Meet the inaugural class at Smallman Galley

Smallman Galley isn’t your average restaurant. “It’s a semi-permanent pop-up, mixed with a culinary school, mixed with a business school, mixed with a food hall,” explains Tyler Benson. Benson and his partner, Ben Mantica, are the founders of Smallman Galley, a Strip District restaurant incubator poised to launch in October. For 18 months the Galley’s chefs will run their own kitchens, honing a menu, building a following and learning valuable skills, like calculating food costs and writing a business plan. The entire program works toward getting the chefs their own restaurants — within six months of completion, if not sooner. “Everything is designed around them,” explains Mantica.
 
And who are they? The inaugural class is a smart, motivated and experienced group of four chefs, and they come to Smallman Galley with a diverse array of backgrounds and concepts. What they all share, says Mantica, is a hunger for something new. “All of them have hit a wall,” he says. “They all want to do their own thing but don’t quite have the means.” Smallman Galley will provide the infrastructure and training to help them take that final leap.
 
Stephen K. Eldridge
 
Stephen K. Eldridge
Stephen K. Eldridge has worked all over the place. He’s bartended, served and cooked his way around the country, most recently as the executive chef at The Pink Pony in Scottsdale, AZ. But it was a cheesy ‘90s thriller that first put Pittsburgh on his radar. “Striking Distance made me fall in love with the city,” says Eldridge. While others swooned at Bruce Willis as a maverick detective, Eldridge was crushing on the rolling hills and beautiful bridges. Twenty years later, he is a proud Pittsburgh resident.
 
When I spoke with him, Eldridge had been here for just three days. Despite a nail-biting experience navigating a U-Haul (along with his wife and 1-year-old daughter) through the South Side Slopes, Eldridge is embracing the newest chapter in his life. “People ask, ‘Why Pittsburgh?’ I say, ‘Why not Pittsburgh?’” After years of working for other people, Eldridge is eager to launch his own eatery. His concept will feature accessible, meat-focused dishes, and he hopes to use the sizable basement at Smallman Galley to make sausages and cure his own salumi. Eldridge is enthusiastic about his coming tenure at the new space. “It’s a great idea,” he says. “It really lets people see what you can do.”
 
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Jacqueline Wardle
For her Smallman Galley audition, Jacqueline Wardle made toast. “Basically, I just love to snack,” she says. “And my favorite snack has always been toast.” Of course, Wardle didn’t slather some margarine on a slice of Wonder Bread and call it a day. Her dish featured homemade brioche topped with black raspberry jam, duck confit, stewed mustard seeds and micro red sorrel. She gathered the raspberries from Mt. Washington, where she has served as executive chef of Isabela on Grandview for the past two years.
 
Five years ago, Wardle moved from her home in Youngstown, Ohio to attend the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where she learned some — but not all — of what it means to be a chef. Wardle describes her time at Isabela as a “baptism by fire,” where she was suddenly expected to know a whole lot more than how to filet a fish. “I was drawn to Smallman Galley for the chance to take a step back, to properly learn the business side of running a restaurant,” says Wardle. Expect to see lots more gourmet toast when Wardle steps into the kitchen at Smallman Galley, where she will merge her fine dining background with the most modest (and delicious) of snacks.
 
Rafael Vencio
 
Rafael Vencio
Rafael Vencio’s enthusiasm is infectious. During our conversation, Vencio, who is currently a Sous Chef at Grit & Grace, talked passionately about a range of topics. But he lit up most when he spoke of his future restaurant. “Who cares if it has Michelin stars?” he quipped. “As long as I’m cooking the food I love with the people I care about — that’s the ultimate goal.” At Smallman Galley, Vencio plans to do exactly that with a bistro that celebrates American cuisine.
 
And what is American cuisine? “It’s immigrant food,” says Vencio. “It’s always adapting, always changing.” Vencio is an immigrant himself, having moved here from the Philippines when he was 19. Though he bounced around the country to work and train, Vencio credits his seven years in Pittsburgh — especially his time at Legume — with honing his style. And although he’s built an impressive résumé, a cook’s salary doesn’t leave much left over for leases and build-outs. Smallman Galley is the last push he needs to open his own restaurant, where he plans to take familiar American dishes (think kielbasa or chicken and waffles) and rework them with unfamiliar ingredients and techniques. “I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass,” he says.
 
Jessica Lewis
 
Jessica Lewis
For Jessica Lewis, connections with food run deep. “I am a firm believer that how you eat is how you feel and how you live,” says Lewis, who hails from Allentown, PA. Though she graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in economics, she quickly realized the finance industry wasn’t for her. Rather than slogging through the rat race, Lewis enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education and started working in restaurants around New York City. Two years ago, Lewis moved to Pittsburgh to run catering at Heinz Field, and recently helped open the Commoner and the Biergarten at Downtown’s new Hotel Monaco.
Lewis embraces a “back-to-the-earth” style of cooking and plans to use her space at Smallman Galley to “give the feeling of the great outdoors in a city marketplace setting.” Her clean, simple food will highlight fresh, seasonal produce, using seafood and off cuts of meat as accents rather than stars. A lifelong athlete (she recently started competing in triathlons), Lewis knows the importance of a rounded diet, and she’s eager to share her vision with her new city. “A balanced approach to meat and vegetables can make healthy food taste better,” she explains, “and tasty food healthier.”
 
For more information, visit smallmangalley.org.