I can hear the tremor in my voice as I barrel through the first of my questions to chef Lauren DeSteno.
I’m transcribing the interview, my fingers typing madly, and the hesitance is clearly there. I’m rarely nervous; I sort of get off on public speaking and in over 15 years of theatre only had stage fright once (and that was for good reason… long story). I’ve kept my cool even amongst those of my interview history whom I call the “big dogs”. No one person is better than another in my book, and so it’s usually easy for me to hold my ground.
The reason for the tremors is a silly one; my first few questions are about DeSteno’s gender. Yes, she’s a woman, not an uncommon thing to my column or myself in general, obviously. But I don’t normally ask gender-based questions. I wouldn’t ask a heterosexual, white male how their sexual preference or gender has affected their career, instead focusing on their work and what they think of it. So why am I asking DeSteno such questions?
Because if you Google her name, her gender rages page after page. In January she took the chef de cuisine seat at Marea, part of the Altamarea group headed up by chef Michael White. Their restaurants are gorgeous; I recently had a delicious evening of Negronis and crudos at his downtown Costada that I enjoyed thoroughly. Coincidentally gender did come up at that dinner, as my dining companion was a touch surprised by the amount of inappropriate sexualization against women that still happens on the subways. I’ve definitely felt the imbalance of the sexes in several arenas of life but, as I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by smart, sensitive men and women and have worked largely in the arts, I’ve never questioned my own inadequacy because of my gender.
And it seems neither has DeSteno. But hers is a field used to muscle and masculinity, so her new seat has garnered a lot of particular attention. Gender and minorities in the kitchen have taken a bit of a focus in the media lately (I wrote this for me and this for Serious Eats about it), and I’ve been curious as to if it really makes a difference? Is the corporate ladder of the kitchen really any different than any other profession at this point? A good proportion of cooks in New York are women now, and some of my personal favorite restaurants are owned by women.
So I started out by getting over my nerves in asking and doing just that. And then moving on to bigger things. Here’s the full version of our talk.
Chef Lauren DeSteno Breaks Barriers
Taken March, 2014
When I Googled your name, the first few pages were about you being one of the few “female chefs” at such an executive level in a restaurant group run by a man. Normally I wouldn’t ask this question but, since so much has been played in the media regarding gender balance in kitchens lately, do you have an idea of what pushed you beyond that barrier?
I never thought about this until people started asking me; I just never thought I was different than anyone else. It just seems strange to me, because I don’t see how it mattered. There are definitely people who are great cooks and great chefs, and there are people who aren’t; it’s not a more predominantly male or female thing. So I think that’s one of the things that helped me; this was my job, and what I wanted to do forever, and so I just kept following the steps to get there.
And I think some people don’t want to be in charge of things. My family always make fun of me because I’m the youngest by a substantial amount of years; 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 this media focus 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 that would have even registered here if there were no articles.
How would you describe your leadership style?
They are a lot of cooks that haven’t been in the old guard. I have, of course Michael White has, our executive chef Jared has. It’s not something we enjoyed going through, but I’ve always likened it to playing competitive sports; in college if our trainer told us we had to run fifty sprints up the hill that’s what we did, and we didn’t question it because then it was worse. So I kind of got that attitude and perspective, and it’s a little jarring for all of us when you ask someone to do something and they don’t just do it.
When I started working here I was like, “If Michael starts freaking out and yelling then I’m out, I won’t do this.” And things would happen, and I would look at Michael White 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; that there are other ways of managing and running things than screaming and throwing a tantrum. I’ve been with him at events in Portugal where there are other Michelin star chefs yelling at people that weren’t even their employees, and Michael thought it was ridiculous. What he tries to instill across the group is that we people who want to do this, who are self-policing and looking for the most perfect that they can do. So it’s trying to make it a fun atmosphere that makes them want to do their best, but addressing things when they go wrong.
I’ve come to realize over the years that there’s a way and time of doing it; if someone messes up horribly in the middle of service, screaming at them or making a huge deal at that moment is not going to help them or anyone else around them. So you fix the problem for service and then maybe you pull them side and say, “Do you understand why that can’t happen?” And kind of deal with it that way.
Do you feel this has lead to better longevity with your staff?
Yes. And there have been some that have worked here and then gone on to a maybe older style kitchen that’s a little but more militaristic, and come running back, “Ah, that was not what it was cracked up to be.”
I loved your bit on Heritage Radio where you brought up how, in your Italian/Spanish family, everyone could be fighting like crazy but, when it was dinnertime, all was put aside and you sat to eat together. Has your family directly affected your cooking now?
Absolutely. My grandmother and her husband were born and raised in Italy, so that was very old school. When it came to Christmas Eve, it was her and my grandfather up at four in the morning making fifteen dishes for everyone, well into their eighties. The fact that it could touch more than one person at a time was big for me. It also became about making people happy.
It was very important for me to find a place that was a whole fit. People are always “cooking is so hard” and you obviously don’t start out in it for the money, so you want something that’s a good fit, and from the beginning this felt like a great fit for me. Michael White knows everyone’s name here; he’s got almost a thousand employees now and knows 98% of their names. And he definitely has that family sense of wanting to please. If is talking to guests here for their anniversary who have saved up to come to New York or something, he’ll make them a special pasta himself. It’s that kind of care and excitement that definitely resonated with me growing up.
