In the heart of midtown Manhattan’s austere and grey concrete jungle lies Benoit; where Alain Ducasse provides a rare opportunity to escape to the Paris of an earlier time. A set of revolving doors ushers you into a sophisticated lounge where two antique club chairs invite you to warm up next to the stone mantel fireplace and admire the bustling bar reflected in the giant, gold framed mirror hanging above. A polite host, likely to have a Parisian accent, leads you into an elegant dining room filled with red velvet banquettes above which charming vintage posters are intimately lit by golden swing arm lights. Upstairs lie Les Salons; three bright private rooms named after streets leading to the original Benoit in Paris, each featuring floor-to-ceiling French oak. The real gem of this enchanting Parisian mansion? L’Officine; a cozy private room set in an antique 19th century apothecary transported to New York City by boat, straight from Bordeaux.
Owner of the original Benoit in Paris which first opened in 1912 and remains one of the last authentic Parisian bistros today, Ducasse launched New York’s rendition in 2008 to carry on the legacy of the traditional Parisian bistro. Two years ago, the restaurant underwent a major renovation led by Ducasse and Dekar Design to make the space more inviting and modern, all while maintaining the restaurant’s signature Parisian bistro elements.
A previously black-and-white bar has been refreshed with white-washed wood-panelled walls, vintage lights from a Parisian flea market, and marble-topped, gold-rimmed round tables. The dining room has kept its classic red and brass finishes but were made even grander with bright walls and oversized mirrors. Benoit’s revitalized identity enables guests to escape the impersonal quality and hectic pace of Manhattan, without sacrificing the New York sensibility that seems requisite of any highly-acclaimed restaurant in the city.
The polished nature of Benoit’s atmosphere only foreshadows the refined technique exhibited by Executive Chef Laetitia Rouabah, who has been leading the restaurant’s esteemed culinary reputation since 2016. Having spent 13 years as a part of the Ducasse team in France and England, it is no surprise she was Ducasse’s top choice to present authentic French cuisine in North America.
Before Benoit, Ducasse had selected Rouabah as the Executive Chef at Allard; a consistently female-led, gourmet bistro in Paris and one of the few remaining of its kind. Her experience in the French fine-dining is impressive, having started at Ducasse’s renowned Le Relais Plaza in the luxury Hotel Plaza Athenee, worked as a sous chef at Michelin-starred Le Jules Verne atop the Eiffel Tower as well as executive chef at Air France’s Salon La Premiere, one of the most highly-acclaimed lounges in the world.
At Benoit, Rouabah applies her French culinary expertise to fresh, market ingredients to create classic dishes she loves with the occasional modern twist. Crispy, hazelnut-coated cromesquis (croquettes) feature a delicate mixture of roasted butternut squash and black trumpet mushrooms, smothered in chestnut veloute; a classic French sauce made unique with the infusion of chestnuts.
Rouabah does not just executive a tender suckling Rohan duck rubbed in cardamom and Szechuan pepper and its accompanying duck jus to perfection, she elevates the French classic with the pairing of sweet turnip discs, topped with onion compote and cooked turnip, and finishes off the plate with confit orange zest and raw orange segments. The melt-in-your-mouth cod is given texture with crunchy celery branch, and offers an idyllic canvas for a rougaille sauce to play its complex notes on the palate; the heat of Thai chili balanced with the sweetness of passionfruit and mango. Layered and complex mains are complemented with a wide variety of wine and beer options, sourced both locally and internationally, and an innovative selection of cocktails whipped up by one of Benoit’s gracious bartenders.
With lunch and dinner menus showcasing a plethora of rich flavors, the dessert menu is distinctively light, offering sweets that cleanse the palate following savory indulgences. In a city where cravings for French sweets are almost always left disappointed, the pastry chefs working away in Benoit’s basement offer New Yorkers French desserts of a caliber you would only expect to find in France. The madeleines are flawlessly soft and never dry. Light, smooth vanilla cream is layered with delicate, flaky puff pastry in the just-sweet-enough vanilla millefeuille. More innovative offerings include the Citrus Composition; an invigorating blend of lemon mint cream, cucumber jelly, and lemon zest confit topped with a stunning spiral of lemon thyme ice cream.
