Now she's cookin': Café Flo head chef took roundabout route to discovering her culinary talent

Jul. 13—The dishes that chef Terri Conderino creates at Café Flo at the Florence Griswold Museum are things of diverse deliciousness. The offerings range from spinach vichyssoise to lobster, avocado and corn salad to dirty chips (rustic chips, melted blue cheese, bacon and scallions) to lemon mousse with fresh berries.

But cooking wasn't always Conderino's forte. 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 (nee Painter) wed and was a stay-at-home mom to her four children for two decades. Despite some flair for whipping up desserts when her kids were young, the dinners she made leaned more to the routine side. She eventually returned to the workforce, doing bartending and serving and then delving into food services.

She recalls that when she had finally "started the chef thing, my daughter was like (sounding incredulous), 'Mom, when did you learn how to cook?'"

She laughs at the memory.

"I was like, 'I'm going to take that as a compliment,'" she says.

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

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

"'The first season was a learning experience, for sure. Honestly, I'd never done anything like this ... never run a kitchen, never done the food production. I was always front of the house. Now I'm back of the house.

"The first day, I left in tears. We had maybe 45 people come through, and it was a nightmare. I said, 'I can't do it.' But our manager at the time, Shannan McNair, said, 'You've got this, you made it through the day, we can do this,'" Conderino recalls. "Second year was a little bit easier.

"Third year is when we blew the doors off the place. I don't know what happened; it's just all of a sudden we were crazy busy."

This year has continued the boom. The day before she talked to The Day, the cafe served 94 people. Conderino notes that the venue is already running above its 2019 numbers.

"I love feeding people, I love creating beautiful food," Conderino says during the interview outside at one of Café Flo's tables overlooking the Lieutenant River before opening for lunch. "Take a look around, how can you not love this environment? My staff — I couldn't do it without them. We have a great kitchen staff, a great serving staff. The people are amazing. They're very friendly and fun. And it's just a very serene place. It gets kind of crazy and cuckoo in the kitchen because we get so busy, but it makes me happy. I love creating."

She thinks the key to success in any job is to enjoy what you do, and she does.

"You really, really have to love what you do. 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 venue has earned plenty of accolades over the years. In 2017, for instance, Café Flo was singled out by Connecticut Magazine as the Experts' Pick Best Hidden gem and the Experts' Pick Best Outdoor Dining.

Dishing about the dishes

Conderino describes the Café Flo offerings as "very pretty, very high-end food at very reasonable prices."

The two most popular meals tend to the lobster BLT ($19) and the lobster corn avocado salad ($18).

After those two stalwarts, she says it's difficult to predict what will be the best seller at any given time. A few weeks ago, they had a run on spinach salad ($14). And this year, they are selling a lot of their cod dish ($15), which Conderino says is simple — roasted with a little bit of oil, salt and pepper, and with a tomato ginger caper relish on it.

"That's another thing I strive for: simple. The less ingredients, the better, because you get more flavors," she says.

In October, sherry mushroom soup has become a standard feature because it's a diners' favorite.

It's often a surprise, too, whether a new dish will — or won't — be a hit. Last month, Conderino ran a salad special that she thought was delicious: spinach with strawberries, red onion, a lemon poppy seed vinaigrette and shaved white chocolate. In two weeks, they only sold four.

"I would have thought that would have been a light, refreshing, different (meal)," she says.

Occasionally, the café offers a special tied to one of the museum's exhibitions. A painting of watermelons, for instance, inspired a watermelon feta salad.

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

"I don't toot my own horn, I really don't, but I think I've mastered the scones," Conderino says.

Bartender to 'lunch lady'

When Conderino (now divorced) got back into the work world after raising her kids, it was first as a bartender. She segued from that to working in the Waterford school system as, she says 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 director, she knew she wasn't qualified but went in anyway for an interview to talk and check out the business. Gourmet Galley ended up hiring her as the second in kitchen at Café Flo for a few months in 2013.

The next year, she started leading Gourmet Galley events as an event chef — for corporate functions, weddings, and so on — and worked in the main Gourmet Galley kitchen as a prep chef.

In 2015, Conderino became head chef at Café Flo. When she was asked to take on that responsibility, she recalled, "I said, 'Sure, I'll try it.' ... I don't have any formal training. I just learn, I watch people, I read things, I pick up things, little tricks of the trade."

She says she was on training wheels before feeling as though she had gotten into the groove and figured how to do it.

Of course, having the people around her that she did helped enormously.

"The Gourmet Galley staff, the core people that work in the main kitchen, the executive chefs, the sous chefs — I have learned so much from them and just by watching and asking questions. You have to ask questions," she says.

Melissa E. Diaz, who is executive assistant to the director at the Florence Griswold Museum, is the liaison between the museum and Café Flo/Gourmet Galley. She says that one of the great things that Conderino brings to Café Flo is her creativity, both to the regular menu and to the specials.

"Some of the specials are just phenomenal," Diaz says, adding that the chef sometimes creates a twist on dishes a museum staff member likes — and names it after them.

"Offseason, she takes time to refine her skills even more, which is something I've always admired ... She's always willing to learn something new in the betterment of her profession," Diaz says.

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

The sound of music

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

"It's right before our (Café Flo) season, so it rejuvenates me, and I come home — usually land at midnight, I'm home by 1, and I'm here (at Café Flo) at 8 o'clock," she laughs. "Hit the ground running."

She listens to music while she's cooking, but not only because she loves music.

"It's an odd thing — I don't like kitchen noise, the banging and the clanging. So I have to have music on in the background just to kind of balance me. ... I have the craziest eclectic playlist. I go from the B-52s to Tchaikovsky. I get that from my father. He had the most extensive music taste."

'This is real'

Gourmet Galley owner Anna Lathrop told Conderino at one point that she needed to get out from the kitchen and greet the Café Flo customers more often — let them see her face and know who she is.

Conderino remembers nervously walking out.

"There were groups of people, they were laughing, they were talking, they were eating the food that we were putting together, they were eating the specials and just having a great time," she says. "I just stopped and I was so humbled, thinking, 'This is real. This is a restaurant. I'm really doing this.' Every day, I still have that thought: This is real."