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August 22, 2014

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The protege in Robuchon’s kitchen

The Chef of the Century’s name is above the door, but this is the guy who’s really cooking dinner

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Beverly Poppe

Chef Steve Benjamin may have an American-sounding name, but he’s proudly Parisian.

I first met Steve Benjamin in January 2005, shortly after Joël Robuchon had opened his two stunning restaurants at the MGM Grand. Benjamin was pointed out to me as the fellow who would be taking over executive chef duties at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, once Robuchon and his Parisian team were satisfied that this second installment of J.R.’s restaurant empire was performing up to Chef of the Century standards. What struck me then was his name (a very American-sounding one—he’s named after Steve McQueen), and the fact that he spoke almost no English. Our entire meeting consisted of a quick handshake, a bonne chance (good luck) from me, and his apology (spoken through an interpreter) for his lack of language skills. Five years on, the 34-year-old Benjamin’s English far exceeds my French, and we can casually discuss his career path from France to America, and what keeps L’Atelier at or near the top of all Las Vegas restaurants.

Restaurant Guide

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
At MGM Grand, 891-7358.
Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5-10:30 p.m.

Unlike many a French chef, he does not come from a long line of cooks. “My dad [a businessman] loved hospitality and entertaining, and had lots of parties where he would cook everything from A to Z. I have many memories of going to the marche [market] with him and buying eggs and bread and sausage for a big breakfast. The first thing I remember making well and by myself was an omelet.”

It must have been quite an omelet, because by age 14 he was staging (pronounced “stah-ging”—it means volunteering as an apprentice) at a local restaurant outside his hometown of Hedouville, north of Paris. Four years later, his father said “go to Paris” and for the next 10 years helped manage his son’s career through seven restaurants, culminating with L’Astor at the Sofitel where Robuchon recruited the entire team to open his first L’Atelier in Paris in 2003.

“It can be very tough opening a restaurant like that in Paris,” he tells me. “They hire 20 people to start and within a month only six are left.” Sounds like opening a casino in Vegas.

I ask him to describe what it’s like for a young chef in Paris. “Many times I was at my (mental and physical) limit. Once, at the beginning, I was sitting in a corner peeling potatoes, and the head chef goes crazy, yelling at everyone, and it upsets me, but all I can do is watch and listen. Another time, after I had years of experience, my routine was to come to the restaurant at 7 a.m. and spend eight hours making 15 sauces for service that night. Then, in the middle of service, with 20 orders backed up, and everything is ‘on the rush,’ [another head] chef comes in and breaks a plate right in front of my face, and I have to dive in front of my sauces to make sure no glass gets in them.”

“There is a lot of pressure,” he continues. “They push you, there’s lots of competition, and there’s always someone standing behind you, waiting to take your job.” I express amazement that so many compete so fiercely and suffer for their métier (calling or profession). “It’s not about money. You need pressure, you need rules and you need to get it exactly right every time.” So why did you put up with all that? “I was young, and I didn’t want to disappoint my dad or myself.”

After surviving that trial by fire, why come to America? “He talked me into it,” Benjamin says of Robuchon with a shrug of his shoulders. “One day he asks me if I was to open L’Atelier in Vegas. I said ‘yes’ immediately. I came [to America] as a boy and I always wanted to come back. Then I realized I was going to be the head of [L’Atelier], and if he didn’t like me”—Benjamin snaps his fingers—“I’d be gone.”

That doesn’t seem to be a concern anymore. L’Atelier has garnered beaucoup critical accolades (a Michelin star and top-10 status in Eating Las Vegas, which I co-authored), and a reservation is one of the toughest in town. Foodies flock to taste the exquisitely rendered food prepared by Benjamin and his team, all of whom seem to go about their duties in the open kitchen with monk-like devotion. I ask him if he’s thrown any plates lately, and a twinkle comes into this intense Frenchman’s eye. “No, we believe in sharing as a team. Everyone here brings a lot of passion to what they do, and they understand if you are doing this for the money, you are doing it for the wrong reason.”

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