A Woman Whose Place is in the Kitchen

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:06

Marea's Chef du Cuisine dishes on her no-frill approach to a successful culinary career

At just eight years old, Lauren DeSteno knew she wanted to become a chef. One of her specialties was spaghetti and meatballs for her older siblings and their friends as they came home from college. Now, at 31, she has brought her talent to a much larger kitchen at Marea, one of the most buzzed-about restaurants in Manhattan. Although the Central Park South eatery is known for its celebrity guests like Beyonce and Jay-Z, DeSteno is still the happiest when she cooks for those who are closest to her heart. "I love when someone I know comes to the restaurant and I go out and say hello to them and get to see how happy they are. Those are the best moments for me."

Explain your title of Chef du Cuisine. What responsibilities do you have?

Running the restaurant on a daily basis and keeping an eye on the systems we have to help the restaurant run smoothly all the time. Overseeing and helping with ordering, cost control, speaking to our purveyors if, for example, the cost of lobster all the sudden spikes up. Talking to our cooks and giving them advice. During service, I'm usually expediting. And if our executive chef is there, he'll be expediting and I'll be helping to plate.

Are you the only woman in the kitchen?

I'm the only woman sous chef manager on the savory side. There are two women sous chefs in the pasty department. We do have a good number of women who work in our kitchen. I never felt that anything was off. As long as everyone has the right mentality, it doesn't matter what they are. But there's definitely sometimes when someone will make a joke and I'll make a joke back and they're like, "What?" and I'm like, "I work with all of them all day long! I have to be able to play this game too!"

How do you maintain calm and order on a busy night?

I just tried to be very organized, especially if I'm expediting. I like all my tickets to be folded properly at the right spot and everything has to be lined up. I've tried to teach this to other people, that it doesn't pay to get worked up and freaked out when we start to get busy, because it doesn't help anything. Everything goes smoother if you handle things calmly.

Do you change Marea's menu for spring and summer?

Once spring starts showing up, everyone is so antsy to get out of root vegetables, like the whites, browns, and tans of winter vegetables, or green kale. As soon as anything starts coming in for spring - peas, fava beans, pole beans - everyone is trying to get it on the menu.

What's your favorite dish there?

I would probably say it's the gnocchetti pasta. It's delicious. We started putting some vegan dishes on the menu and they're both made with a macadamia nut "cheese" that we make. And they're really good.

I interviewed Jean-Georges last summer and he told me that he comes to Marea for pasta.

He does. He comes in frequently.

What are some crazy requests the kitchen has gotten?

We get a good amount of crazy things. [Laughs] When we first opened, there were a couple of people who asked for rare chicken. That was very off putting. Some people have come in and asked for just a plate of raw vegetables, including mushrooms. We've also had people come in and hand us their child's meal - baby food, or a box of macaroni and cheese - and say, "Can you cook this?"

Do have interaction with your customers?

I'm mostly in the kitchen, but here and there our general manager or our managing director will ask me to come out and meet people. We get all these tickets that come into the kitchen with customers' names, so I know their eating habits, but I've never met them before. So I know that so-and-so doesn't like salt or so-and-so likes ketchup with their oysters.

You went to The Culinary Institute. Who were your mentors there?

It's funny because when you're in school, there are so many people who are hyper-focused on the bios of famous chefs. I was more focused on absorbing everything I could. But my first job was working for a catering company in New Jersey. It was owned by a woman and mostly women worked there. I think that was a great spot to start. We did a lot of events; it was very high volume. But it was fun, it wasn't very serious. It was all very strong women and we had a great time.

The New York Times featured you in an article about female chefs. Did people ask to meet you after that?

There were a couple of people over the course of a couple weeks - their server would come back and tell me they asked, "Is Lauren here?" Complete strangers have sent me letters. It's flattering because it's such a curveball in a way. It's interesting when it's not anything you've thought about prior. I never thought about this [women in the kitchen] being an issue in any way because I never had an issue with it.

On your days off, where do you go eat in the city?

Oh, that's hard. I really love Despana, on Broome, but it's more of a food store. I remember when I came back to New York after studying abroad in Spain, I found all these things there that I had eaten in Spain or the Spanish side of my family would eat, that I hadn't seen in such a long time. You can order a bunch of tapas that are reminiscent of being in a bar in Madrid. And you can order wine next door in their wine shop and bring it in. And Estela on Houston, that's also great.