With her ascension to the top spot at Marea, Lauren DeSteno achieves a new milestone for female chefs in New York.
Lauren DeSteno, Marea’s new chef de cuisine, in Marea’s kitchen, which she describes as “extremely loud.”
Lauren DeSteno’s appointment earlier this year as chef de cuisine at Marea, one of the city’s most notable restaurants, rippled across the New York restaurant world: It was the hook for a front-page New York Times Dining & Wine section article, a status report on female chefs in America. (Progress: good. Prognosis: even better.)
Yet DeSteno’s matter-of-fact gender stance toward her promotion took me by surprise. She doesn’t see herself as a trailblazer, offered no homilies about being a role model to the next generation of female chefs, didn’t have a gender-related “aha moment” on the way up, doesn’t have a patron saint (but certainly admires the patron saint, Alice Waters), and says that when she started out, she didn’t even feel that she was entering a male-dominated profession. What she had was drive and a dream: “This is all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was 8.”
Maybe this is what gender equality in the top echelon of the New York restaurant world is finally going to look like: no mention of gender. It’s all about talent.
Astice, an appetizer of Nova Scotia lobster, burrata, eggplant al funghetto, and basil.
What’s interesting about DeSteno’s promotion is that Marea is the flagship of a restaurant corporation, the Altamarea Group, which is headed by two men, chef Michael White and CEO Ahmass Fakahany, who have made, according to the latter, “a concerted effort to create an atmosphere to allow women to succeed.” That means, says Fakahany, establishing “a platform of decorum,” which lets everyone know that “behavior unbecoming” is not going to be tolerated, and using what he calls “gender/ethnicity inappropriateness” as teachable moments. Other than White and Fakahany, the majority of top executives with the Altamarea Group are women. “They’re increasingly running the company,” says Fakahany, adding that Altamarea “is gender neutral in a fashion that makes it comfortable if we skew toward women. This is about hiring the best in class.” (In the kitchen, the skew is the other way—40/60 female/male, excluding pastry.)
DeSteno has been at Marea since the restaurant opened—she started as a chef de partie—and says that the kitchen culture is different from anyplace else she’s worked (Eleven Madison Park, among them). She cites White as the reason. “He doesn’t yell,” and when things start going south, she says he will rally the brigade with wit, shouting, “It’s only food!” Despite the glamour of working in a renowned restaurant, DeSteno holds no romantic illusions about her job. “Hot, loud, extremely loud” is how she describes the kitchen—but “I like orchestrating a grand plan.” Fakahany says his job is making sure DeSteno “has enough runway to fly.”
Grilled octopus, with radish and smoked potatoes.
She pilots White’s menu, which is notable for its muscular pastas (all made in-house) and extensive selection of crudo (12 options). Think of the pastas as a palette, from the bright (strozzapreti with tracer bullets of sea urchin) to the brooding (the sauce on the fusilli with red-wine-braised octopus, which is infused with bone marrow). The latter is one of DeSteno’s favorite dishes, as is the Astice, an appetizer of Nova Scotian lobster with burrata and pickled eggplant. “It goes against the false idea people have that Italians don’t mix shellfish/fish and cheese,” she says.
Among the appetizers, the calamari stuffed with scallop and shrimp was a little supernova of flavor, and the grilled octopus, another DeSteno favorite, a hefty one. There is also simply cooked whole fish—the salt-baked wild branzino was superb—and a 50-day, dry-aged Creekstone sirloin, which several critics have cited as excellent.
Everyone from Ron Perelman to Diane Sawyer has been spotted at Marea.
Since it opened in 2009, Marea has been one of Manhattan’s top-grossing restaurants. The dining room has a quiet boardroom or yacht masculinity—the walls are lined with lacquered panels of Indonesian rosewood brought to a high sheen with carefully calibrated flamboyance. The bar and its wall behind are made of Egyptian honey onyx that casts an almost sedative glow, and lipstick-red lamp shades are placed to define the dining room space; it’s décor as careful punctuation. It’s a power spot—Carl Icahn, Ron Perelman, and William Ackman are regulars—but one with a clientele of powerful women. Katie Couric, Tory Burch, Diane Sawyer, Lesley Stahl, Anna Wintour, and Weinstein TV President Meryl Poster are also habitués.
Marea seems to run on cushioned wheels, with servers gliding between the tables even when they’re clearly slammed. The dining room has two parts, the main room, which looks out at Central Park South, and the Onyx Room, a 10-table section beyond the bar that is named for the material from which the bar is constructed. The tables are numbered by decades—’10s, ’20s, ’30s—“for no rhyme or reason,” according to general manager Sean Smith, adding that someone thought up the system when Marea opened and it’s never changed. But the only two words you have to keep in mind are “corners,” which are always popular, and “banquettes,” a close second. Even when the restaurant is full, the sound level never washes out conversation for all the power players in the room. 240 Central Park South, 212-582-5100
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