Amanda and Stephen Briggs have been in the restaurant industry long enough to know that its only constant is insecurity. The couple’s history as front-of-the-house managers — she at Deluxe Restaurant Group, he at McCormick & Schmick’s — have no doubt helped them keep their composure as their first restaurant, Zest Bistro, has endured its own growing pains.
Zest lost its opening-day chef just weeks after the place opened last December on Barracks Row. It wasn’t a crippling blow to the upstart bistro — the chef was just executing a menu designed by a consultant — but it did leave a hole in the Zest kitchen. And there was still the issue that led to the chef departure in the first place, namely a lack of menu execution.
The Briggs conducted a search for a replacement and found one in, of all places, the rubble of the Fannie Mae mortgage crisis. For nine years, Dorothy Steck was the chef at the Fannie Mae Executive Dining Room, where she prepared meals for former executives like Daniel Mudd and Franklin Raines.
Amanda Briggs admits she was hesitant to hire a chef who hasn’t worked in a busy commercial kitchen in nearly a decade. But, she said, that Steck’s skills and collaborative nature won over both owners. “She’s not pretentious. She’s not about putting her name on something,” Amanda Briggs says. “Yet she came in and wowed us with some of her own stuff.”
Steck’s skills shouldn’t be so surprising. Before her long stint at Fannie Mae, she worked for six years under Ann Cashion and José Andrés at Jaleo. She was also the executive sous chef at the now-shuttered Butterfield 9. Steck couldn’t be happier being back in a real kitchen.
“I love being back where I can see people. And getting feedback, good or bad,” she wrote me via e-mail. “I was able to cook whatever I wanted at Fannie, but it was for a few people who were working, not out enjoying food.”
Steck has lightened up the existing Zest menu for summer, she says, and added a few new dishes, including a pork tenderloin with a spicy peach chutney and a garlic breast of chicken. She has even hired a new sous chef to replace the one who abruptly left. Steck has hired pastry chef Erin Baehman, whose work has graced menus at Nage and Marvin, to be her sous and help bolster the dessert options at Zest.
Since she started in May, Steck has even had to jump on the line some nights. It has helped to knock the rust off after so long in a corporate dining room.
“I worked saute Thursday night, Friday day and night, Saturday day and night, Sunday day and night,” Steck wrote last week. “I will take on any 25 year old you want to throw at me and show them how it’s done and send them home with more respect for Mommy. There was a learning curve, and I will never be the fastest, but my food is beautiful and tastes great (she said humbly).”
You’ll have to decide for yourself on the food front. Steck is also the wife of Charles Steck, a long-time contributing photographer to City Paper, and I consider her a friend. I will recuse myself from reviewing her food.