It’s hard to find a successful chef who isn’t busy, but at the moment, Bobby Benjamin’s life is arguably more hectic than most.
The executive chef at La Coop Bistro a Vins is commuting weekly to Nashville, where he and partners Brett Davis and Steven and Michael Ton opened Union Common, a steak-centered, small- and shared-plates concept in August. During a recent event at La Coop, Benjamin told me he’d worked until 2 a.m. the night before and returned to the restaurant at 7 a.m. to resume prep for that day.
Oh, and his wife, Hanna, bore their first child, Copeland, in May, a life-changing event he said motivates him to work even harder. Blimey! Were he not naturally baby-faced, the 34-year-old Benjamin would look more like “young” Benjamin Button given his current workload.
“She’s become my new reason for wanting to be even better at what I do,” Benjamin said, speaking by phone while preparing for a return drive to Tennessee. “I want her to be proud of her father and what he does.”
Seeing that she’s barely into baby food, there’s little doubt he’ll face that pressure for many years. He’s got other youngsters to watch over and impress: cadres of cooks at La Coop and Union Common looking to him for inspiration and direction.
Thankfully, cultivating talent is a challenge he likes as much as cooking food. He said a lot of his own skill development lies ahead of him, but he feels the onus to instruct, guide and motivate staffs that must perform well in his absence as he shuttles back and forth.
“Not only that, I want them to become chefs,” Benjamin said. “In my kitchens, cooks aren’t people who just cook food, they’re people who are going through constant progression to become a chef.”
It was learning that brought Benjamin to Louisville from Providence, R.I., in 2001 to study at Sullivan University’s National Center for Hospitality Studies. During his two years there, he met and became roommates with Todd Richards and Duane Nutter, two chefs who later commanded the kitchen at The Oakroom before moving to Atlanta to open One Flew South.
Benjamin graduated in 2003 and moved to Nashville, where he worked for executive chef Sean Brock at The Capitol Grille. Brock’s insistence on great ingredients and focused culinary technique impressed Benjamin, who developed a similar restraint in his own cooking. Louisvillians got their first taste of it when he served as chef de cuisine at The Oakroom, not long after Richards’ and Nutter’s departure.
During a recent new menu introduction at La Coop, Benjamin shared his philosophy about food not needing to be fancy to be flavorful. Rather, he says the combination of a few great ingredients cooked precisely maximizes every dish’s flavor.
“Making simple food that’s really good takes a lot of focus and patience,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing at La Coop.”
Here’s a glimpse into what else is going on there.
Insider Louisville: When you look at Union Common’s menu and La Coop’s menu, there’s some obvious overlap in dishes shared on each. Is that on purpose?
Bobby Benjamin: It’s definitely not by accident! One thing that’s exciting about La Coop is it’s the kitchen where we get to be interactive and have fun and really work on a lot of our dishes for the future. It’s almost our personal test kitchen where we test and test and make sure every dish is its absolute best before we serve it.
The steakhouse does have a lot of bistro flare to it. Escargot and French onion soup are on the menu there — for now. But I love those two here, the way they fit, and so we’re definitely keeping them on the menu here.
IL: Deserved or not, sometimes French food is perceived as stuffy. Did you think opening a French bistro was at all risky due to that?
BB: I don’t think it was risky, and partly because I don’t just do French food here. And the French food I do here is a little lighter. Sometimes French food can be overwhelming for part of the party that comes in, so I thought it would be nice to go with some lighter fare and still showcase the most amazing ingredients we can and serve those seasons.
I’m a chef who constantly keeps up with trends, and everyone knows Louisville likes tacos. So there’s a reason why there are pork belly tacos are on my new menu. I wanted La Coop to be a place that’s very entertaining. Food should be entertaining. For chefs, too. It’s how we stay creative.
Here’s what I’m talking about: We don’t create our daily specials by going into the walk-in and seeing what’s there and what needs to be used. We really finesse it, really think about what we want to create. I’ll go to my chef de cuisine (Tina Dyer) and say, “I’m taking these ingredients and cooking them. You take your ingredients and cook them, and then we’ll eat each other’s dish and talk about our approach.” It’s constant interaction with my chef de cuisine, constantly inspiring each other rather than the chef doing all the inspiring. You show your cards and they show theirs, too. It’s a great learning process.
IL: You don’t seem concerned — like some chefs — about the spotlight. You seem to be fine just left to cook. I’m I reading you correctly?
BB: You know my wife: Everything on Facebook! She’s always trying to get me to do more of that, but it doesn’t mean much to me. I want my food to speak for me. And it’s really not about me or an owner or anyone on staff. It’s about the guests and not ourselves. If we are recognized for our food, then great, but let it be that. … I also truly believe that if you cook great food, you’ll constantly be busy.
IL: Speaking of being busy, how do you like your new role as a daddy?
BB: Being a father … that’s hands down the best thing that’s ever happened in my life. Nothing that can touch it. No award I could win anywhere could be better. I thought I had passion and drive before — it almost makes the drive I have even stronger. It’s like the heat wasn’t just hot enough before, but now, after Copeland came, I just feel the fire’s relit.
But I couldn’t do any of this without my wife. … I really get emotional about it. … She takes care of every single thing: making sure that Copeland is doing well and making sure I’m taken care of. She allows me to be constantly focused on my passion, my dreams and taking care of my family. We’re a great team, and we get stronger and stronger.
IL: Mentoring your cooks is not only important to you, it’s a necessity since you’re dividing your time between a pair of restaurants three hours apart. How do you keep your wits about you when managing two staffs?
BB: It’s been a constant practice. I can’t say I haven’t been guilty in the past of being the typical chef who’s gotten upset and frustrated. But you know, now I think I’m a better teacher. And that comes from spending time with each cook and chef.
Each day I have an initial meeting with each of my cooks. When they come in, I’ll shake their hand and ask them how their day is going. That’s their time to say, “I’m doing well, Chef,” or, “Chef, I’m not having such a good day and here’s why.” That’s when I know I need to help them, and I tell my sous chef and chef de cuisine, too. They then can help that cook with his prep, even try to help them with whatever’s going on in their life. And by the time service starts, they’re usually laughing, joking around.
It’s hard to teach that, and it’s a continuous teaching. But if I don’t make a difference in how I treat them, how can I make a difference in how they handle food, cook food, react in the kitchen, anything? You’ve got to make a difference somewhere in their lives or they won’t mature as a chef or take care of our guests. That must happen.