Some pastry chefs learn how to laminate dough and whip meringues at culinary school under the watchful eye of dedicated teachers. Natalie Saben, on the other hand, got all of her training on the job.
Born and raised just outside of Chicago, Saben has been cooking since she was seventeen years old. She began working in kitchens during her senior year of high school, where she spent weekends at her neighborhood bistro learning as much as she could about cooking. From there, she went on to work as a sous chef at Viand Bar & Kitchen and Opera before becoming the chef de tournant at Graham Elliot in 2009. It was here that she began to discover her identity as a chef and quickly rose through the ranks to join the opening team of Graham Elliot Bistro as sous chef, where she helped start the restaurant's pastry program.
Saben learned to bake her first loaf of bread in the kitchens of the now closed, three-MICHELIN-starred Grace. The budding baker and pastry chef taught herself how to bake bread and temper chocolate while under the watchful and encouraging eye of chef Curtis Duffy. A few years later, she was running the entire pastry and bread department.
From avant-garde creations at Grace, Saben now fashions wood-fired and fruit-forward seasonal sweets at the California-inspired Pacific Standard Time, like pineapple tres leches with roasted pineapple, cajeta, candied hazelnuts, and black lime sherbet or huckleberry sundae with spiced meringue, buttermilk cake, honey ice cream and basil.
What was the last thing you ate?
A chocolate protein shake and a banana. I know, kinda sad.
It's your day off. What do you order for breakfast and where?
I always try to sleep as late as possible on my days off, however, lately I can't seem to sleep past 9:00 a.m., at which point my husband can normally convince me to hit our favorite spot Lula Cafe for breakfast. I always order the same thing: a breakfast burrito with an extra side of sour cream and a short stack of pancakes. I need both salty and sweet to start my day.
Controversial question: Do you believe in brunch?
I love brunch, I even love working brunch, occasionally. When I am able to go out for brunch I like Somerset. The menu consists of classics executed very well. I tend to always order a croissant or chocolate croissant because I am obsessed with laminated pastries. I also love a good eggs benedict—I'm a glutton for hollandaise sauce.
What is your 2:00 a.m. food order or favorite spot?
Philly's Best for a Philly cheesesteak. It's this little dive spot in Greek Town, funnily enough, but a friend introduced me to it and it totally hits the spot at 2:00 a.m.
What is your local coffee shop and what do you order?
My favorite spot is Sawada Coffee if I'm going to work. However, if I'm staying home I really enjoy Passion House Cafe. It's right around the corner from my house. At either spot, my go to drink is a vanilla latte.
Where do you go when you travel to your favorite city?
Pêche Seafood Grill in New Orleans. My husband and I have been down to NOLA three times and we, without fail, make sure to eat at Pêche. The restaurant is always bustling no matter what day of the week it is. The oyster bar is our favorite spot to sit because we love being able to chat with the shuckers. Each time we order at least a dozen oysters and they always seem to have drum on the menu in some form, so we've enjoyed that two out of the three times we've been there.
What is the "laziest" meal you put together for yourself this past week?
A frozen pepperoni pizza that I partially burned.
What is your favorite snack food?
I love Flavor Blasted Xtra Cheddar Goldfish, so much so that we always have some in the dough room at Pacific Standard Time. They are great when I need some salt after snacking on sweets all day!
What is your guilty pleasure?
I love Coke. I know soda isn't healthy, but after a long day nothing beats a cold Coke for me.
Photo by Jeff Marini.