Meet Ron!

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I first started following the work of Ron Mendoza, long before I started following the work of Ron Mendoza. It’s confusing, I know. But about 3 years ago, I started coming across pictures of desserts made by the pastry chef of Aubergine. They resonated with me in a way few do, our desserts are kindred spirits you could say. Then, the name Ron would pop up in pastry-cheffy-conversations, and before I knew it one of my friends, Caroline Thompson, stage extraordinaire, was moving across the country for the opportunity to be his cook. I’ve become such a fan of Ron’s work, that I decided to invite him to contribute to this blog. When I asked my friend Caroline for his contact info, and divulged my plans to her, she said, “oh yeah, he used to write that blog One Spoon Quenelle.” It was then I realized I’d been following Ron long before I’d been following Ron. It should have struck me that Ron from One Spoon Quenelle and Ron from Aubergine were the same person long before, but alas! Lucky for all of us, not only did Ron agree to share his work with us, he’s well versed in blogging as well. Without further adieu, meet Ron!

 

What is your name, and what is your current position?

Ron Mendoza, Pastry Chef at Aubergine Restuarant in Carmel by the Sea

 

What was the first dessert you ever made?

For about 9 months in I worked Jaan Restaurant in the L’Ermitage Beverly Hills.  I actually worked the garde manger station but made the dessert menu since I was the only one there with pastry experience.

The only dish I remember was a warm Chinese 5 spice broth poured into a bowl of shaved candied fennel, the fronds, and creme fraiche ice cream.

I remember this one because we got reviewed by the LA Times food critic and she liked the dish.  I was thrilled because it was my first menu but was not credited as the Pastry Chef.  Still it gave me motivation and a clear path.

 

Did you go to school, and where?

I went to Southern California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena.  I never intended to do pastry.  It was a 15 month program and the school was in it’s infancy so they had a poor curiculum.  I worked the entire time and learned more on the job.  The school has since grown and it seems lots of great chefs have come from there, including Stephanie Prida of Manresa and Thomas Raquel of Le Bernardin.

 

What was the worst thing you made in pastry school, or any other hilarious disasters we can laugh about?

As I previously stated, I went to culinary school not interested in pastry.  So during the pastry program, I didn’t really pay much attention to the details of the craft.  I was skipping school often to do cooking events with the restaurant I worked for.  One particular day I missed was when we did laminated doughs and croissants.  It bit me in the butt because, of course, for my final I had to make croissants.  I winged it somehow.  I guess I was lucky because though I didn’t prepare much at the time, I was a voracious reader of all cookbooks and techniques.  My croissants surely weren’t worthy of selling but good enough to pass.  Now I love doing laminated doughs and kind of wish I did them more often.

 

What was your first pastry job?

My first pastry job was at Patina Restaurant in Los Angeles.  It was a dream job.  I started there in garde manger 8 months previous.  The station was next to pastry.  I constantly pestered the pastry chef on how they did everything.  Once a positon opened up, I grabbed it and never looked back. That is where I found my mentor and began my real training.

 

What has been your favorite job so far?

I would have to break it down into two moments.  First, at Sona in Los Angeles.  Along with my mentor and the rest of the team, we were cooking like no one else in town.  Back in 2003, we wanted to bridge the gap between El Bulli and Chez Panisse, with influences of Sigur Ros and Jackson Pollock.  The whole restaurant wanted that. There were no rules.

Secondly, my current position.  Being outside of any major city with no one else around, I have had time to practice, try, fail, try again, discover, and rediscover everything and anything.  I have definately found myself and my style here in Carmel.

 

Do you have someone you consider a mentor?

Michelle Myers of Sona Restaurant and Boule.  She no longer cooks but I really owe everything I do to her.  She taught me basics but more importantly taught me how to think outside the box.  During work, we discussed food, techniques, flavors, art, music, film, design…she taught me creativity and how it applies to dining.

 

Why did you choose this career path to begin with?

This is a funny question.  I don’t know, really.  I don’t have any history with food aside from the fact that I was comfortable in the kitchen.  I grew up a total latch key kid, making my own dinners with Kraft Mac and Cheese or just rice with butter and soy sauce.  Quesadillas are a specialty of mine.

I didn’t start culinary school until I was 25.  Way too late of a start.  But I had drive and a sense of creativity.

I used to skateboard.  Amatuer contests and all.  I was pretty good.  Lots of trophies.  I always knew how to progress and push myself.  Cooking techniques are like skateboard tricks, the more you know, the bigger arsenal you have and eventually you create your own style.  Both take passion and a push from within.

 

Have you done any stages? Where? What did you learn there?

I didn’t stage.  I wish I did.  With such a late start, I needed to work.  It’s always been a necessary job unfortunately.  But I have been able to travel and meet people and have seen lots of great things because of cooking.

 

If you had to describe the style you work in, what would it be?

Organic.  The main word my mentor taught me.  Everything is organic.  Menus evolve, style gradually changes over time.  Nothing is forced. If it doesn’t feel right, change it.

Organic in flavors, in style, in plating.

My Chef said the ingredients should look like leaves fallen from a tree…delicate, natural, with a sense of ease, but meaningful.

That is how I want to work.  I want the experience to be felt more than forced.

