chef on the move
Theodore Rex's Beard Award semifinalist chef departs after 'beautiful,' 8-year run
Winner of Chef of the Year in the 2021 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards and a semifinalist for a James Beard Award in 2020, Steets started working as a cook at Oxheart in 2015. She rose through the ranks and earned the title of head chef at Theodore Rex in 2022. She tells CultureMap that she and Theodore Rex executive chef-owner Justin Yu have been planning for this transition.
“We’ve been talking about it for awhile now, just figuring out the appropriate timing. To me, it’s always been important that it feel like a transition,” Steets says. “A lot of people don’t get to do that, to feel like it’s a grateful transition. My goal is that my last day I don’t feel like I’m needed.”
Steets’s son dictated part of the timing. He started kindergarten this fall. “If I’m going to want to play the mom role while working service five nights a week, those two worlds don’t overlap in the way I wish they could,” she says.
Yu acknowledges that Theodore Rex won’t be the same without Steets in the kitchen, but he’s proud of what she’s accomplished.
“It’s a very fruitful, a very beautiful 8 years,” he says. To help her find her voice as far as how food is made and how the kitchen is run. I’m extremely thankful. That kitchen, because of its size, is a hard place to work. For her to thrive in it and succeed personally, for me, it’s a huge win.
“It’s a happy and sad thing for it to go away. For me, it’s extremely happy. It’s like when I closed Oxheart, it’s on the terms you want someone to leave on.”
One of the highlighters of the chef’s tenure at Theodore Rex took place during 2021 when she operated the French-influenced Littlefoot pop-up for three months. It earned raves from diners for dishes such as roast quail with green Chartreuse and fennel and farro verde with smoked vegetable fumet.
Steets acknowledges that tasting menus still appeal to her, but it’s not necessarily what she’ll do next. She says she doesn’t feel ready to open her own restaurant and wants to learn from at least another chef or two before making that leap.
“Technically, I’m looking for a job. I just don’t know what that is yet,” she says. “I’m open to seeing what’s out there. It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of opportunities come up and what I can learn from those scenarios.”
As for Theodore Rex, Yu says he’ll already identified the restaurant’s next chef de cuisine but won’t formally name him until Steets departs. While Steets leaned French, he thinks the restaurant might move in a slightly different direction that brings it closer to the Oxheart days.
“T. Rex is one of those places that follows modern trends,” he says. “To me, we’ve started to embrace that Asian American side. Definitely, I think we want to get back to the roots of vegetable cookery. The goal is always there to try to be one of the best, if not the best, restaurants in the city.”
Of course, Steets also has more immediate goals. She dined regularly at Oxheart before she worked there, but has never experienced Theodore Rex as a diner. That could change on December 31.
“The unofficial plan is I work the first half of service. Then I sit down to eat,” she says.