"I want people to feel comfortable, and happy. What I need to make my daily happiness is definitely this style of food."
In case you've missed it, there's been some serious talk lately about gender imbalance in restaurant kitchens, and plenty on the state of the "female chef" with terms said chefs may consider secondary to simply doing their jobs. Lauren DeSteno is one such media subject, as she stepped into role the Chef de Cuisine at Altamarea Group's Marea recently, making her one of New York's top toqued ladies.
But it's her cooking and leadership chops that got her the job under Chef Michael White, and they're the reason she plans on sticking around. The youngest in a food-forward Italian/Spanish family, she started cooking at eight years old, then got degrees in finance and Spanish before going to culinary school, where she then externed at the Four Seasons before cooking at Eleven Madison Park and with Rocco DiSpirito. Now she's at home among White's elevated-yet-comforting fare, and she's coming up with some fun new things of her own.
When I Googled your name, the first few pages were all about you as one of the few female chefs at such a high profile position. What propelled you to get to this place that more women haven't reached yet? I never thought about this until people started asking me these questions, I just never thought I was different than anyone else. There are definitely people who are great cooks, and there are people who aren't, it's not a male or female thing. That's one of the things that helped me—this was what I wanted to do forever, so I just kept following the steps to get there.
And I think some people don't want to be in charge of things. I'm the youngest child by a substantial number of years, and my mom tells me I was so bossy when I was little, and my sister says, "Of course you're doing this now, because you're bossy." I always enjoyed getting people together, so I think that has something to do with it as well, just wanting to be in that position. I don't think that's something that everyone wants to do.
Do you find the media attention on you and your gender more helpful or harmful? It's like people say, "all press is good press." It's great that these conversations are getting started so that I can talk about my friends in great restaurants with great talent that maybe don't have the budget for PR. It's funny, because people have come in and asked if I'm here, which is crazy. There was a couple that was here earlier this week that was like, "We're so excited, this is such a great thing, we're so happy that your name is here." I don't know if they would have noticed without the articles.
How would you describe your leadership style? When I started working here I was like, "If Michael starts freaking out and yelling then I'm out." And things would happen, and I would look at Michael and wait, and he would be like, "Alright, this is how we're going to fix it." He does not yell, and you realize you don't need to; there are other ways of managing and running things than screaming and throwing a tantrum. So you create a fun atmosphere that makes employee want to do their best, but also address what goes wrong. Screaming or making a huge deal isn't going to help anyone. You fix the problem for service and then pull them aside and say, "Do you understand why that can't happen?"
I loved your bit about family on Heritage Radio's Food Talk, that you'd all fight like crazy but put it all aside when you sit down to eat. Has your family directly affected your cooking now? Absolutely. My grandmother and her husband were born and raised in Italy, and when it came to Christmas Eve it was her and my grandfather up at 4 in the morning making 15 dishes for everyone, well into their 80s. Their food touching us all at once became big for me. It was about making people happy. I think the going out to eat is something that is definitely replacing the family sitting at a table together, but the act of being together is still there, which is exciting.
Did you always know this was the kind of dining environment that you wanted? I always knew that I wanted this environment, where people could walk in and be wowed by the location and the room, but also not feel out of place, like they had to be or act a certain way. I want people to feel comfortable, and happy. What I need to make my daily happiness is definitely this style of food.
How would you suggest a young cook figure out what their "daily happiness" is? I think showing commitment is important. It's not just about the exact type of food, it's also about the mentality and the way the kitchen is run. That was very important for me to find my fit, because that can greatly affect how you're happy on a daily basis. It's easy to get in that mindset that "this is how everything is for better or for worse." But not every restaurant is the same, and you don't have to stay in an environment that fits you, because there's one out there that does.
Is there a dish on the menu that encapsulates all this now? Your family background, and this environment that you've found to be your home? The vegan ricotta dish is probably the one. I envisioned someone at the table trying to ask questions without making a big deal, and that's just not a situation you want to put someone in. It was exciting to make cheese out of nuts, to see how we could make it really delicious. It was like when I started doing pastry and I made my first buttercream that didn't break. You get excited.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people who make food and cooks a lot of stuff. Read full versions of past interviews and more at www.WordsFoodArt.com or tweet her out at @WordsFoodArt.