 

What was your first pastry chef position?

Sona Restaurant was my first pastry chef position.  We opened a pastry shop, boule, across the street and my main focus was Sona Restaurant.  It was great.  So many great cooks came from that kitchen.  I think the best thing about it was working with a great team and mentoring newer cooks.

 

Name one of your favorite cookbooks.

Easily Albert Adria’s first pastry book.  Pastry chefs still do food that he did 16 years ago.  Everything in there is still brilliant, relatable, and usable to this day.

And the iconic Michel Bras book.  Nature, organic, technique, so perfect and thought out and at the same time completely at ease.

 

If you wrote a book, what would it be about?

Well, the first thing that comes to mind would be just a visual photo book of plated desserts. Similar to an artists book of paintings.  I could fall deeply down a rabbit hole just staring at amazingly photogenic dishes.  The colors, the textures, movement within a still life photo.  The plate it’s on.  The background or lack of.

The image itself inspires. They could be posters on a wall or photos in a museum.

Pastry books aren’t made like that.  They have to teach you something.  How many books have a pate sucre recipe or a macaron recipe where they are all basically the same.  I want an image that moves me.  That makes me think about how food can move others and other artists.  It doesn’t even have to be my food.  Just show how beautifull a dessert can look and let viewers question how it was conceived.

 

Have you ever written about your work before?

Yes.  I used to have a blog.  One Spoon Quenelle.

I started it when I moved to Carmel.  It was a way to communicate with others, to document what I did, and to force me to think about what I did.  The title came from the French Laundry book that referenced the quenelle and how that became the standard bearer of what fine dining pastry was.  You weren’t doing fine dining unless you had a perfect quenelle on the dish.  It forced me to rethink the concept.  It ultimately became a lie we all lived.  Now I smash quenelles or cover them up…..

 

If you had any advice to the younger version of yourself, what would it be?

Definately go stage, go travel, get out there, and talk to more people and don’t be such an introvert!

I used to skateboard. I always broke rules.  I love art, film, architecture, clothing design…anything that comes from a creative mind.  But I didn’t get out more and see more of this industry.  To create connections, see how other people did things.  So now, I feel as if half the time, even though I know what I know, I have no idea how this industry really works.

 

Restaurant, hotel, bakery, or beyond? What’s your niche?

I’ve worked fine dining restaurants most of my career.  It’s where I feel comfortable.   Though a pastry chef will always bump their head on that ceiling eventually.  No where to go in that building, you know.

A dessert bar similar to a sushi bar would be a dream.  Spontaneous, creative, trasparent, interacting with guests and serving desserts they couldn’t find anywhere else.  I could imagine having a service where not one person gets the same dish.  How cool would that be…..or crazy?

 

What was the last dessert you ate?

do you mean the pop tart or Ben Spungin’s dessert at 1833?  The pop tart makes my latch key childhood happy even though I know it’s a terrible representation of what good pastry is.  One the other hand, Ben makes the most ethereally creamy desserts and he’s such a cool guy to know.

 

And most importantly, do you have any pets, and what are their names. Tell us everything.

Unfortunately, I can’t have them where I currently live.  However, my previous cats were brothers and were named Fauchon and Berthillon.  While working in LA at Sona, we heard squeals in the wall behind the hostess stand.  We hammered through and found 4 kittens, barely a week old.  They had fallen from the roof where the mom gave birth and landed safely on a beam in the wall.  Fauchon loved to suck on my shoulder and Berthillon just stared at me with eyes like C3PO.  Lovely kitties.

Can’t wait for my next ones!

What to do when your chef leaves

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The latest column from Chefs Feed, this one discusses what happens to those left behind when a chef leaves. I’ve left a team behind at blackbird, just as I inherited one when I arrived. Likewise, I’ve been a cook, left behind when a chef decided to move on and a new one brought a sea of change into a kitchen. After watching this process for my entire career from one side or another, these are a few of my observations. 

EVERYONE IS REPLACEABLE.

I was once told this in a moment of personal doubt, when I struggled to see the direction my path was taking me. It wasn’t said to threaten me, but to free me; inevitably, in a restaurant, everyone who works there will leave. Unless, that is, you own the joint, which reduces your chance of leaving by half. Everyone will be the one who leaves at some point, but what of those left behind? What happens to a cook when their chef moves on?

I’ve always considered the positions I’ve held custodial. Just as I took the position at Blackbird from another pastry chef, so I have given it to yet another comrade-in-arms. When the goodbyes were said and my last staff meal was eaten, I walked away knowing another pastry chef was there to carry the torch.

Luckily, the daily urgency of restaurant work relies on a momentum that helps every cook carry on through the early days of transition. But it isn’t easy watching the department you’re an active part of change and mutate in front of your eyes. Even the most flexible dispositions have breaking points.   How do you work for a boss you didn’t choose, particularly if you took the job at a restaurant specifically to work for the dearly departed chef? One thing I would tell all my cooks is that they came to work for Blackbird, just as I did. When you strip back all the nuances I plastered over the walls of that pastry department, the foundation underneath is always going to be Blackbird. It is the roof over our heads, the coats on our backs, the ovens we fill with cookies, and the entity that signs our paychecks. That’s true whether I’m populating the department with dishes, or another pastry chef is.

