Five Minutes with New York Artist and De Maria Creative Director - Grace Lee

At Nolita’s new all-day, ultra-contemporary cafe De Maria it’s all about the details. An order of a chili-turmeric bone broth or a carob and honey steamer comes out in a oversized ceramic (blue, black or pink) long handled mug. The earthy-green leather tables are adorned with mix-matched antique and modern flatware. The wooden mid-century chairs were sourced from Europe and Scandinavia. In the bathroom, there’s a painting of the Virgin Mary decked out with stripes of neon-blue lights. From the hip decor to the colorful menu, there isn’t a moment unworthy of an Instagram post, but the laid-back atmosphere is better served unfiltered (or both, no judgement).

Back in 2013, Grace Lee founded the all-female DJ collective Liaison Femme, striking up a pretty impressive roster of New York record spinners like DJ Lindsay, Jasmine Solano, Kitty Cash, and Mia Moretti. It’s no surprise that for her latest venture Lee, who herself is a DJ and producer, rounded up a team of female collaborators. Culinary director Camille Becerra (formerly curating the menu at places like Cafe Henri and Navy) is the mastermind behind the menu which is a playful, unconventional take on healthy food with dishes like Becerra’s lauded Dragon bowl to a breaded pork cutlet sandwich on toasted white bread. While, Amy Morris, Anna Polonsky (MP Shift), and art director Nikki Brand helped to achieve De Maria’s bright, airy mid-century aesthetic.

We caught up with the native New Yorker and music curator to talk about the inspiration behind her new restaurant De Maria and her criteria for a good meal.

How did the concept for De Maria come into fruition? I read that you were inspired by iconic women.

De Maria started as a collaboration between me and chef Camille. We actually met not even a year ago through mutual friends and our energy and goal points in life were very aligned and we felt very connected. That was the sisterhood that her and I wanted to bring upon the resturant. The whole iconic woman thing was really about bringing females together on a more socially conscious level, particularly in the New York scene it’s really rare to see women come together to do something like this. We were very excited to do something that represents women today and history. De Maria in Latin means ‘by Mary, from Mary’, and that comes from the idea that we all come from a woman, a mother.

The menu here is very healthy, but not by any means boring. What was the inspiration behind it?

Camille’s type of food is really about being healthy, yet artistic. She really practices the idea of freshness and nutritional-ism and wants it to be a very mindful menu. When you think about healthy food you think about salads, poached ingredients and very non salty dishes, very California, but that’s not really what her food is about, her food is more about your well-being of everything you eat.

Being a New Yorker and Creative Director of a restaurant, what’s your criteria for picking good food around the city?

When I go out to eat it’s all about energy. If the vibe is wrong and the energy is wrong, if you have a careless restaurant, no one wants to eat there. Secondly, for me it’s really about how you present your food, so if you’re food is really curated to make you feel comfortable, make you feel excited to eat that’s what I look for. Like on a rainy day no matter where I am if I’m craving Pho, I’m going to go to Hanoi House. If I want Thai food, I’m going to go to Lucky Bee’s. If I want some really good pasta, I’m going to go to Supper.

What type of energy do you want to come off here at De Maria?

Welcomed. Because I feel like a lot of restaurants that I’ve been to in New York always make you feel like you have to adapt. In our restaurant, it’s really about the casualness, it’s really about coming here as you are. My mentor Giovanni James, he’s like one of the pioneers of A&R, he really taught me in terms of curating things it’s not really about what you see in something, it’s how you feel. That’s kind of how I view De Maria as this place where people can feel what you’re here for rather than what you see.

If you could describe De Maria in one word or a motto?

Home. De Maria is a version of how I would want to live. It’s home, it’s culture and we say to everyone here bless your soul. That’s our motto.  

Words by Tahirah Hairston