Food, not attitude
The perception of the chef as a temperamental being, as likely to use a knife on a waiter as on a rack of ribs, has endured for decades. The fact that the caricature has become almost cartoonish hasn’t slowed its use. In a current TV commercial for a cell-phone service provider, a cursing chef, his glare as sharp as his knife, is used to represent outrage over dropped calls. Anthony Bourdain, whose smirking face has become ubiquitous since the publication of 2001’s tell-all “Kitchen Confidential,” has a new book out, titled “Nasty Bits.” It can seem as if the main ingredient we look for in a chef is rage, with a generous dash of machismo.In her stretch at Tra Vigne, a restaurant at the epicenter of Napa Valley, Dena Marino got plenty of exposure to the cooking-with-fury method. Though she doesn’t go much into specifics, the phrase “melons being thrown” escapes her lips. “That was a tough, old-school kitchen. There were rough days there,” said Marino. “My being there six years was a major steppingstone to teach me today how to do things differently.”A few weeks ago, on a reasonably busy night at the Wild Fig, one of two Aspen restaurants where she is the chef, Marino demonstrated how much she didn’t buy into the ill humor so associated with fine cooking. Through the opening between kitchen and dining room, Marino could be seen smiling, laughing and, on several occasions, dancing with her staff. When Marino came onto the floor, she drifted not toward the alpha male diner, nor toward the table with the most wine bottles stacked on it – but to a 3-year-old, with whom Marino had a lot to talk about. In fact, Marino, at 32, was probably as close in age to the young diner as she was to most of the Wild Fig’s clientele that night. Her chubby cheeks would seem to make frowning physically impossible.
She could well have turned out differently. Tra Vigne, for all its pugnacity, was a highlight of her career, “the best experience I’ve had in my life,” says Marino, who worked her way from pizza cook to sous chef at the landmark restaurant.”I started off that way,” said Marino, who remains capable of the toughness that is a necessity in running two kitchens. (After an unsatisfying exchange with a purveyor outside her restaurant recently, she turned to me and, with a smile, whispered a word under her breath that sounded distinctly like “Scum.”) “But I’ve grown up. I’ve evolved. Tra Vigne was definitely good – but that was 1994. Things changed – people, ways. I know what works for me. There are grouchy days, but not very often.”Evidence of her easygoing nature is in the team she has assembled for the long haul, and for which she displays fierce loyalty. Marino and her three sous chefs – Miguel Diaz and Ubaldo Gomez at D19, Alberto Lopez at Wild Fig – have been together eight years, dating back to Ajax Tavern. “They’re like my second family. Almost my first family,” said Marino. “That’s why I can dance.”
Marino has had much to dance about these past six months. After six years at Ajax Tavern, most of those as executive chef, Marino was invited into a partnership headed by Craig and Samantha Cordts-Pearce. The couple, both veterans in managing Aspen restaurants, had opened the Mediterranean-leaning Wild Fig and had also taken over the lease at the nearby space that housed the Colony. The plan was to open a new restaurant in the Colony space, and to give Marino full reign over the menu. D19 – whose name mixes Marino’s initial with the Cordts-Pearce’s lucky number – opened in late December to packed tables and general acclaim that hasn’t let up. It was an opportunity that Marino was more than ready for. For six years, since early in her tenure at Ajax Tavern, she has been thinking about what she would do with a tabula rasa of a menu.”Putting every seasonal change in the menu, things I grew up with that I wanted to put my own twist on – I put those things in a book on the side,” said Marino. “All of a sudden, when we knew we were doing this, bam, we had a whole menu of things I wanted to try, things that were special to me. There were so many ideas that we have some stashed again.”Marino has plenty of room to try out her ideas. D19 recently unveiled a summer menu that changed things a good bit. (It even ditches the succulent gnocci with wild boar ragu, a standout dish, for a lighter gnocci.) The restaurant’s spacious mall-side patio debuted as a lunch spot last week, with the addition of such items as a crispy Chesapeake soft-shell crab, and the Mambo Italiano, a burger that plays on the concept of a meatball. Over at the Wild Fig – where Marino is chef, but not a partner – she has likewise unveiled two new menus.Marino may not be the prototypical Type A chef. But the direct way she speaks and her professional history leave no doubt there is a reserve of intensity she can call on as needed. The introduction of four menus, plus having the Food & Wine Classic coming up, couldn’t have been easy. But the effort makes her happy.”I like to be busy. I can’t sit still,” said Marino, who named shopping as her one hobby. “If I’m not here, I’m calling.”
Marino’s culinary foundation was built when she was a kid in New Jersey, first in the industrial cities of Elizabeth and Linden, then in the shore town of Toms River. It was a “big, food-oriented family,” said Marino. “Pasta, sausage, sauces, always homemade. Pizza once a week – homemade pizza once a week.” From 10 into her late teens, Marino worked in small, local restaurants; as a high school junior, she already knew she’d be attending the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y. Through stints at Caesar’s Palace in Atlantic City – where she worked in a dozen or so restaurants, in virtually every capacity – Tra Vigne and Ajax Tavern, Marino refined her tastes without abandoning her Italian-American roots.”I basically have the same themes I had, from childhood to Tra Vigne to now,” said Marino, who met her husband, Ajax Tavern manager Marcus Wade, when the two worked together at Tra Vigne. “But at different levels. At home, it was some homemade pastas, with simple meat sauces. Then at Tra Vigne, it was all homemade pastas and lots of different meats in the sauces. I learned what I really loved and brought it all here, intertwined.”The D19 cuisine is pitched as “Old World meets New,” an approach summed up in the prosciutto zeppole, a signature Marino dish. The zeppoles Marino had as a kid were rolled in sugar. Figuring dough-and-sugar was not exactly to Aspen’s tastes, she turned it upside down, using prosciutto, reggiano, truffle oil and rosemary instead of sugar. Another dish (the one that has made it almost impossible to keep my wife away from D19 since December) is the braised artichoke, which Marino created at Ajax and brought with her. New dishes for D19’s summer menu include salmon carpaccio, quail risotto and English pea ravioli.Some diners must have been disheartened, late last year, to learn that there was yet another Italian restaurant coming to Aspen. Marino had no worries that she was oversaturating the market.”I knew it was different. It’s not the basic, Italian-American food,” she said. “I like to import things that are new and kind of trendy from Italy.” Her latest example is Burrata, a creamy mozzarella with a touch of truffle oil, which she serves with tomatoes. “No one’s using it,” she said, noting also the pastas (lemon fettucine, calamarata) and fish (John Dory, Arctic char) that are out of the mainstream. The response to the food, said Marino, has been “over-the-top unbelievable.”Marino’s affection for cooking, like her ingredients and preparations, came from her family. Food was for the simple pleasure of gathering and eating, not for competing and intimidating.Asked why, at 17, she made the decision to go to cooking school, Marino reflects back to the kitchen manned by her mother and grandmother: “The way I saw our family when we ate, how close we were, how happy a time it was – and there was always food. I figured, why not share that with other people? I love making people happy.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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