Chef Laetitia Rouabah, the new face of the lauded Benoit in New York and Alain Ducasse's protégé, has led a culinary journey that was single-minded and without hesitation:
"I always wanted to work in the kitchen. It has never been a question to me, it has always been normal for me to become a chef. I remember when I was 6 years old, watching my mom preparing meals with great organization and the freshest products, that I understood that my life would be linked with food. Since then, it has always been a normal priority for me to become a chef," Rouabah says.
Having grown up in a Parisian suburb, Rouabah's mother was a nanny and her father an engineer. "Growing up in a family of four kids, I started to help my mom with cooking at a very young age. She was cooking at least twice a day, using fresh ingredients from the market, no cans or frozen food. She had to be creative to cook for a big family every day for lunch and dinner," Rouabah says.
Some of her favorite dishes growing up were riz au lait (rice pudding), chocolate bread pudding that her mother baked when she had leftover bread, potatoes with pork belly and parsley and her father's omelet with potato chips.
No one in her family worked in a restaurant before. She was just 16 years old when she went to culinary school for five years in Versailles at the Chamber of Craftsmanship. During that time she ended up working in traditional French bistros, Marcigny and La table d'Antan, which is where she first discovered the cuisine.
She then moved to Paris to the kitchens of Relais Plaza at the Plaza Athenée from 2004 to 2007. It was there that she met her soon-to-be mentor Alain Ducasse.
"I started at Relais Plaza as a school friend was working there and told me about an open position. I spent three years there, rising through the ranks from line cook to chef de partie. It was here that I discovered and became immersed in the world of Alain Ducasse, and he paved the way for my career," Rouabah says.
She then moved to London to lend support as chef de partie for the opening of Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester. It was her first restaurant opening and first time in a foreign country.
"This experience was a great challenge as I had to learn English and adapt to a different culture, produce and guest expectations."
It was this fateful relationship with Ducasse that led Rouabah to eventually lead the kitchen at Benoit. In 2013, Ducasse took over Allard, one of the few remaining authentic, gourmet bistros in Paris, known for its generations of female chefs at the helm, and selected Rouabah to carry on the legacy as executive chef. In 2016, Ducasse offered a new challenge to Rouabah—to be part of the reopening of Benoit and lead the kitchen in New York City.
She has now been working with Ducasse for over 14 years.
Benoit is Ducasse's contemporary French bistro serving up traditional fare mixed with modern interpretations like corn velouté, sweet spiced Rohan duck breast and chocolate smoked praline bourbon ice cream.
"Working under Alain Ducasse is recognized in the industry as one of the best ways to train in the culinary field. I had learned to work with chef Ducasse's cooking philosophy using less salt, less fat and less sugar. I also learned most of my cooking techniques and developed my own curiosity and love for traveling, discovering new cultures, different cuisines," Rouabah says.
"Laetitia Rouabah has a wonderful understanding of the food and traditions that make the French bistro so distinctive," Ducasse says. "Laetitia's great talent lies in her ability to create dishes that remind me of some of the most authentic bistro fare of my memories while bringing them a contemporary flair."
One of the signature dishes that Rouabah has revisited at Benoit is the quenelles de brochet sauce nantua, a yellow pike mousse made of flour, butter, cream, egg and espelette pepper with a creamy lobster and crayfish bisque served with pilaf rice. "I updated this dish by inserting the nantua sauce inside the quenelles, which is very surprising for guests when they cut the quenelles and discover the sauce inside," Rouabah says.
But Rouabah's dream is for more.
"My goal is to keep improving and pass on my knowledge to my wonderful team members. Like every chef, I wish one day to have my own restaurant," Rouabah says.
What was the last thing you ate?
A wonderful steak tartare with salad from Benoit prepared by our team. I ate it not only as a way of controlling the quality, but also because it is, for me, one of the best in NYC.
It's your day off. What do you have for breakfast and where?
For breakfast, I usually go to Sarabeth's in Tribeca and order scrambled eggs with bacon and avocado toast. However, when my schedule is tight and before going to work, I really enjoy preparing eggs Norwegian (with smoked salmon), the same way I do at Benoit.
Controversial question: Do you believe in brunch?
Yes, of course! It is usually not a French traditional meal, but it has become more and more popular throughout the years. I have been living in NYC for three years and a weekend without brunch isn't a real weekend. And don't forget a nice bottle of wine! I usually like to go to Maison Premiere or Atrium. As a huge brunch fan, I keep looking for new places and discoveries.
What is your 2:00 a.m. go-to food?
My 2:00 a.m. routine has always remained the same for years. I like to make a Parisian sandwich (baguette, butter, jambon de Paris) and always add some Gruyére cheese. It is a must!
What is your local coffee shop and what do you order?
My local coffee shop is Zibetto Espresso Bar, where I usually order a cappuccino with almond milk. Mr. Ducasse introduced me to this place when I started at Benoit, and it has become a habit to start my day with their excellent coffee.
Where do you go when you are in your favorite city?
Paris is such an amazing city and full of great restaurants. I like to see my friend Akrame Benallal, as I have been a huge fan of all his restaurants since he started. The food there is exceptional, and I always try to bring friends or family that have not been there before.
What is the "laziest" meal you put together for yourself this past week?
My laziest meal is always what is left in the fridge, it is really important to me to avoid wasting food. Last week, I did an omelette with crisps, which was marvelous.
What is your favorite snack food?
Rillettes on a country bread toast. Rillettes from Benoit, of course.
What do you eat when you want to treat yourself?
Rib eye steak with salad and béarnaise sauce. A glass of pinot noir is also needed!
Hero image by Daniel Krieger.
Market and tartare images by Pierre Monetta.