For the first time in about eight years, high-concept restaurant company Major Food Group has hired a female executive chef at a restaurant: Ashley Eddie, a 30-year-old with experience at restaurants like Acme, is now leading the kitchen at coastal Italian restaurant Santina. The Crown Heights native, who started as a line cook at the Meatpacking District restaurant more than three years ago, is now the only female executive chef at the group’s 18 restaurants globally.
It’s a shift for the company from Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick, which has a somewhat bro-y reputation and is known for being the Yankees of the restaurant world: People either love them or hate them. Even when women play significant roles in the kitchen — like pastry chef Stephanie Prida at the Pool — MFG hasn’t necessarily pushed them forward to press, with the exception of Sadelle’s Melissa Weller, who mysteriously departed from the restaurant not long after the review cycle. Ashley Rath, chef de cuisine at the Grill, recently got a profile in Bon Appetit, but her name wasn’t mentioned at all when the splashy restaurant opened.
But Eddie says she didn’t know anything about MFG before starting at Santina, let alone any propensity for bro culture. In fact, she applied for a line cook job via Craigslist simply because she wanted to work at an Italian restaurant downtown. Her interview with Dan Haar, who was then running the Santina kitchen with the title chef de cuisine, went well; he “reeled me in,” she says.
“For me in this position now, it’s an opportunity to see that women are here, and we can do it,” Eddie says. “I don’t mind being the one to set the trend.”
Santina — MFG’s summery seafood-heavy restaurant near the Whitney — won’t be changing much under Eddie’s leadership. She’s added a few dishes, like lamb meatballs bound with rice instead of breadcrumbs and an eggplant parmigiana that’s “the lightest eggplant parmigiana I’ve ever had, that you’ve ever had,” she says. For the most part, she wants the restaurant to remain the same. “I love it the way it is,” she says.
That speaks to a big reason she was promoted, says Carbone. “She is Santina,” he says. “You can tell by the way she touches the food, the way she plates it.” And in response to skepticism over MFG’s sudden press push of a female in leadership, Carbone says that the timing is mostly because Santina is busier in the summer: “It’s when the restaurant blossoms. It’s important to say this is who is in charge,” he says.
Besides her skills as a chef, Eddie’s demeanor as a leader and teacher is what landed her in the top position, Carbone says. She stays calm when the restaurant’s most busy; she understands philosophies and how to pass them along to others in the kitchen, he says.
In fact, Eddie says one of her biggest goals with the new role is to help the staff of about 30 grow professionally — with “no yelling” and “no hysteria.” Kitchens historically can be loud, hostile workplaces, and in the #MeToo era, that culture has been particularly under the spotlight. To that end, Santina, she says, is one of the less aggressive kitchens where she’s worked, and it’s a tradition she wants to continue.
Ultimately, Eddie’s rise has been “old-fashioned,” Carbone says. She hasn’t done tons of restaurant hopping and worked every station at Santina before her promotion — a style that he’s seeing less and less of with young chefs, who tend to hop around to resume build.
The newly promoted chef has no plans to leave Santina any time soon, but she has ambitions beyond working for MFG. Eddie eventually wants her own small restaurant in Brooklyn, where she grew up in Crown Heights and where she learned to cook from her grandmother. She wants to travel the world, cooking in different countries and learning new techniques. “I want to be like Mario Carbone, is that bad to say?” she says. “I love him. I love that he’s given me this opportunity. My goal right now is to take it and run with it.”