It's been four years since the Design District announced it would house an outpost of the late, great French chef Joël Robuchon's famed L'Atelier. When the restaurant opened this past August 28, it was just over a year since Robuchon passed away.
Before his death, the famed chef opened almost a dozen of his upscale bistros. This L'Atelier, however, is different in two ways: It's the first to be opened posthumously, and it's overseen by a team of mostly women.
As head baker, Melissa Catra oversees the baked goods for both L'Atelier and its neighbor, Le Jardinier; executive pastry chef Yara Mage turns out precise French pastries; and assistant general manager Samantha Shafer keeps the front of the house ticking like a Swiss watch. L'Atelier's opening chef de cuisine, Nancy Dominguez, recently parted ways with the restaurant. She calls the split "mutual" and says that although the restaurant has been open only about a month, "for us it's been a long-term project we worked on every day, and I think we accomplished what we set out to do." Dominguez plans on staying in Miami to open her own project in the future. The restaurant has since hired Gregory Pugin as its executive chef. The James Beard-nominated toque has more than 20 years of fine-dining experience and most recently served as executive chef at Palme d'Or at the Biltmore in Coral Gables.
With the ever-increasing volume of media attention being paid to the global culinary world, descriptors like "legend" and "icon" have become commonplace as chefs seek adulation to keep customers coming and writers use them to attract readers. Few pause to think what these words mean. At some point, cooks and chefs transition to teachers of techniques and behaviors. After all, no cook wants to work the hot line deep into old age, only to wither after a service and be swept off like herb stems and wayward noodles. Not all can successfully make the transition.
No doubt, Robuchon changed dining through the establishment of a global empire of restaurants that somehow folded together techniques and ingredients from around the world while never straying too far from French cuisine's unrelenting exactness. But as time passed, it became clear that his greatest accomplishment was the training he provided to countless chefs around the globe. Now it seems Robuchon's protégés are the ones changing the world, particularly the women running the newest restaurant. New Times sat down with the key team members the day before the restaurant's late-August opening to learn what makes them tick and how they rose to the heights of an industry that still has a long way to go before it can be considered equal to all genders.
Melissa Catra, head baker. L'Atelier's head baker, who also oversees the bread program for the adjacent vegetable-forward concept Le Jardinier, has a wager for you. "I can go into any hotel restaurant in Miami, and I bet you I won't find a woman in that position," she posits. Asked why she thinks that's the case, Catra, who is 36 with a simultaneously stern and engaging demeanor, says it's something she has noticed but never tries to focus on. Instead, she's engrossed in producing the restaurants' picture-perfect gluten-free milk rolls, sourdough baguettes and country loaves, and geometrically spectacular pain de mie. "There was never anything to be discouraged about," she says. "In the kitchen, we're all equals, and at the end of the day, it's about what you can do." Nevertheless, the crew of four working under her happens to be all women, but that too came by happenstance. "I don't care who they are — in my eyes, everyone in the kitchen should be striving to do better than they did yesterday," she says. "Let's say today we messed something up. We have tomorrow to make it better, to correct any mistakes, and to always strive for excellence."
Yara Mage, executive pastry chef. Mage, who is 29, oversees everything sweet, from the tequila marshmallows to the carrot cakes designed to look like tubers peeking out of the ground to the cherry Black Forest dish that resembles a Super Mario Bros. mushroom in a terrarium. It's a different kind of challenge. She spent years doing banquet desserts, bonbons, and more, first at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and later at the posh Miami Beach Edition. Now she has swapped a kitchen that puts out hundreds, if not thousands, of desserts a day for one that does merely several dozen with a team of four instead of sixteen. "For me, the mentality has always been the same. It's always being proud of what you put out there," Mage says. "It's having high standards and knowing to say something if something isn't right, then doing whatever it takes to fix it." It's something anyone can do, she says, recalling a 23-year-old dishwasher at the Edition who, with hard work, eventually became a baker and pastry chef. "I don't think he even finished high school."
Samantha Shafer, assistant general manager. Though Shafer's title says "assistant," in truth, she answers to almost no one. She joined Robuchon's company only recently, after opening Michael Mina's Nashville restaurant. The move was a kind of culmination for her career, which began at the age of 16 as a hostess at Rick's Cafe in Tucson. "When people learn about who Joël Robuchon is, what he's done, it's hard not to be passionate about this work," Shafer, age 31, says. The late chef's gravitas gave both the front and back of the house an advantage in hiring. "When you're in a restaurant, you're with your family," she says. "Those are relationships you build with every single person, from your dish station to the hosts, and you don't get that in a normal job." The key, however, to reaching such a position is to focus on each night, each service, and all of those to come. "We've been ready and planning this for a long time," she says. "In order to run a successful restaurant, you have to be thinking weeks ahead."
L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. 151 NE 41st St., Suite 235, Miami; 305-402-9070. Dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.