Lauren DeSteno ’06 knew she wanted to be a chef from the age of eight. “In my Italian-Spanish family, food was the center of everything,” she says. With two grandmothers who encouraged her interest in food, Lauren would scour the grocery store choosing items at random. Then, she’d hurry home to create savory dishes for her extended family. As a teenager, Lauren branched out to catering cocktail parties for her mother’s friends and even spent summers working for a professional caterer.
“As much as I had my heart set on going to culinary school, my parents were hesitant,” says Lauren, chef de cuisine at Marea in New York City, the jewel of the Altamarea Group’s restaurants. “No one in our family worked in the food industry and they were concerned it would be a difficult line of work. My father made a deal with me. He said, if I finished college and still wanted to go to culinary school he would support my choice.” Lauren attended Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in finance and Spanish.
It was a semester abroad in Seville, Spain that confirmed in her mind a future in the culinary arts. “I lived with a widow who took in students to supplement her income,” says Lauren. “Everyday she would go to the market and bring home simple, incredibly fresh ingredients. To this day, I can taste her fried eggs with peppers.” On graduation day, Lauren’s father asked if she still wanted to attend culinary school. “Without missing a beat, I said yes. The Culinary Institute of America was the only school I applied to and I was thrilled to be accepted,” Lauren says.
“Once I started my classes it was intensive and all encompassing,” she says. “At the CIA there is a certain standard of professionalism that speaks to the fact that you’re training for a career not just a job. There are no excuses. The chef-instructors are very clear about what’s expected. Learn the language of the kitchen, master the techniques, develop your palate and knife skills, and work as a team. It’s not easy but you need to go into it respecting the process necessary to absorb and learn. You have to be open, ready to work hard, and adapt to new things. I really don’t think there’s another school that covers as much information or exposes you to as much culinary knowledge and cultural diversity as the CIA.”
Despite her heavy coursework Lauren took part in numerous activities around campus. “I think the best thing anyone can do is to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way,” Lauren says. “I was a group leader, I did campus tours, and helped prep for open houses. It gave me time to get to know the chef-instructors and professors. They’re so in tune with the industry, and getting their feedback was invaluable to me.”
Lauren’s first job after graduation was at the award-winning Eleven Madison Park working under Chef Daniel Humm. “I started as a culinary sous-chef but they needed additional hands in the pastry department. I had the opportunity to work with Angela Pinkerton who is now the executive pastry chef at the restaurant,” recalls Lauren. “I learned so much from her.” Lauren also met Jared Gadbaw there, a connection that would prove significant for her career. “I left 11 Madison Park to work with Rocco DiSpirito ’86. I did food styling for his television show, Rocco Gets Real, and recipe testing for his cookbooks,” Lauren remembers. “Jared started working with Michael White in preparation for opening Marea. He called me and asked me to come on board as a member of the opening team. Now Jared is the executive chef!”
Since opening in 2008, Marea has won a host of awards including two Michelin stars; the 2010 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant; three stars from The New York Times; Best New Restaurant award from Bon Appétit, Esquire, Zagat Guide, and GQ; and Relais & Chateaux’s Grand Chef Gourmand. Lauren worked her way up the line from sous-chef to chef de cuisine, where she manages four sous-chefs and 20 other cooks. Being bi-lingual certainly helps in a busy kitchen.
“At the CIA my classmates came from all over the world, each with different experiences and skill sets,” Lauren explains. “You learn to work together as a team and focus on peoples’ strengths. I see that everyday in Marea’s kitchen. I have to read my staff and delegate accordingly to make our team strong and consistent. I have very high standards, just like the CIA.”
Lauren’s family is incredibly proud of how far she’s come in the culinary world. Now they can say they know someone in the industry.