You got your bachelors degree in finance and Spanish. Knowing you wanted to go into culinary school, was finance part of your overall plan?
My parents kind of suggested that; my dad’s rationale behind it was that it’s a hard industry that I hadn’t experienced before, so if I wanted to open a restaurant or be involved more in the back I would be able to handle it. Or if I didn’t want to do this at all I could check out and get a job in a different environment.
And the Spanish?
I’ve always felt connected to that side of my family and I really wanted to study abroad when I was in college in Spain, and the only way I could do that is if it was a major. So I got to work that out and go, and at the time I was still in college mode and cooking wasn’t at the forefront, and it was a difficult program – full Spanish immersion, I lived with a person who didn’t speak any English. But it was amazing seeing the family-style cooking and the smaller, not Ferran Adrià type stuff going on. So it definitely contributed to my desire to do this, and to go back to those places for a food tour or something like that.
How does the family table come together with restaurant life for you now?
My dad’s a prosthodontist, and he was going to all these dental conventions, and I would have to go. So from a very young age I was taught how I was supposed to sit at a table with adults and eat, how to look them in the eyes when I talked to them, and how to shake their hands and all. And I guess because I behaved properly I was fortunate to experience a lot of restaurants that my friends wouldn’t have gone to. I was never the kid that ordered buttered noodles; if someone gave me a kids menu I was insulted and annoyed, and I’d ask for the adult menu and order something I’d never had before. So that was something, for me, that was always part of my life, but I knew even at the time that it wasn’t something most of my friends did.
In New York City you have this different awareness on a lot of levels, with culture and food and all of that, and we do see families coming in with kids that do know what’s going on; they know what foie gras is, or whatever. We do also see a substantial amount eating tomato sauce with no green herbs in it, which is fine. But I think the going out to eat is something that is definitely replacing the family sitting at a table together, especially in a city where it’s easier to just go out and have someone make it for you. But the act of being together is still there, which is exciting.
What is your ideal environment for the “act of being together?”
I think Marea occupies a special place among fine dining restaurants, something that Michael White and the Altamarea group wanted to create, where someone could come in and have an eight-course tasting menu, or come in and have a bowl of pasta and still feel satisfied and fully served. I think that’s something I really identify with and love that we strive to do; to bring someone into this beautiful room and make them feel comfortable and at home, and make this a place where they can sit and have a conversation and the food enriches that. And maybe they take away a minute here or there from the conversation because of the food, but it’s not distracting their connecting with the people they’re eating with. So it’s kind of something that brings them here, gets them to the restaurant, and then when they’re sitting down helps provoke their reason for staying there.
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 and all those little things, but also feel totally comfortable sitting down and not feeling out of place, like they had to be or act a certain way. I always knew that I wanted people to feel comfortable, and happy.
What was the impetus for working at Eleven Madison, then, which has a very different style of dining?
It’s interesting because when I was in culinary school there were a lot of people who knew all the chefs and restaurants in New York City, and I was more into learning and absorbing everything I could from school, partially because I had waited so long to go. And when you’re at the point to leave you know that there’s obviously a level of restaurants that everyone’s trying to get into with a certain pedigree. And I’m glad that I went to EMP and was a part of that kitchen and that team. But after being there for a while and figuring out what I need to make it my daily happiness, it’s definitely more of this style of food.
How would you suggest a young cook figure out what their daily happiness is?
When I was going through culinary school there was the, “You don’t want to work for anyone for less than a year.” And when I look at resumes I tend to look a little more critically than others do; if there’s one spot you haven’t been at for a long time, bookending with a year here and a year there, that’s fine. That makes sense. I think sticking with a place and showing commitment is important, even if it’s not exactly what you want to do and you use it as a learning experience. 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 – how things happen behind the doors of the kitchen – because that can greatly affect how you’re happy on a daily basis. Not every restaurant is the same, and 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 dish is probably the one. A lot of people come into eat and maybe are vegetarian or vegan and don’t want to make a deal of it, and so I envisioned someone at the table trying to ask questions without making a big deal. And that’s just uncomfortable, and a situation you don’t want to put someone in. This was to make sure everyone could feel comfortable and feel like they had something to choose. So to that end we put on a house-made, low-gluten pasta that, in my opinion, is much better than that dried rice stuff. And I’ve given the vegan dish to my friends that are not vegan in any way, and they are kind of surprised that it tastes as good as it does, and doesn’t have any dairy in it.
Was that a fun challenge? I’ve been of gluten and dairy for around 20 years now due to medical issues, and I feel that awkwardness when dining. Some chefs seem to like the challenge, others to be annoyed by the allergies and intolerances that seem fickle for some nowadays.
I wouldn’t have a job if people didn’t come and eat here, and this restaurant wouldn’t be here if people didn’t want to come and eat here. And if someone came and said that they couldn’t eat a certain thing… The whole thing of a chef not trying to make a gluten-free or vegan version is so bizarre to me, because I understand that it’s your creation and life’s work or whatever, however you may view it, but if the person wasn’t eating it, you wouldn’t be there. So this was an exciting process of how we could make cheese out of nuts and how could we make it delicious so people would want to eat it. To me it was similar to when I started to do pastry and made my first buttercream that didn’t break. You get excited.