Things will be different. This isn’t good or bad, but temporary. The discomfort of transition isn’t a sign of a storm coming, it’s a sign of a little cloudy weather quietly passing by. You’re going to carry weight you’re not used to as a new leader revises and disperses labor to fit their menu. You’re going to be asked to give up some of the stability you’ve come to rely on. Only if you start to flail in panic, will things start to collapse. The Irish butcher at the Fat Duck once told me to be like the willows in the wind, which bend and sway with the wind from any angle. Eventually, they stand back up straight. As the winds of change pass, remember the flexibility that benefits these reeds. You’ll soon have a new routine to carry you through the day.

When a chef takes over a functioning kitchen, there is an inevitable double-power shift. First, cooks will need to train the new chef on the nuances of the restaurant before they can step back into the director’s chair. As cooks, you were taught how to do your job by someone else, and now it’s your turn to give that back. A new chef will come in knowing how to do their job, but they don’t know how to do yours. It’s a power shift that doesn’t feel natural, when a cook feels like they know more than the chef, but teach them with patience. The sooner you do, the balance of the world will fall back into place.

The other side of the coin is something every cook working through a change in command needs to hear………

Please do continue reading the rest of this article over at Chefs Feed… Click Here!

 

Thoughts on a dream job

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Hello all! My name is Danielle, and I’ve been working in various pastry departments for the past three years. Over a year ago, through a stroke of good luck (and a degree of skill, but timing—as always—was paramount), I found a home in the storied pastry kitchen of Blackbird.

If you work in the industry, you know Blackbird. Opened in 1997, Chef Paul Kahan’s first restaurant has been home to some of Chicago’s most celebrated chefs and harbored countless cooks who have taken their experience at Blackbird and gone on to head restaurants of their own. I knew most of these things about Blackbird before I ever set foot inside, but these were not the reasons Blackbird first piqued my interest. I was far more interested in one specific person working there– a person I initially came to know through this blog, a wide-open window into a kitchen unlike any of the others I’d come to know as the standard.

The Dana Cree I met in person embodied the same voice who spoke warmly and candidly through her blog, readily willing to speak of mistakes made and lessons learned, but calmly capable of throwing down the exact science behind anything from muffins to marshmallows to hydro colloids. She introduced me to her principles of “creative obligation,” through which she requires her cooks to create on their own– learning on the fly about the complexities of manipulating flavors and executing both classic and modern technique.

The kitchen is a second home to three of us cooks, along with one sous chef– and like any home, it has its quirks. After over a decade as a working kitchen, it’s taken on a lot of character, including a toothpaste-green floor and an attic-turned-pantry-turned-access to the rooftop garden. Drafty in the winter, sweltering in the summer– but I embraced it all. This was it. This was the dream. I was now a character in the blog, inhabiting that world that I had previously only watched from afar.

A few months ago marked my completion of a full year at Blackbird. This coincided with another significant event: after three years at her post as head pastry chef at Blackbird and Avec, Dana announced she would be leaving to pursue pastry beyond the realms of restaurant kitchens. Changes of this magnitude are never easy, but I (along with my fellow cooks) decided to stick around and see the transition through. The kitchen at Blackbird has changed drastically since I started, but Dana’s replacement– Nicole Guini, former pastry chef at Spiaggia– has upheld the same philosophies that made the kitchen so appealing to me in the first place, allowing her cooks to carve out their own creative spaces on the menu while guiding them through the process.

However, the most pressing question in any restaurant setting is “what’s next?” This one-year milestone is typically when cooks of any level at any restaurant begin to look beyond their current position and plot the next step. Work their way up to new responsibilities within the same restaurant? Or perhaps go elsewhere, chasing new experiences under different chefs? It’s a question that has started to haunt me lately, from considering what kind of dessert I would like to develop for the lunch prix fixe menu (my newest rung on the ladder of creative obligation) to wondering what will happen once I eventually leave Blackbird. What happens post- dream job?

This dream presented itself to me sweetly– a chance discovery of this blog, a perfectly-timed job opening, and most importantly, a reality that lived up to (even far exceeded) my expectations. I have no immediate plans to leave Blackbird, as it continues to fulfill my creative desires and I still find myself learning something new daily. But when my time is up here, what’s next? My old coworker and friend Harry took off to travel through Asia, staging in kitchens throughout Thailand and Singapore. Our previous sous chef, Krystle, went to North Carolina to help open a new restaurant/bakery. Dana herself is exploring and developing dairy-related products with 1871 Dairy– a perfect extension of her pre-existing passion for milk and cheese.

However, when I start to get lost in ruminating thoughts, it helps to look back on the Danielle of last year: devouring the articles on this blog and imagining a future for myself that maybe, if I was lucky, would involve working in a kitchen like Blackbird. Now another dream is coming full circle: the opportunity to write about pastry on a public platform, as Dana has so graciously opened up The Pastry Department to contributors from all areas of the craft. Dream jobs come in unexpected forms. For the time being, I’ll attempt to forget about what comes next and fully live out the reality of this one.

Meet Danielle!