One taste of Rouabah’s creations and a quick glimpse of her at work, and it becomes apparent that she has trained with some of the top culinary professionals in the world. She exudes an air of serious professionalism and perfectionism, not allowing any dish to leave the kitchen that is anything short of excellence. Yet with all that she has accomplished and the superior standards she holds for herself and the kitchen, she remains approachable, grounded and sincere. While the Parisian bistro experience is defined by the high-class service and cuisine that French dining has come to be known for, this upscale institution maintains just the right amount of warmth, proving that luxurious fine-dining does not have to be impersonal. We sat down with Rouabah to dig deeper into her experience at Benoit, her path to culinary success and what she has noticed about the industry along the way.
Tell me a bit about your background – where did you grow up and what inspired you to become a chef?
I grew up near Paris, in France. I used to help my mom cook and prepare family-style meals, which inspired me to study culinary art. After graduating in 2004, I joined the Hotel Plaza Athénée, where I spent three years at the Relais Plaza, working my way up from line cook to chef de partie. It was here that I discovered and became immersed in the world of Alain Ducasse.
What motivated you to bring your passion for French cuisine to New York City?
I’ve worked for Alain Ducasse for almost 13 years in Paris – before Benoit, I was executive chef at Allard. I learned a lot from him as a chef, and I’m thrilled he trusted me enough to take over Benoit in New York City in 2016. It’s an amazing city and it’s been a great opportunity for me to discover a new culture, as well as its rich culinary scene.
How would you define an authentic Parisian bistro?
The overall “experience” is key. If the cuisine, service, and music transports guests to Paris, it’s an authentic French bistro.
How do you keep the menu inventive and contemporary while staying true to traditional French bistro fare?
I get my inspiration from the farmer’s market, looking at what’s in season, as well as from other restaurants where I’ll go to have dinner. NYC’s food scene is so exciting! I’ll modernize Benoit’s menu a bit, but also stay true to its DNA by still offering some of its classic dishes.
You’ve been specializing in French cuisine for over 13 years now. What lessons and techniques from your previous kitchen experiences do you bring to Benoit?
I’m bringing specific cooking techniques – such as cooking at low-temperatures, and steam-cooking in an oven – along with seasoning techniques to my kitchen, and of course, general “French know-how.”
How did you first come to meet Alain Ducasse and how was working with him influenced the chef you are today?
I first met him while I was a line cook at the Plaza Athénée. Working under Alain Ducasse is recognized in the industry as one of the best ways to train in the culinary field.
What is your favorite classic French bistro dish?
It is hard for me to pick just one classic French bistro dish, as I’m used to cooking them for years and enjoy all of them. I’ll have to go with Boeuf Bourguignon, the Petit Salé with lentils and Cassoulet.
You come to Benoit from Allard, one of Paris’ most important, historically female-led bistros. How have you seen perceptions towards women in the kitchen change over the span of your career?
I don’t think perception towards women in the kitchen has changed much over the years. I just think cooking seems more accessible now, as there are more TV shows, contests, and the like. I’m sure that has helped inspire women to follow their passion and “do it for real” by becoming professional chefs.
And how would you describe or compare the differences of women in the industry in France to what you have experienced in NYC?
The differences I’ve noticed are in the style of cooking, guest expectations, and the service. These cultural differences are actually quite a big challenge for women – as well as men – who come from France to the U.S. to work as chefs.
What is the best advice you received as a young chef? And what advice can you now offer for aspiring chefs?
To follow my dreams and never give them up! To aspiring chefs today, I’d like to tell them to always keep fighting to reach your goal – no matter if it takes you one year or ten years.
Photography by Anna Haines