For Dena Marino, everything changed after her first home economics class. It was in that unlikely place -- in a football-crazed high school in a middling city near the Jersey shore -- that the petite blonde had an epiphany. She wanted to become a chef.
It didn't come as a total surprise. Growing up in an Italian family, she had always placed importance on food. From an early age, Marino -- the chef of MC Kitchen and Mercato in the Design District -- pickled vegetables, kneaded pastas, and made cheeses entirely from scratch. Her mother and grandparents taught her about seasonality and how to build meals around fresh produce.
Until that moment in home ec, though, cooking had just been a part of her upbringing.
"Food was always the basis of my family's communication -- it brought us together for special occasions and regular, everyday meals," Marino says. "But it was in my home economics class that I learned that being a chef could be a career."
There were other clues about Marino's future in the kitchen. When she was 13, she landed her first food-related job at an ice-cream shop. The store made everything from scratch -- ice creams and toppings such as cookies, brownies, cakes, and toffees. A year later, she was promoted to shift manager. "It was a big deal!" she says.
The experience ignited a relentless passion in her. So after high school, she enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. In 1993, she graduated and scored a job with celebrity chef Michael Chiarello in California's Napa Valley. About six years later, she accepted an executive chef position at Ajax Tavern, a restaurant owned by Chiarello in Aspen, Colorado. At the ski vacationland, Marino developed a favorable reputation. Eventually, she launched her own kitchens -- D19 and Ellina.
In 2010, she sought change. After accepting a position at Danny DeVito's eponymous South Beach restaurant, Marino moved to Miami. That year, the chef also challenged Masaharu Morimoto on Food Network's Iron Chef America. Although she lost to the Iron Chef, the exposure entrenched Marino in the food industry's big leagues.
But back home, trouble was lurking at DeVito's. After two short months, Marino quit the job. Shortly thereafter, a scandal erupted: DeVito's was sued for cheating employees out of wages.
Marino distanced herself from the controversy. She delved into developing a new project, a restaurant that would provide Miami with something it lacked. In late 2012, the chef partnered with friend Brandy Coletta and opened MC Kitchen, an upscale Italian restaurant in the Design District -- located just a brief walk from Hermès and Christian Louboutin. A few months later, Marino debuted the fast-casual spot Mercato, located next door to MC Kitchen.
Before Marino's arrival, the area was bereft of an Italian presence. Now the District newcomer lures crowds with her pristine, straightforward cookery: stone-oven-roasted octopus, roasted pear and cheese fiocchi, and branzino with puréed leeks. Her open kitchen showcases a blazing oven and a hard-working toque, one who occasionally favors rosy chef's coats and Miami Heat jerseys.
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So what drove her to success? How did this blue-eyed kid go from home economics class in New Jersey to a ritzy restaurant in the Design District? And how can others do the same?
"My advice would be what I was told: Keep your mouth shut, eyes wide open, and ask as many questions as you can," she says. "Have blind faith in your team, work hard, and do the job that is asked of you... perfectly."
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.