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Danielle Snow walked into my life one lunch service, over a year ago. She had applied for the pastry cook position I had posted, and took it upon herself to come in and express her interest in person. It takes guts to cold call a chef, in person. It must, because I’ve rarely seen it done. Half an hour after Danielle walked in, we were finishing up an impromptu interview, scheduling a trail for her to come in and officially audition for the position. A week later, she was putting her notice in at her two other pastry jobs, getting ready to begin a working relationship with me, one that eventually shed light on her own aspirations to be a food writer. When I stepped out of the pastry department and decided to open this space up for others to shine light on their own pastry paths, it seemed a natural fit to invite Danielle. Follow along with her own adventures, sharing what a pastry department looks like from the cooks point of view.

Danielle’s interest in pastry arts was piqued while her family was transplanted from Texas to Belgium, an enviable time spanning most of her teens. Her sophomore year in high school, a friend turned her onto pastry specific food blogs. Realizing baking and pastry was actually a legit career, she immediately apprenticed in local bakery for the remaining 3 months she was overseas, before her family moved back to the states. While she began studying in a traditional college, she transferred to Kendal in Chicago, a culinary school that offered her the opportunity to complete her bachelors while simultaneously studying the culinary arts. Danielle began broadening her horizons by staging in different restaurants and bakeries around chicago. She took her first job at a chicago darling, a restaurant called Small Bar, cooking savory food, slinging brunch. The chef at Small Bar knew Danielle was interested in desserts, and helped her attain a stage at the perennial favorite,  Lula cafe.  Her stage quickly led to a position in the pastry department. While at Lula Danielle took a second job as a pastry cook at Stephanie Izards restaurant, Girl and the Goat. When she left these two coveted positions behind it was to join the pastry department at Blackbird. While there, and with the chef’s encouragement (that’s me!) Danielle took a part time job expanding her chocolate skills at Veruca Chocolate. As her responsibilities grew at Blackbird she laid down her chocolate tools and today is currently focusing on working with the new Pastry Chef, Nicole Guinni as she transitions the pastry department you’ve read so much about on this site, to become her own.

Without further adieu, meet Danielle!

 

What is your name, and what is your current position?

Danielle Snow, just like John Snow. Except for the whole bastard thing. I’m a pastry cook at Blackbird restaurant in Chicago.

 

What was the first dessert you ever made?

In a restaurant setting or in a life setting?

In life, the earliest thing I can remember is helping my mom make chocolate pudding, like a real stove top pudding. It was fast and easy, from one of those old betty crocker cookbooks. We ate it while it was still hot, and I really enjoyed that we whipped fresh cream and put it on top.  I was actually talking to my mom about it recently, asking her if she still had the recipe book. I remember it had a whole lot of butter, and no cornstarch.

 

Professionally, I wasn’t yet a pastry cook. I was at my first job at Small Bar, where we made pretty simple desserts, and we had a really delicious butterscotch pot de crème. At that point I already knew I wanted to persue pastry, so the pot de crème was my little pet project. I took a lot of pride in it. I used to have that recipe in a notebook from that restaurant with a lot of delicious things, like a recipe for biscuits titled “bad ass flaky biscuits” but I lost that book. I need to track down somebody with those recipes.

 

Did you go to pastry school, and where?

I went to culinary school. I went to Kendal and earned a culinary certificate, so it’s like a year long program. I’m glad I went to school, my experience was maybe a little unconventional, I went to Kendal because I could finish a business degree and also study culinary. I was in a class with a lot of career changers, mostly over 30’s, but the culinary school was the perfect amount of school for cooking, specifically.

 

What was the worst thing you made in pastry school, or any other hilarious disasters we can laugh about?

When I went to culinary school I was newly vegetarian and really fierce about it. I knew there would be a point when I would have to cook meat, but I didn’t realize how emotional I would be when I broke down a chicken. I was feeling a lot of “this goes against my values” but at the same time I knew it was an important hurdle. I did not elect to taste any meat while I was there, which is crazy to me now, because it was all we were cooking, these French delicacies like foie gras and terrines.

I remember I was the only person who wasn’t grossed out by beef tartar with egg on it, I grew up in Belgium and was used to seeing it there.

What was your first pastry job?

My first pastry job was working at Lula café! It was, I would say ideal. I was in love with the restaurant itself, it was challenging, but the pastries were not at a level where I couldn’t understand them. Sometimes it’s crazy to think what a beginner I was when I started there. But it was a great place to make mistakes, I was really supported by the team there. They have a Monday night farm dinner, and the chef has to come up with an entirely new plated dessert every week. I was exposed to a lot, and that kind of constant shifting teaches you how to adapt to a new item coming on the menu on a regular basis.

 

What has been your favorite job so far?

Um, blackbird! So many reasons. It’s hard because I almonst get a little emotional about it, and it’s hard to talk about it without it sounding clinical. No one had really asked my opinions about things before. It gave me access to some of the best mentors and leaders, and I worked with some of the best cooks. It was also very interesting because its’ the only job I’ve looked at from afar for a long time. I had billed it as my dream job, and I think about what it means when you’re actually working your dream job.

 

Do you have someone you consider a mentor?

Krystal Swendson was a really big mentor for me, she was the sous chef when I started at blackbird. I learned to take on responsibility, instead of waiting for someone to tell me what to do all the time. I learned the importance of organization, I know it’s such a basic thing but it gets left by the wayside so often. She was so good at guiding people, leading by good example, and creating beautiful desserts.

