A native of White Plains, New York, Rebecca Cohen was never more than an hour away from one of the world's great culinary epicenters. And maybe it was this proximity—but probably something a little deeper—that motivated Cohen to begin her cooking career at just 21 years old. After a brief soujourn into the wilds of academia—she got her BA in Italian Literature from the University of Connecticut in 2007—Cohen tuned in to that deeper passion, heading West, like all good explorers, for an on-the-job culinary education.
Cohen landed first in San Francisco, and then in the kitchen of Sens Restaurant, in her first kitchen position under pastry chef (and 2011 New York Rising Star) Shuna Lydon. In May of 2008, Cohen moved on to Delfina, where she worked under Koa Duncan for just over a year before joining the team at Quince under William Werner. Another guiding influence for Cohen's career is her Rising Star Pastry Chef peer, Kelly Fields, whom she met in San Francisco. With training under four strong leaders, Cohen gave in to some latent wanderlust, traveling and eating her way around New Zealand for several months in early 2010. And as fate would have it, her return trip brought her to the welcoming southern bosom of New Orleans, where she began as pastry cook at 2003 Rising Star Chef Scott Boswell's Stella! in May of 2010.
Now pastry chef at Stella! (promoted after just nine months), Cohen practices a strict mantra: "If it's not right, it's garbage." It may sound harsh, but it's a testament to the standard of quality the young pastry chef developed along her culinary journey. And it's a mantra that we're certain is going to drive Cohen into even greater heights of pastry glory.
Interview with Rising Star Pastry Chef Rebecca Cohen of Stella! – New Orleans, LA
Caroline Hatchett: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Rebecca Cohen: I love food. I've always, always loved food. My senior year in college I volunteered at South Beach Wine & Food Festival. It was the first time I worked with professionals and the first time I realized I could work in food. I moved with a friend to San Francisco and applied for jobs. I like chemistry, science, art, and design, and I have a big sweet tooth.
CH: Who are some of your mentors, and what have you learned from them?
RC: Shuna [Lydon] really shaped me as a pastry chef. I was fortunate she took me in. I was totally green. She likes to share her eclectic, hard-earned knowledge. She's a pastry veteran.
CH: Where do your desserts come from? What's your creative process?
RC: I like seasonal- and fruit-driven desserts. I start thinking of flavors to complement seasonal fruits, along with textures, sizes, colors. I think of four or five complementary flavors and about different ways I can present them to their best advantage. Some things loose flavor when you present them cold or hot. When I put a dish together, I try to balance the components visually, texturally, and flavor wise.
CH: If you could go anywhere for culinary travel, where would you go and why?
RC: Travel is the other thing in life I want to accomplish. I moved to San Francisco and saved up to see how far and long I could go before I need to start working again. I want to go to France, of course. I didn't go to school for pastry, and I feel like I'm missing that foundation.
CH: If you weren't a cook, what would you be and why?
RC: Everything. A writer. That's something farther down the line. I'd like to be a food writer. I would work with animals. I volunteer with giraffes at the zoo. Humanitarian aid. There are lots of things out there that I find fascinating. Food is something I love endlessly. I like eating and making food. Cooking for others gives me so much pleasure.