Annisa Sous Mary Attea: "I'm Sort of Just Enjoying the Ride"
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.