If you think your schedule is full, compare it to that of St. Louis native Lauren DeSantis-Then, who has quite a few titles to her name: lawyer, food show host, cookbook author, food blogger and mom of two (she and her husband, Corey, had their second just over a month ago). What’s most captivating, though, is that she actually enjoys everything. It all makes life more balanced, she says.
DeSantis-Then, who recently moved back home from the East Coast and now lives in University City, grew up in a large, Italian family in North County. Her heritage no doubt influenced her love of good food—and sharing it with others. “Food and hosting are just part of our culture,” she says. “My great-grandparents came over to America, but their ideals and way of life were passed down to every generation. Both my grandma and mom are amazing cooks, so I picked up a lot from them.”
Her split focus started in college. While a political science major at Truman State University, she was unimpressed by the food served at school. “In order to eat well, I had to learn how to cook,” she says. “I always hosted dinner parties for my friends.” She continued her hostess duties at Duke University School of Law and took it a step further after moving to Washington, D.C., for her first job at Polsinelli (the law firm she also practices at now in St. Louis). Her husband, a fellow law school grad, worked for the Obama administration. “Everyone we knew was a lawyer,” she laughs. “I needed an outlet so I didn’t only talk about law!” She found a 20-week night program at L’Academie de Cuisine, where she learned traditional French techniques hands-on and became confident cooking without a recipe.
But it wasn’t enough to just learn about it. In true Italian form, she wanted to share her newfound skills as well. “I had read about a young lawyer in Texas who started her own cooking show on public-access television, so I looked into it,” she recalls. After taking a required production class, she learned that her show topic was approved for a local channel. And what started in 2008 as a bare bones operation in her condo kitchen turned into air time on public access channels in 29 cities across the country, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. “The D.C. area has people from all over the world with different cultures, so we embraced that on the show,” DeSantis-Then says. “You can learn about culture through food. How people live and eat often go hand in hand.”
She invited area chefs, including those from local embassies, on the show, and sometimes just cooked solo. The embassies also would send the couple to their respective countries—Iceland, Taiwan, Sweden and Mexico to name a few—so the show expanded to include travel. “We didn’t just eat,” she notes. “We explored towns, cooked with local chefs, and really made it into a travel and cooking show.” Her ultimate goal to get on PBS became a reality, and it was picked up by other national networks. Now, it runs in syndication.
To reach an even wider audience, she compiled the Capital Cooking Cookbook, filled with recipes, tips and menu planning from her years on TV. She made sure to include a nod to St. Louis with a gooey butter cake recipe. “The book was a great way to recognize the amazing chefs I had on as guests, and I tried to make their recipes accessible to home cooks,” she says. Her blog (capitalcooking.blogspot.com) also started as an extension of the show.
“I wanted to share more ‘behind the scenes’ information with viewers,” DeSantis-Then says. Back in D.C., it took on a life of its own, as the invites to food events and menu tastings piled up. She still has three writers in that area, and will continue her blogging locally in St. Louis. “Not a lot of people know about St. Louis’ food scene on a national level, but we have so many types of cuisine that are done really well,” she says. “I’m excited to try it all out!”
» Combine all ingredients, top with vinegar and serve.
Photos: Bill Barrett