 

 

Why did you choose this career path to begin with?

When I first started school, I wanted to persue a career in writing. But as I went through school it increasingly seemed like a vague thing to aspire to, I didn’t know what direction I wanted to take writing towards. My sophomore year in high school someone introduced me to food blogs, and there was one specific blog called Foodbeam, written by a girl who worked as a pastry chef. It was almost like I had never considered being a pastry chef an option, but I was really inspired.

 

Have you done any stages? Where? What did you learn there?

Yeah, a lot. My first stage was foray in to pastry was when I was in Belgium, and I was so taken with this idea of being a pastry chef that I became an apprentice in a fourth generation Belgian bakery. They made traditional breads, viennoiserie, entremet cakes, and it taught me how much work it actually is.

Here in Chicago I staged at Nelcote, Hot Hhocolate, Vanille Patisserie, and the vegetarian restaurant Green Zebra. Many of those one day stages were either because I was interested in a job or a friend worked there and encouraged me. I think stages are important because they are windows into other kitchens,  and help inform your opinions and decisions, and you definitely learn what it’s like to be the underdog.

Name one of your favorite cookbooks.

The one I go back to a lot is the bouchon bakery book. There is such a wide variety of things in there. I made their hot cross buns for staff meal the other day. I hope people enjoyed them, I tend to leave staff meal on the table and walk away. I love making yeast raised doughs, it’s such an interactive process and I feel a lot of instant gratification because you can see the process working.

 

If you had any advice to the younger version of yourself, what would it be?

Keep doing what you’re doing but save more money. It’s kind of boring but it’s true. It’s hard to save on a cooks wage but I can do it. So much about being a young cook is about living in the moment. But there comes a time when you’d really rather be taking big steps from your own means.

Restaurant, hotel, bakery, or beyond? What’s your niche?

For now, restaurant, for sure. I’d like to see how far I can get in restaurants. I think for me there is infinite possibility to be creative. I’m also drawn to the people who work in restaurants. I like the life style. Surprisingly. For now.

What was the last dessert you ate?

When I was recently back in texas, I don’t know if this counts, but my grandma was sick and someone did that lovely thing where they bring an ill person a dessert. It’s a lost art. It was a boxed yellow cake mix with strawberry frosting with coconut on top. It was really sweet, and really delicious. It tasted very familiar too.

 And most importantly, do you have any pets, what are their names?

My roommate has a pet, her name is Ginger, she’s a little orange haired cat from PAWS. She’s the sweetest cat I’ve ever met, so affectionate. She doesn’t mind wearing costumes, that’s how easy going she is. My roommate is always making neclaces for her.  I guess you’d call them collars, but with beads on them. We did it once thinking there’s no way it would stay on her but she wore it all day. We keep talking about what her costume is going to be for halloween, and we are thinking batman, so like “batcat.”

How to make Pate a Choux

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Hot off the presses! My latest piece at Lucky Peach discusses the earliest fundamental recipe I tackled. My first menu, at a neighborhood restaurant called Eva in Seattle almost always had a profiterole on it, hiding under seasonal fruit compotes, standing in for biscuits in a strawberry shortcake, or holding scoops of spiced pumpkin ice cream. Baking pate a choux never failed to amaze me as it completely transforms in the oven. 10 years later, I’ve stopped tweaking the recipe, but will never loose the childlike awe of watching this pastry swell and puff in the oven. Read the full article over at Lucky Peach, there is a recipe to go along with it so you can try your hand at home!

Pâte à choux—the name of the French pastry behind cream puffs, gougères, and éclairs—is one of the most versatile recipes in classic patisserie. Somewhere between a dough and a batter, it takes its name from the rough, cabbage-like shape it takes when baked; once in the oven, it blows up like a balloon, so much so the Germans call these puffs “wind bags.”

I have chased the ethereally light, hollow, crisp cream puff for ten years. The goal: A dough that swells proud and taut in the oven, completely hollow with no webbing, and retains its light crispiness when layered between soft creams and shiny glazes.

It’s not as hard as it sounds; pâte à choux is a quick two-step process. First, you cook together butter and flour on the stovetop until it forms a thick paste. Next, you beat in eggs. That’s it. One tip: incorporate the eggs in a mixer, one at a time, and watch the sticky mass swallow each egg, break, then come back together. This gives you the opportunity to withhold a little egg if you see the batter getting too loose.

But as simple as the dough is to make, the science behind it is complex…….

To read the full article head over to Lucky Peach

“The most versatile dough in classic patiserie” The recipe for Pâte à choux

Transitioning, letting go, and finding my own way

By Leigh Omilinsky
IMG_9381_2I remember being very young and getting a knot in my stomach every time I knew things were getting ready to change. Sometimes it was a graduation, or a friend moving away, or even me deciding it was time to move away. When it was time for things to come to an end, I would often feel paralyzed by the unknown. As I got older, I realized that even though the unknown seemed so terrifying, forward motion is a necessity. And to my own astonishment, I got through it!

And here I am. In an industry that is always changing, always moving, and never stagnant. As someone who was (and maybe still is) so scared of change, I find myself in a world where it’s “normal” to stay at a job for only a year. It’s “normal” to take a few months off and stage somewhere fabulous. The mentality is to get the experience, get the name on your resume, and move on. Quickly. So how do you know when it’s time to change?

