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.