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By age 8, she was cooking for her family. By 16, she was scaring up paid catering gigs. By the time she arrived at Fairfield, Lauren DeSteno ’04 could see the handwriting on the menu, so to speak. She was, indeed, to the kitchen born.
Today, as “chef di cucina” (aka, chef de cuisine) at Marea, DeSteno is one of the rising stars on Manhattan’s dining scene. Opened by the renowned chef Michael White in 2010, Marea — which means “tide” in Italian — received the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant, two Michelin stars, and lavish praise from Bon Apetit, Esquire, GQ and Zagat. Renowned for Italian coastal cuisine and hand-made pastas, the restaurant is frequented by celebrities, high-profile business people and devoted foodies alike.
No wonder, then, that DeSteno’s promotion from executive sous-chef to this leadership role in late 2013 provoked heaping platters of chatter on food blogs as well as a glowing story in the New York Times. And yet, DeSteno takes her rise to the top circles of the dining world with enviable serenity. After all, it is the logical outcome of a dream she’s pursued since she was just tall enough to reach the knobs on the stove in her family’s Franklin Lakes, N.J., kitchen.
“I have wanted to do this since I was 8,” said DeSteno. “I cooked for my parents as a girl,” she said with a laugh. “They would take me to the supermarket and I’d just go through the aisles and pick out whatever caught my fancy. I catered parties before I learned to drive.”
When her parents realized this food phase was no fleeting fancy — that cooking would play a leading role in their talented daughter’s future — they cut her a deal.
“They said, ‘As long as you get a four-year college education, you can do whatever you like,’” recalled DeSteno. Because she had gone to an all-girls Catholic high school, DeSteno saw Fairfield as a natural fit. It also helped that her brother, Marc DeSteno ’92, and his now-wife, Maryfrances Lanosa ’92, were both Fairfield alumni. “I grew up with their friends and subliminally had a connection to Fairfield,” she said.
Marc DeSteno, now a lawyer and insurance executive in Hartford, is proud of his “little sister” who used to come up to Fairfield as a youngster on Parents’ Weekend.
“She started with the easy stuff, like baking and cooking breakfast, and worked up from there,” said Marc DeSteno, who majored in economics at Fairfield. “None of us are surprised by her success because she’s been focused on this forever.”
To cover her bases, Lauren DeSteno pursued a finance degree at Fairfield, which she’s now glad to have. She pursued other interests at Fairfield, too, including lacrosse and campus politics. A four-year starting attacker on the University women’s lacrosse team, DeSteno honed her leadership skills on and off the field. After her sophomore year, she lived at Fairfield beach, where she served as vice president of the Fairfield Beach Association. More impressively, DeSteno was elected class president during her senior year, when she also organized a successful walkathon for children’s diabetes.
“That was all more along the vein of what I do now, organizing big events,” she said.
Along the way, DeSteno added a Spanish minor to her finance major, which allowed her to enjoy a junior semester abroad in Seville, Spain. The exposure to Mediterranean cuisine and — as she traveled more widely in Europe — other continental fare prodded her back toward her ultimate gastronomic goal. After graduating Fairfield, she enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where she earned an associate’s degree.
The experience made her more fully appreciate her undergraduate career. “When I was in culinary school, a lot of the students came straight out of high school,” she said. “I remember feeling bad that they weren’t going to have the same amazing experience that I had at Fairfield.”
After taking part in “a stage”—the equivalent of an all-day interview — DeSteno was hired at the upscale Eleven Madison Park, where she worked for nearly two years. There she befriended Jared Gadbaw, later hired by Michael White as executive chef at Marea. Gadbaw asked DeSteno to join him there. She started at Marea as chef de partie de garde manger and quickly moved up the ranks.
Among the delicacies on Marea’s menu are appetizers of caviar, oysters, lobster, squid, octopus, blue crab and sea urchin. The names of her appetizers are as mouth-watering as their preparation: gamberi, polipo, zeppole and so on.
“We get our seafood from all over the world, not just the Mediterranean,” said DeSteno. “Most of our sea urchin and oysters comes from the Pacific coast and, depending on the season, the fish comes from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, or Alaska.
We will definitely send food back if it doesn’t meet our standards.”
When DeSteno was named Marea’s chef de cuisine, a New York Times article framed the promotion as a coup for women. However, DeSteno downplays that aspect of it.
“It was an amazing experience with the Times article but I never really faced discrimination because of my gender,” she said. “I never thought about it, in fact, until they asked me about it. It never came into play for me. That’s not to say that there isn’t a disparity of women in terms of sheer numbers working as chefs, but that gap is closing fast. There is simply no correlation between gender and quality or quantity of work.”
As chef de cuisine, DeSteno is both supervisor and hands-on with the food.
“Even Michael White will help out with the pasta cooks on busy nights,” she says. “This is a mellow kitchen. Michael is not one of those screaming, nasty bosses. He keeps things entertaining and un-stressful.”
There are no slow days at a high-profile restaurant like the 124-seat Marea. Most nights, in fact, it’s hard to get in without a reservation.
As for the celebrities often spotted here, from Jay-Z and Beyonce to Sarah Jessica Parker, DeSteno leaves the schmoozing to White, who’s really the “face” of the Marea.
“Some celebrities will only come once, but others are regulars,” she said. “We also have high-profile clients in different fields, and our staff is discrete at protecting the privacy of our guests.”
Despite her shunning of the limelight, she does confess to having met Bill and Chelsea Clinton and Lady Gaga at the restaurant.
Although kitchen work is notorious for long hours, loud noises and hard, hot work, DeSteno is able to maintain a life outside the restaurant.
Recently engaged, DeSteno enjoys going out to eat often in New York, an epicenter of gastronomy: “You go where the good food is,” she said, simply.
Perhaps the final word on the fare at Marea should come from her family. Her brother and his wife eat at the restaurant three to four times a year, and her parents are also regular “customers.” While they enjoy the world-class cuisine, they no doubt recall that little girl on tippy toes in their Franklin Lakes kitchen trying to reach the knobs on the stove.
“They still love my food,” she said with a laugh.
Marea, 240 Central Park South, New York, NY 10019, 212-582-5100, www.marea-nyc.com