I found myself in this situation a few months ago. I was working at the Sofitel. I was a part of a strong team and was lucky enough to work with my best friends. They were supportive of my education in the pastry world and sent me on a life-changing trip to Paris. I was making cheese. (Yes, making and aging cheese) I developed a style as both a chef and a manager. It was fulfilling! So why move on? I wasn’t looking to move on, but an opportunity showed it’s face and I had to look. That opportunity was Nico. Once I realized that this change was really happening, I got that same old feeling of being anxious. And then the “what-ifs” started. What if this isn’t right? What if I’m not ready? What if I can’t do this? But I then realized I would be more upset with myself for not exploring this option than staying comfortable. It was time. I had to let go of my home away from home of almost 5 years. To say there are deep roots there is an understatement.

I’m lucky enough to be friends with Amanda Rockman, the former Pastry Chef of Nico. Anyone who knows her knows that she’s a rock star! So I had big shoes to fill. Since she’s a rock star, she set me up to succeed. And that’s what us pastry family does for each other. I’m lucky.

I inherited a strong pastry team with young and eager people that are so willing to learn. But they came to Nico to work for and learn from Amanda. She and I are very much cut from the same cloth and very dear friends, but we are different. So how do I make this job my own? Start with what I know and love: The macaron.

The macaron and I have a serious love. It’s been a long and rocky road, but it’s love. They are my favorite food, so I was excited to bring my love to a new venue. And then an interesting thing happened. My love and enthusiasm seems to have been contagious and my team is now excited to make them! Ok. I can do this.

The whirlwind of changing a menu is daunting. There are so many things to think about. So walking into an already existing and fully functional beast is a little daunting! It’s like trying to jump on an already moving train while still maintaining my own identity, leading a team, and hopefully growing and learning. What worked in previous restaurants with other chefs may not work in this one. And that thought is terrifying! These are things you don’t think about as a cook. Or, better yet, you think you can do! And guess what? It’s hard.

What made this transition a little bit less scary for me, was knowing that I have been given an opportunity to evolve. I am not, nor should I be, the same person I was 3 years ago. And that evolution can be seen and tasted in my food. So I need to own it. I realize don’t need to look to everyone else to gain the confidence in my work. I need to look within. I need to keep those same standards that I learned for myself throughout the years. I need to be true to me. Just “ok” isn’t good enough. Have I had failures? Absolutely! Have I had to take a dessert and adjust it 50 times before I get it right? Yep! Sure have. But it has made me better. Change is hard.

A wise woman once told me, “the right thing isn’t always the easy thing.” I can take some comfort in that. I am so excited to embark on this next chapter in my pastry career. I’m ready to flex different creative muscles, plant new roots, and see where it takes me.

How To Laminate Dough

dana in dough

Partially reprinted with permission, this is my most recent piece over at Lucky Peach, How To Make Laminated Dough.  This piece covers the in’s and out’s of laminating dough, the painstaking process of folding and layering butter and dough to make impressive things like croissants and puff pastry. For the full article click the link to Lucky Peach!

I’m never surprised to hear that home cooks are intimidated by puff pastry. With 729 layers—yes, really—puff pastry can make you feel like you have 729 opportunities to mess up. But it isn’t only amateurs who shy away from the extravagantly layered pastry—puff pastry strikes fear into the heart of professional cooks as well. And with mechanically perfected puff pastry available from the freezer section of most grocery stores (or one from a trusted purveyor, if you’re a professional), it’s easy to avoid ever using the technique yourself.

Classically, puff pastry is made by “laminating” dough. Used to make croissants, Danish, and any other flaky, buttery pastry, laminating dough involves wrapping a block of butter in a lean dough made of water and flour. The layers are created by a series of “turns,” wherein the dough is rolled thin and folded over itself. This process stretches and stacks the butter and dough until there are 729 paper-thin layers.

There are two types of turns performed when laminating dough: a book turn and a letter turn. The book turn requires you to fold the wide edges inward to meet at the center, then fold the dough again over the center line, as if closing a thick book. A letter turn asks that you fold the dough over itself in thirds, much like you would fold a sheet of letter paper to fit in an envelope. The choice between book or letter folds depends on the pastry: croissants, for example, are letter-folded, while Danish are typically book-folded.

I first “learned” how to make laminated dough in baking and pastry school, where I made puff pastry a grand total of two times……….

Continue reading at Lucky Peach!

And don’t forget to check out the recipe for Rough Puff and try your hand a lamination!

Meet Leigh!

leigh at nico

Jose M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune

Leigh Omilinsky has been haunting the pastry departments of Chicago for the past decade, a city not far from where she grew up. From the fine dining kitchen of Tru, to the immaculate halls of Laurant Gras once great L20, Leigh is well versed in avant garde desserts. She climbed the ranks of the boutique hotel, The Sofitel, here in Chicago, masterminding not only the typical hotel amenities like private dining, banquets, in room dining, and catering to every special request that came in, but she created the desserts for their tasting menu restaurant, Cafe Des Architects. Last year, she built an in-house cheesemaking program under the moniker “Chestnut Provisions”, which included bloomy triple creams, washed rind taleggios, harder aged cheeses like gouda, and everything in between.  As of this summer, she was nabbed by One Off Hospitality to run Nico, the Italian seafood restaurant inside the Thompson Hotel in chicago, a move that allows her to build on her previous experience, marrying her love for both restaurants and hotels.

