Lauren DeSteno Runs the Show
We talk to the corporate executive chef for Altamarea Group about steering a restaurant empire through the Covid era.
Lauren DeSteno has been shaping Marea (240 Central Park South, Manhattan) and its sibling restaurants in the Altamarea Group for years, as corporate executive chef since 2016, in fact — well before celebrity chef Michael White's departure was reported last spring.
She’s joined by executive chef Molly Nickerson, making the duo a relative rarity in the restaurant world to have two women in top chef positions. (Altamarea Group is run by CEO and founder, Ahmass Fakahany.)
A little backstory: A New Jersey native, DeSteno says her cooking is shaped by her Italian and Spanish heritage. Prior to joining a newly opened Marea, she worked in pastry and savory at Eleven Madison Park. In addition to attending Culinary Institute of America (CIA), she graduated with a double major in finance and Spanish from Fairfield University in Connecticut.
We caught up with DeSteno to check in on how things are going. The interview is edited for clarity.
Melissa: Talk to us about how you navigated early in the pandemic.
Lauren: We saw the pandemic as an opportunity to return to some basics….The idea of making pasta and putting it in a plastic to-go container no longer seemed so absurd. I can tell you that I personally made and plated in to-go containers quite a few eggplant parms, which I assure you I never thought would ever happen here.
Everyone across the whole world was going through this huge transition. Our main focus was, what is the client looking for? How can we support them? How can we still bring an element of comfort? Perhaps even a little bit of luxury, a taste memory they’ve come to love at the restaurant? We also wanted to save them a little bit of time, or just help to create some special moments here and there with those they were allowed to or able to share those meals with.
Melissa: Are you seeing your people who had been regulars pre-pandemic coming back or how has your customer base changed or has it changed?
Lauren: Early on, we had a lot of regulars coming back, which is great. Outdoor dining also opened us up to a new segment of clientele that felt more comfortable sitting outside in a more relaxed environment but still having the same culinary experience.
Melissa: I want to ask a few questions about the fact there are more women in the kitchen than a lot of fine dining restaurants traditionally. What does that look like right now?
Lauren: We're probably close to 50 percent [women in the kitchen].
Melissa: How did you do that? Was it deliberate or by default?
Lauren: I wish I could say it was an active choice. We want people here who are passionate about what they're doing, self-motivated, and self-correcting in a lot of ways. For us, we've been very lucky that a lot of the time that's brought women into our kitchen. We have women working every station here. It's not like if you go into a kitchen and the only people on the hotline are men, or only men work the pasta station, or only men work the roast station. Our roast cook right now is a female. One of our pasta cooks right now is a female. It's really interspersed. So it's purely on merit for us — and attitude. I would like to think that we have a welcoming environment that makes women want to even come in in the first place.
Melissa: Are you still having issues with supply? And if you are having trouble, what are the kinds of things that are more challenging to get?
Lauren: Obviously we're seafood-focused: We try to get a lot of local items, but we also have Dover sole that has to get imported — and where there used to be numerous international shipments a week, that doesn't exist anymore. So, not only is a turnaround time longer for those items, it's two weeks if you want to change your order….
So, if we're suddenly selling a lot more, we're going to have to 86 those items off the menu pretty fast, because we can't increase how many we're purchasing short of two weeks. The other side of it is, speaking with some of our other purveyors, they are super short-staffed as well. So, where we used to be able to get second deliveries of things — say we ordered some piece of specialty produce and it didn't come in until that morning — the purveyor would be able to send out a second run truck with that item for us, but they don't have enough staff to even do that.
Some of our orders won’t get to the restaurant until 4:30 p.m. which is pretty painful for a restaurant as busy as we are. But you just make do as best you can and try to order in anticipation.
Melissa: Have you been implementing no-waste all along or have you had to tweak how you're doing it in the past, just by virtue of the fact that the ebb and flow of customers? How does that come into play?
Lauren: The zero-waste process has been probably about three years in the making. We started it midway through the pandemic. It was something I brought up to our CEO [Ahmass Fakahany] and it was something that I thought was important for us as a restaurant, but also as a group to really take part in, and to share that responsibility for the amount of waste that we were creating on a daily basis. But it’s not always easy to implement.
Melissa: Compared to pre-pandemic, are you at full speed?
Lauren: We are absolutely packed. I think we maybe did a few more covers in the summer of 2019, but particularly given the outdoor seating that we did that we never had before, and the fact that we are operating with so many fewer people, it feels we're running at 1,000 percent capacity. Honestly, it's tough and our staff is absolutely incredible and everyone's doing their best to try to pivot and just find the best way to do things. Chef Molly [Nickerson] here at Marea has been doing an incredible job with training and just really creating a strong team atmosphere.
Melissa: What’s an essential trait that helps you in your position?
Lauren: Maintaining that sense of calm and just handling each situation as it comes and then moving on is absolutely key, particularly with a busy restaurant. Having the chance to work alongside so many different nationalities of people, going to Dubai [where Altamarea has opened a restaurant] was an incredible learning experience for me because that kitchen is made up of people from all over the world. So, you need to be very clear in your explanations. Also, really paying attention to the feedback from our staff is huge. I try to make sure that I'm setting them up for success in the best way that works for them.
Would love to know in future interviews how restaurants have managed to increase kitchen capacity where their seating has been substantially increased due to outdoor dining.