Daytime – Now she cooks: Café Flo’s chef, Terri Conderino, took a detour to discover her culinary talent

The dishes that chef Terri Conderino creates at Café Flo at the Florence Griswold Museum are varied and delicious. The offerings range from spinach vichyssoise to lobster, avocado and corn salad to dirty crisps (rustic fries, melted blue cheese, bacon and green onions) to lemon mousse with fresh berries.

But cooking hasn’t always been Conderino’s strong suit. She wasn’t someone who spent her early years poring over recipes, studying the culinary arts, and whipping up exotic creations.

After graduating from East Lyme High School, Conderino (née Painter) married and was a stay-at-home mom to her four children for two decades. Despite a certain flair for making desserts when her children were young, the dinners she prepared were more routine. She eventually returned to the workforce, bartending and serving, then delving into food services.

She recalls that when she finally “started the chef thing, my daughter was like (looking incredulous), ‘Mom, when did you learn to cook?'”

She laughs at the memory.

“I was like, ‘I’ll take that as a compliment,'” she said.

After working in food services in the Waterford school system, Friendship School and Essex Meadows, she joined Gourmet Galley catering, which as part of her business runs Café Flo for the museum. The cafe serves lunches from May to October.

This is the sixth season of Conderino at Café Flo, and she’s being honest (and often funny) in describing how it took her a while to feel up to the task.

“The first season was a learning experience for sure. Honestly, I’ve never done anything like this… never run a kitchen, never do food production. I was still in front of the house. Now I am back home.

“The first day, I left in tears. We had maybe 45 people, and it was a nightmare. I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ But our manager at the time, Shannan McNair, said, “You’ve got this, you’ve got through the day, we can do it,” Conderino recalls. “The second year was a little easier.

“The third year, we blew up the doors of the place. I do not know what happened; it’s just all of a sudden we were insanely busy.

This year continued the boom. The day before his interview with The Day, the cafe served 94 people. Conderino notes that the site is already surpassing its 2019 figures.

“I love to feed people, I love to create beautiful food,” Conderino said during the interview outside at one of the tables in Café Flo overlooking the Lieutenant River before opening for lunch. . “Look around you, how can you not like this environment? My staff – I couldn’t do it without them. We have excellent kitchen staff, excellent service staff. The people are amazing. They are very friendly and fun. And it’s just a very serene place. It’s getting a little crazy and hi in the kitchen because we’re so busy, but it makes me happy. I like to create.

She thinks the key to being successful in any job is enjoying what you do, and she does.

“You have to really, really like what you’re doing. This is my happy place – next to the beach. If you need to find me (on my day off) I’ll be at the beach, ”the Waterford resident says with a laugh.

The place has received many accolades over the years. In 2017, for example, Café Flo was recognized by Connecticut Magazine as the Best Hidden Gem for Experts ‘Choice and Experts’ Choice for Best Outdoor Dining.

Diving on the flats

Conderino describes the offerings at Café Flo as “very nice, high-end food at very reasonable prices”.

The two most popular dishes are the Lobster BLT ($ 19) and the Corn-Avocado Lobster Salad ($ 18).

After those two pillars, she says it’s hard to predict which will be the bestseller at any given time. A few weeks ago they had a spinach salad run ($ 14). And this year they’re selling a large chunk of their cod dish ($ 15), which Conderino says is simple – roasted with a little oil, salt and pepper, and with a ginger caper relish. and tomato.

“It’s another thing I strive for: simple. The fewer ingredients the better, because you get more flavor, ”she says.

In October, sherry mushroom soup became a standard feature as it is a favorite among diners.

It is also often a surprise whether or not a new dish is a success. Last month, Conderino came up with a special salad she found delicious: strawberry spinach, red onion, lemon poppy seed dressing and white chocolate shavings. In two weeks, they only sold four.

“I would have thought it would have been a light, refreshing and different (meal),” she says.

Every now and then the cafe has a special related to one of the museum’s exhibits. A painting of watermelons, for example, inspired a watermelon feta salad.

Conderino returns to the Florence Griswold Museum for the holiday season to cook for the museum’s Christmas teas. One of the items featured each year is a scone, and so many people have asked for the recipe that it’s now printed on the back of the menu card everyone gets.

“I’m not wrong, really not, but I think I have mastered the scones,” says Conderino.

Bartender at ‘lunch lady’

When Conderino (now divorced) returned to the workforce after raising her children, it was first as a bartender. She moved from that to work in the Waterford school system saying, she said with a laugh, “I say lunch lady, but food worker.” She then landed a full-time job at the Friendship School in Waterford.

When she saw that Gourmet Galley was advertising for an event manager, she knew she was unqualified but still went for an interview to talk and verify the business. Gourmet Galley ended up hiring him as a second in the kitchen at Café Flo for a few months in 2013.

The following year she started running Gourmet Galley events as an event manager – for corporate functions, weddings, etc. – and worked in Gourmet Galley’s main kitchen as a prep chef.

In 2015, Conderino became chef of Café Flo. When asked to take on this responsibility, she recalled, “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll try.’ … I have no formal training. I just learn, I watch people, I read things, I pick up things, little things in the trade.

She says she was on practice wheels before she felt like she had stepped into the furrow and figured out how to do it.

Of course, having people around her has helped tremendously.

“The staff at Gourmet Galley, the core people who work in the main kitchen, the executive chefs, the sous chefs – I learned so much from them and just watching them and asking questions. You have to ask yourself questions, ”she said.

Melissa E. Diaz, Executive Assistant to the Director of the Florence Griswold Museum, is the museum’s liaison with Café Flo / Gourmet Galley. She says one of the great things Conderino brings to Café Flo is her creativity, both for the regular menu and the specials.

“Some of the specialties are just phenomenal,” says Diaz, adding that the chef sometimes creates a twist on dishes that a museum staff member loves – and gives it their name.

“Off season she takes the time to hone her skills even more, which I have always admired… She is always ready to learn something new to improve her profession,” says Diaz.

She adds that Conderino is amazing at his job but is humble about it.

The sound of music

If cooking is now a passion for Conderino, it is not the only one: music too. She is a regular at the Jazz Fest in New Orleans (one of her sisters lives in the city) and rejoices in the incredible singers and instrumentalists she has seen perform there.

“It’s right before our season (Café Flo), so it makes me look younger, and I get home – usually I land at midnight, I’m home at 1 and I’m here (at Café Flo) at 8 pm, ”she laughs. “Hit the ground running. “

She listens to music while cooking, but not just because she enjoys music.

“It’s a strange thing – I don’t like the sound of the kitchen, the clicking and clicking. So I have to have music in the background just to balance myself out. … I have the craziest eclectic playlist. I pass B-52s to Tchaikovsky. I got this from my father. He had the most extensive musical tastes.

‘It’s real’

Gourmet Galley owner Anna Lathrop told Conderino at one point that she needs to come out of the kitchen and greet Cafe Flo customers more often – let them see her face and know who she is.

Conderino remembers going out nervously.

“There were groups of people, they were laughing, they were talking, they were eating the food we were making, they were eating the specials and having a good time,” she says. “I just quit and I was so humbled, thinking, ‘This is real. This is a restaurant. I really do that. Every day I still have this thought: it’s real.

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