I first met Leigh in a pastry chef’s kitchen, but not the kind of kitchen you’re thinking of. We were both invited to share a meal at fellow pastry chef Thomas Raquel’s home, an evening that quickly devolved into roiling laughter, and the birth of the Chicago Pastry Mafia. Amanda Rockman made the fourth that evening, and while not a single one of us holds the title we did so long ago, we have followed and shared in each others pastry lives since.

I’m very excited Leigh has agreed to share the work she is doing with us here. Aside from an unhealthy obsession with macarons, (I mean, she made pink ones with colored sprinkles that look just like circus animal cookies) Leigh has a deep knowledge and broad view of desserts to share with us.

With out further adieu, meet Leigh!

 

What is your name, and what is your current position?

Leigh Omilinsky, it’s spelled like a sky, but pronounced like a ski. I’m the pastry chef at the Nico Osteria in Chicago.

What was the very first dessert you ever made?
Oh God. We didn’t really grow up eating desserts much, but I remember making my grandma’s yeast raised coffee cake with her. My mom would also make these things we called fruit crunch, thinner and flatter than a crumble, it was fruit with equal parts sugar butter and flour. In an attempt to be healthy, my mom would sneak cereal into her baking, like shredded wheat into our cookies. There was a certain “charm” but finding half a cheerio in your cookies? My mom says now, “I thought I was doing the right thing!”

Did you go to pastry school, and where?
I went to Johnson and Wales in Denver. I was on a search to, I don’t want to say be different, but I wanted out of Chicago at the time. It was far, there were mountians, and it kinda felt right when I visited it.

I knew since I was 15 that I wanted to be a pastry chef. I would make cookies and play with pie doughs to decompress after high school. My mom sent me to summer pastry classes at Kendal College, and told me, “you know you can do this for a living.” After that I just said to myself, “Yup”

I also thought I wanted to be a jazz pianist, but I hate performing on stage. And yes I still play piano. I inherited my grandmas baby grand which is living at Greg Biggers house for his son to play. I prefer to play in the practice rooms at the Harold Washington Library, they have all the sheet music you could possibly imagine. So I go there.

What was the worst thing you made in pastry school, or are there any other hilarious disasters we can laugh about?

I remember a purple wedding cake from school, like Barney colored. It was aweful. At Tru, I tried to make milk chocolate-sage ice cream and it was like Breakfast Sausage. There are a lot, but those are the two that stand out.

What was your first pastry job?
I worked at the Skokie bakery in Skokie Illinois when I was 14, and I would decorate the cakes and work in the front selling stuff. It was 2 blocks from my house and was owned by a german couple. We also made novelty cakes, like for bachelorette parties and I’d have to ask the fun questions like “do you want coconut shavings or chocolate shavings?”

What has been your favorite job so far?
Is this when I say Nico? Ha. I really got some strenghth at Tru, and I refined myself at L20. When L20 was good, it was the best. I love Laurent, he taught me discipline and to have a critical eye, and to keep mystandards high.

I was at Sofitel for 5 years, so that was pretty good. It was liked working with my best friends, but it really taught me management. That place was a Beast. I knew there was always more to learn there, always something going on, and they were very good to me. I mean, they sent me to France for a month!

Do you have someone you consider a mentor? 

Absolutely. 3. I’m lucky.

Meg Galus- It’s interesting watching our relationship morph. She was my boss, but the relationship has grown and she’s become my colleague. We can discuss recipes, and email each other back and forth a lot.

Laurent Gras- I consider him a mentor. He taught me how to keep my standards high and showed me a work ethic I didn’t know was possible.

Greg Biggers- he taught me how to manage, to see the big picture in things, and run multiple things while still appropriately dealing with people.

All three are the voice in my head. It’s like a female Greg Biggers with a French accent!

Why did you choose this career path to begin with?
It chose me. Is that cliché? That’s cliché. I don’t care. It did. It just got me.

Have you done any stages? Where? What did you learn there?
Yeah! Pierre Herme Paris. I learned that I don’t speak French! They could speak English, but didn’t like to. But seriously, It was life changing and amazing. On the technical side, I learned that in reality, I was doing ok.

What I really loved there was beauty of everything, from the product to the packaging, to the display. The beauty was a complete entity.

I spen1 one day in Pierre’s Research and Development kitchen, which was in a loft in the 18th district. It was an amazing day. I sat down for a tasting, with Pierre Herme and his team, while they were delveloping their new line of products. After that, I was done. I could die happy.

Name one of your favorite cookbooks.

Mastering the Art of French cooking. By Julia. I love it because the recipes all work, are classic, and are really approachable. All of them. And it’s broken down in a way that everyone can understand. I mean, that’s why we are all in this. It’s food. We are in it to enjoy every part of it.

 If you wrote a cookbook, what would it be about?

