Sous chef Mary Attea works at Annisa (13 Barrow Street, 212-741-6699), Anita Lo’s sexy Barrow Street culinary haven, where she’s contributed dishes like steak tartare and saddle of rabbit to the innovative menu. Here, she opens up about admiring Anita Lo’s modesty, her favorite drunk snack, and how much she likes it when the kitchen FTMFB (abbreviated: fires the motherf—ing board).
What draws you to nurturing people with food?
I grew up in a family where food was something to be celebrated and appreciated. So it has always provided me with a sense of comfort and satisfaction. It’s incredibly rewarding to make family meal and watch people enjoy what you created. Whenever we would compliment my mother on her food, she would always say it was so good because “it was made with love.” I like to think that translates through my cooking.
Walk me through your career. How did you get your start?
I actually began my career on the other side of the line, waiting tables. I moved to NYC for graduate school and started working in a restaurant to make extra money. I was always interested in kitchen life, having had some minimal experience making pizzas as a summer job. After six years in the front, I finally crossed to the “dark” side, which I couldn’t be happier about now. I graduated from ICE in 2011 and pursued an externship at Annisa. I have been here ever since.
What were some of the struggles in the beginning?
The biggest struggle at first was probably the pay cut. It’s hard going from server wages to entry level kitchen wages. Also, I was always stressed out in the first couple months, worrying that I forgot to prep something or didn’t make a dish correctly. I had dreams all the time that I was going to be fired. Luckily, with time and shift drinks, that stress subsided.
What do you struggle with now?
The struggle now is to maintain a successful kitchen. Managing people is a whole different ball game than just coming in doing your own work and leaving. Focus and attention to detail is crucial as well as keeping people inspired and happy. I am fortunate to have a strong, cohesive team. It makes managing a lot easier.
How much of a creative role do you play?
I have started to contribute to the menu in the past year. Usually, when I come up with an idea, Anita will help tie up the loose ends. She is very welcoming of new ideas, which helps motivate me to create and experiment.
How do you learn new dishes?
If it’s a new dish at the restaurant, Anita will give a recipe and demo if needed. If I want to learn a new dish in general, I usually take a stab at it for family meal. With the crew here, I can tell pretty quickly if it was a success or not.
What do you feel all this is leading to?
I wish I could say I have this clear cut vision in my head of where this road will take me, but I don’t. I’m sort of just enjoying the ride right now. I have so much left to learn and experience that my only goal right now is to soak up as much as I can. I would love to travel the world, staging at restaurants and learning multiple cuisines. If I plan to open my own restaurant some day, I would want to have a strong foundation.
What do you eat in the kitchen?
Usually scraps of dishes from the menu and leftover family meal of the day. After service on Saturday nights, Anita makes a family meal for everyone, so we all pretty much look forward to that. It usually blows away anything I’ve eaten all week. Perfect way to end a busy night.
What do you eat on your day off?
I try to dine out on my days off so I can see what other chefs are creating. It’s integral to taste new flavors and exercise the palate. If I’m cooking at home, it’s usually something simple. Every once in a while, I like to make a big batch of something like pasta sauce or soup to freeze and eat later. I think I learned this from my mother who was feeding a family of six.
Can you give us some kitchen slang?
“FTMFB” Fire the mother f*%#ing board. This usually signifies the end of the night when the last tables are fired. I like when we fire the board.
What are your hours like?
I am fortunate to be at Annisa, which is only open for dinner service from 5:30 to 10:30. So I don’t have to worry about early mornings prepping for lunch or brunch. I usually head in around 1 and am finished by 11:30. 12 on busier nights.
Did you have a mentor?
My first sous chef, Titus “Danny” Wang, when I started at Annisa made a big impression on me. I learned a lot from him that I still carry with me. And Anita has been hugely influential and supportive.
What was your relationship like?
I was definitely a little scared of both Anita and Danny at first, mostly because I was new and wanted to impress both of them. But they were both extremely supportive of me and helped me get where I am today.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?
Respect. Respect all around. Treating those around you with respect, whether it be your dishwasher or FOH staff. Treating your ingredients and product with respect. Knowing that someone put time into raising a pig or cultivating a radish and it’s up to you to showcase its potential. Respecting your knife, your tools, your work area.
What do people in your personal life ask you to make them?
Egg sandwiches. It’s my breakfast specialty. I think I’m also pretty much expected to make Christmas Eve dinner from now on.
Do any of your sous chef skills translate to other areas?
I wish the organizational skills translated to other areas. I’m not as organized or structured in life outside the kitchen. I also like to think that my knife skills will help with a zombie apocalypse!
What do you wear in the kitchen?
Short sleeve dishwasher shirt, chef’s pants, apron, head band, clogs.
What do you do about the heat?
I usually roll up my pants to my knees which helps with ventilation, but then leaves me vulnerable to leg burns, which are not pretty. We also will freeze wet towels and put them on our necks.
What about patrons that complain?
We take complaints seriously and will always investigate. If a guest feels something was salty, I taste all the components to make sure they are seasoned properly. But nothing is more frustrating than a patron who complains that something wasn’t hot and then I hear from the server that they didn’t touch it for 10 minutes.
What’s your favorite thing to make for Annisa right now?
I love making the steak tartare because we mix it to order so I always have to taste it. It’s a flavor that brings me back to my childhood.
What do you admire about Anita Lo?
Her modesty. She is one of the most talented and creative chefs around but doesn’t flaunt it or deem herself more important. She puts herself on the same level as those working around her. My first day as an intern I was amazed that she, the chef and owner, took our shift drink orders and delivered them personally. She is someone who respects her staff.
It’s not so much a cookbook, but I love Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” I think every cook should own a copy. I love being able to look up anything and find out its properties and what happens on a molecular level. I think it’s not only important to know a cooking technique, but to know the “why” of it. For me, it helps with comprehension. It’s also easier to teach when you fully understand.
Do you socialize with other people in the kitchen?
We are a small, tight knit kitchen, so we definitely get to know each other during the work time hours. However, we are fairly tame for a kitchen crew. Most of us just head home after work. We’ll go out occasionally, which is always nice to relax and catch up without the kitchen craziness.
What’s your favorite drunk snack?
Chicken gyro from Sammy’s halal food truck on West 4th and Sixth Avenue. Chicken wings at The Wing Bar in Brooklyn.