous my knees were knocking," she recalls. "He must have sensed it because he looked up at me with the sweetest smile. 'You know,' he said, 'I love cooking with tall women.'"

Judi laughs.

"Mother would have loved it."

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