Crazy Cat Lady Daily! Not really. Probably something about macarons! Haha. I would like to think if I wrote a book it would be something that would be accessable to everyone, professionals and home cooks. But I don’t know, I don’t really think about it.

If you had any advice to the younger version of yourself, what would it be?
Slow. Down. Take it in, and take care of yourself. Just generally, relax. I’m a pretty anxious person to begin with. If I know what I know now, it’s that things will work out. I know my work ethic, and if I just ride it out, it’s going to be fine. The little things I would get upset about! It’s so stupid, it’s just cake!

And definatley self care. The days you don’t eat. The days you eat like a Frat Boy. The days you don’t sleep and decide to go out and drink instead. It’s such a consuming and isolating industry, I just generally wished I had taken better care of myself in my 20’s.

Back then, I was only responsible for a station. Looking back, It was cute. At the time, I was so concerned about how other people were doing their jobs, if they weren’t doing it the way I thought they should be. Now it actually is my job to worry about how other people are doing their job, and I’m much more relaxed about it.

Restaurant, hotel, bakery, or beyond? What’s your niche?
Restaurant! Although, I do also love hotels. I love the energy of restaurants. I’ve always liked plated desserts. I don’t love only doing cakes. Because Nico Osteria also provides the food and beverage for the Thompson hotel, it’s a pretty cool fit, I can do some cakes, and we do our own breads, and croissants. And of course the plated desserts.

What was the last dessert you ate?
I went to Gather, and they sent me out apple fritters for my birthday. Maybe it was Avec. No, it was Gather. Definitely Gather. Those things are glutunous and disgusting and amazing. So good!

And most importantly, do you have any pets, what are their names, and can I play with them?

Yes. Yes. Yes. I have 2 cats, they are my little Boo’s. One is named Bella but her full name is Isabella Ninja Escape Artist Omilinsky. She was my roommates cat in Denver, but when we moved in together, the cat picked me. This cat has seen it all. My other cat is Matilda, and she eats with her feet. It’s magic. She has a wet paw and a dry paw. She picks up food with her right paw, the dry one, and drops it in the water bowl, then scoops it up with her left paw, the wet one. Seriously, it’s magical to watch.

Starting the conversation

The window I’ve opened here into my own kitchen experiences no longer looks into a pastry department. Instead, it looks into a fledgeling dairy, a pasture in Wisconsin with a growing herd of 36 grass munching cows, and a LOT of milk.

But since we aren’t changing the name of this blog to “The Dairy Department”, I have decided to open this website up to other voices, allowing other amazing pastry people to open windows into their pastry departments. Not just pastry chefs, but pastry cooks too, sharing the wide eyed discoveries they are making as they jump through their early positions and stages. I am excited to see this site grow into a larger conversation that the one I started, and watch it evolve as the voice of many.

As I invite people to participate, I’ll introduce them to you with an interview and a short biography. Then I’m going to sit back, let them do what it is they do best and tell us all about it. I’ll be eagerly awaiting each post with all of the readers here. There are so many wonderful things happening in the pastry departments around the country, and I am excited to follow along.

Stay tuned!

The next chapter

I’ve recently let go of my position in the pastry department at Blackbird and Avec. No easy decision, these two restaurants have been my home away from home for the last 3 and a half years, and the people inside like family. It’s the best way to leave a restaurant, still loving and longing for my team, my menu, and my mentors. Outside the walls of Blackbird, I’d still do anything for them.

I’ve taken a position with a growing grass based Chicago dairy, called 1871 Dairy. If you’ve spent much time around me, you’ve likely heard me talk about ice cream, my one true love, and my desire to spend all day every day making it. Beyond that, though, is a deep fascination with the transformation of milk into the vast array of dairy products that span the globe. In becoming part of the team at 1871 Dairy, I will help shape the line of dairy products created with the deeply good dairy the herd produces.

The privilege of creating with this exceptional milk just scratches the surface of my decision, all topics for a later date. In the mean time, I wanted to introduce you to the columns I’m now writing. On the west coast, I’m writing a column for Chefs Feed, a biographical journey from my dream job as the pastry chef of Blackbird, to the world of food outside restaurants.

The first installation describes letting go of the dream job.

In the second installation, I describe why blackbird was the dream job in the first place.

And in the third and most recent column, I describe the tasting a candidate must present when auditioning for a chefs role.

The next instillation will be coming soon! I discuss what happens to the cooks left behind, those that hold a department together through the transition between chefs.

Over on the east coast, I’ve been contributing to one of my favorite publications, Lucky Peach! My column is called Pastry School! In it, I get to talk about the fundamental techniques in the discipline of pastry, and their introduction into my own repertoire, which wasn’t necessarily early in my career. Hopefully you too can discover these core techniques along with me, and introduce them into your life as well.

A little bit about fundamentals and their role in a contemporary restaurant kitchen.

Tempering Chocolate! And a “recipe” for tempered chocolate.

How to laminate doughs!
And a recipe for “rough puff.”

The next instillation will be about the dough I consider “the little engine that could”. It just keeps chugging along, making everything from cream puffs to gougers to gnocchi to crullers. Yes, it’s pate de choux!

Take a gander at these columns, I’m beyond excited to contribute to two such amazing online magazines. In the mean time, the window to my own pastry department has closed, but I’m working on finding a few open windows for you to look through!