Imagine being a savory chef from the time you were 17-years-old.
Now, imagine you finally worked up the courage to approach your biggest idol in the food industry to ask for a job.
NOW, imagine what you would do if he offered you a job…as a pastry chef of a three Michelin starred restaurant.
That’s Natalie Saben’s story. Her idol? Curtis Duffy. The restaurant? Grace.
“I got into the business when I was 17, as a hostess of a restaurant in the Southwest burbs of Chicago. I always knew I wanted to be a chef, so my mom encouraged me to go talk to the chef of the restaurant. I did, and he told me that culinary school wasn’t really a necessity. So, I took that and ran with it.”
If there’s one thing that stands out immediately upon meeting Chef Natalie Saben, it’s fierce passion. She talks a mile a minute and her enthusiasm for what she does is infectious. From as early as high school, Natalie focused on becoming a chef. She spent every Saturday in kitchens, learning the trade and attending the school of hard knocks.
“My career really began when Graham Elliot offered me a position,” she defines. “It was my first taste in the world of fine dining. Graham Elliot Bistro was a one-star Michelin restaurant when I was there and they were really pushing the boundaries of fine dining.”
Saben embraced the opportunity and continued to hone her skills as a savory chef throughout. “When I worked for Elliot, I was the only female in the kitchen. I hate talking about being a female in a male-dominated industry but coming up you [often] are the only one and it makes you feel like you have to work so much harder not just to be there but also to prove yourself.”
After five years of working for Graham Elliot, Saben decided she wanted to take the next step in her career. “I had always wanted to work for Curtis Duffy. I remember pacing back and forth trying to get the nerve to call him and set up a stage.”
After her then-boyfriend, now-husband, reminded her that Duffy is just a man who puts his pants on one leg at a time like anyone else (has this been confirmed?), Saben took a breath and dialed. That phone call proved to be life changing for Saben who didn’t get a stage but a job as the pastry sous chef.
Naturally, she was stunned. Her first response was, “I don’t even know how to temper chocolate!” Saben’s laugh still echoes with hints of shock and excitement. Duffy, one of the world’s most renowned chefs, brushed off her protest with a simple, “We can teach you.” Ultimately, he wanted someone that had experience with management and fine dining. Saben fit the bill.
“As he got to know me and train me, he started pulling back on my [admin duties] and pushing me to put dishes on the menu. For the last year and a half, the dessert menu was mine. Then Grace closed.”
For those living in Chicago at the time, it was the proverbial door slam heard around the city. Within hours, even those who weren’t into the food scene knew that the great Curtis Duffy had left Grace and his employees all resigned immediately afterwards.
“We worked for him and Michael [Muser],” Saben vouched. “Without them, Grace didn’t exist.”
Saben describes herself as completely heartbroken after Grace’s closure. She didn’t have long to sit with it because the folks behind runaway hit Pacific Standard Time came knocking at her door.
“They asked me to do a tasting menu for them. I was scared; I had never done a tasting for a position.” Saben recounts how she focused on a California-inspired menu for the tasting since that was the inspiration behind the restaurant. “My husband and I went on vacation to California and I discovered this pastry called the Morning Bun. I realized I had to make it for them.” Being the overachiever that Saben is, she made homemade butters and a variety of pastries and croissants that went well beyond what was required for the tasting. Sure enough, she got the job.
“Early in my career, I thought I was just destined to be a good cook. I never thought I’d be a chef because I had a very hard time with being creative. But, now, I’m thinking I can do this.”
Saben’s creativity has hit a whole new level on the PST dessert menu with hits like Huckleberry Sundae, Banoffee, and Pineapple Tres Leches.
As for her career in fine dining? “I like that I can come to work in jeans and listen to music in the kitchen. I think my time with fine dining is over. It’s a young person’s game. And I’m very happy with how my career trajectory has gone.”
This holiday season, 12 superstar pastry chefs—including Leigh Omilinsky and Nicole Guini—are joining forces for a cross-country holiday cookie swap! Until December 24th, Chicagoans will have the chance to taste an array of these coveted cookies at Publican Quality meats—One Off Hospitality’s lauded neighborhood butcher-shop, bakery, and daytime café. PQM’s beloved cookie case will undergo a full holiday takeover boasting the best cookies from around the country. Proceeds will benefit Deborah’s Place, a Chicago-based nonprofit dedicated to helping women affected by homelessness.
Recipe for Santa Claus Cookies from Natalie Saben of Pacific Standard Time
- 8 oz butter
- 1C brown sugar
- 1C sugar
- 3.5 C flour
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1.5 tsp salt
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1C chopped walnuts
Beat butter and sugars until until combined. Don’t over mix; we’re not looking for light and fluffy.
Add eggs, vanilla and mix until incorporated fully.
Add all dry ingredients and nuts. Mix only until combined.
Press into half sheet and refrigerate overnight.
Cut into bars and bake at 350 until golden brown.
Yields 24-30 cookies and keeps for 3 days.