Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Shaking it up: Gianni Cionchi’s original twist on the restaurant biz

Gionni Cionchi '07, general manager at FishTag restaurant, New York City.When Gianni Cionchi describes a dish on the menu at FishTag, one of the Manhattan restaurants he runs, it’s clear that he appreciates the “art” in culinary arts.

“This is our take on the classic tabouli salad,” he says of the trendy tavern’s chopped bulgur salad, “but we’ve chosen to add about twenty-five additional ingredients. You have a base of shaved fennel and grilled kale, which gives a great smoky flavor, and peppers—yellow, red bell—plus pomegranates, dates, tomato, raw radish, scallions, onions—a lot of high and low notes.”

Like the other Greek-inspired items on the menu—from sheep’s milk dumplings to smoked octopus—the bulgur salad at this Upper West Side restaurant is distinctive.

“You don’t get attention in this business by doing things the same way everyone else does,” Cionchi remarks.

This 2007 Wheaton graduate and New York native seems to thrive on doing things differently. At Wheaton he double majored in religion and economics, aspiring to a career in economic development in Asia. But during summer and winter breaks he worked as a barista at a New York restaurant called Kefi, run by chef Michael Psilakis, and he fell in love with the business. After graduation he signed on full time, working his way up from busboy to waiter to beverage director and then manager.

Cionchi says his Wheaton studies inform his work, pointing out that religion, culture and food go hand in hand, as reflected in Professor Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus’s course, “The Rituals of Dinner.” He also says his study of religion helped him understand people and their differences.

And economics? “For a while I thought I wasn’t really using that,” he says, “until I started doing all the accounting, filing, bill pay and payroll for FishTag, and then all of a sudden my econ degree sure did come in handy.”

Wheaton was a perfect fit for him, Cionchi says. “When I visited, I just fell in love with it—and I couldn’t have hoped for a better college experience. The friends I made were tremendous, and I did a lot of things there that really rounded me as a person.”

At FishTag, which occupies Kefi’s former space, Cionchi runs all the daily operations and the beverage program, offering 25 kinds of beer and nearly 50 wines. The restaurant has also become known for Cionchi’s unusual food-and-beverage pairings. When he organized a seven-course tasting menu for reviewers from Zagat, he says, “I only paired one of their courses with wine. I was doing neat alcohol and sake and all sorts of cocktails.”

And he’s not talking gin and tonic. His signature cocktails include the Wormwood Fireball (absinthe, pineapple juice, foamed egg white and elderflower liqueur) and a martini made with infused cucumber vodka.

Beginning in late 2011, Cionchi worked for a few months at a new Psilakis restaurant on Long Island, where he helped train the staff. Then he returned to manage both FishTag and Kefi, which is now in a new location. He still lives on the Upper West Side and keeps in close touch with Wheaton friends who reside in the city.