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.
As pastry chef at Stella! (promoted after just nine months), Cohen practiced 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, a 2012 StarChefs.com Rising Star Pastry Chef, into even greater heights of pastry glory. In summer 2012, Cohen moved to New York City, staging with pastry mentors while she continues her pastry journey.
Katherine Sacks: How would you describe your plating style? What is your inspiration?
Rebecca Cohen: I think I go with natural and unstuffy. I don’t like things that are too calculated or look trite or predictable. I like things to look natural; I like to show off the natural beauty of the food itself. I tend to like really simple dishes and when I’m developing a dessert I’m very conscious of the visual concepts of the plate. I want variation in color and texture, and I want to present it for the guests to enjoy.
KS: What is your plating philosophy?
RC: I think to some extent I am still learning what works for me and what I really like the look of. I don’t know about philosophy, but I have a few little rules. I don’t typically plate even things; I usually go for odd numbers, and I avoid symmetry. I don’t put things in the middle. I don’t like things to look too perfect, uptight, or stuffy. I think a lot of times different foods will provide those platforms for you. You want to show off the perfect crumb of a cake, or in a custard you want to show off the mirror finish. Sometimes modern plating gets away from being appetizing.
KS: Has your plating style changed over the years?
RC: Yes, definitely. It’s only in the past few years where I’ve had the authority to plate my own dishes. At first, it was about making flavors that taste good, but oftentimes I could plate it up and realize it was not the best way to do it. Sometimes it takes me a couple times to get there; there’s always room for improvement. Things are always evolving.
KS: Describe your plating process.
RC: It’s usually based on what the main component of the dessert is and how that looks best. It begins with the main component, and then I work with all these other components and figure out how I use those to accent it. It’s not just about the flavor, but also about the texture and color.
KS: Is there a plating style or trend in New Orleans as a whole?
RC: New Orleans has a tendency to have very large portions and a heavy hand when it comes to garnishes and portions. New Orleans is a very traditional city. Even in fine dining restaurants, there tend to be very big portions and a lot going on the plate, which isn’t my own personal style.
KS: What is most important to you when purchasing plates?
RC: I like them to be simple and large. I don’t like the feeling that the plate would be cramping the food.
KS: Do you have a favorite plate? Do you like specific sizes, shapes, colors, textures?
RC: I like white rectangles, a nice big, long rectangle. I like a plate with some movement in thema well, dip, or rise. It’s nice to have a little suggestion of movement without the plate upstaging the food. I like movement and lots of space to work.
KS: If you could design any plateware, what would it be?
RC: It would be a set with both white and black pieces, because I think they are sleek. And I guess I would have a lot of large pieces with a few small that I could fit together; a small dish that I could sit on a large platter. I would have a couple different shapes and sizes of each. It would be versatile and simple.