Chicago has a well-earned reputation for being on the cutting edge. Creativity is practically airborne here, and it has spawned a young and vibrant chef community across the board. But when it comes to pastry, it’s something special. These seven pastry chefs, whether they’re into comfort food or innovation, represent the stellar quality and intrepid spirit of Chicago’s pastry scene. Their youth and ambition are remarkable in such a standard-setting culinary scene and show that forward-thinking pastry is alive and well in the windy city.
Jimmy Macmillan is one of the most adept culinary jugglers we’ve met. He still runs the consulting company JMPUREPASTRY with his wife, while helping spearhead a Chicago Pastry Competition inspired by his competition circuit back in the old days, and working full-time as pastry chef at The University Club of Chicago’s Cathedral Hall. The creative fulfillment he used to find as a musician now is channeled into his pastry, producing whimsical and wildly inventive desserts. For starters, he thinks outside the sheet tray, looking to the Chicago Mold School for forms that can keep pace with his modern desserts and enhance the experience of the diner. Then there’s the flight of imagination that comes with each dish; Roasted Senshu Apples with Gingerbread Three Ways: Crisp, Cake, and Ice Cream brings to mind Alice in Wonderland characters in their gingerbread chairs. His Noisette Banana Cake: Brownie Bars, Yunnan Tea Gelato, Honey Floss boasts wisps of honey floss reminiscent of Rapunzel’s flaxen hair. What sets him apart, though, is that despite his late start in the industry, he’s on a constant quest for new ideas and is as inspired as he is inspiring.
The Bristol is earning some attention these days for its affordable pub grub and relaxed vibe. And it just so happens that it also has a pretty forward-thinking pastry program. Pastry Chef Amanda Rockman is vibrant, young, and full of spunk. When she was fresh out of culinary school, she spent time at Tru and The Peninsula. She began at The Bristol in fall 2010. Currently she heads their pastry program, where the desserts strike a well-thought-out balance between comfort and creativity. Her Caramel Pot de Crème, Cafe Dolce Sauce, and Meyer Lemon Confit works the lemon rind-espresso combo beautifully. Her Huckleberry Polenta Cake is all about recalling feelings of nostalgia. Because she embraces comfort, her flavor profiles are never from left field, and the result is a stand-out in casual concept pastry.
You can only reach North Pond on foot, but it’s well worth the trek for Mosko’s refined desserts. His use of acid and salt separates him from the fold (how many pastry chefs do you know who are mad about lime and salt). His roasted fennel and oatmeal stout ice creams really stand out, but nods to the savory—like a light dusting of salt and pepper streusel—put his pastry over the edge. A simple Devil's Food Cake has a touch of floral flavor from a stellar orange blossom ice cream, along with a hit of salt and lime to play against floral and rich elements, making for a carefully orchestrated—and balanced—chocolate dessert. His pastry platings are bold and architectural, and much like the desserts themselves, marry traditional and contemporary. But he always bears in mind how the diner will approach that dessert, never sacrificing flavor for visual wow factor.
Biography • Interview • Photos
Recipe: Hazelnut Chocolate Mille-feuille, Chocolate Hazelnut Cake, Milk Chocolate Crémeux, Hazelnut Feuilletine, Salted Caramel Mousse, Meyer Lemon Purée, Chocolate Crumble, Chocolate Sauce, and Satsuma Sorbet
Pastry Chef Hillary Blanchard-Rikower constantly builds on what she knows. This one-time graphic designer began with fundamentals, like a stellar carrot cake recipe. She started adding to the recipe over the years, and today it has become a modern take on a carrot cake Pain Perdu. Her concepts are inviting and quietly playful—like carrot cake or popsicles—but they incorporate savory ingredients like chicory or thyme for a dose of the unexpected. Pop rocks are not something you see every day in a fine dining restaurant, but they shamelessly—and joyously—cavort on the menu alongside textural works and flavor combo remixes, without ever really venturing into molecular gastronomy territory. “I don't do much with foams and froths and caviars,” she says. “You'll find more of a traditional take but with a bit of the unexpected.” Her natural curiosity is the common thread in her career, from a life-changing trip to Barcelona to experimentation with flavor profiles. The next step? An in-house bread program.
It takes some moxie in a town almost religiously in search of the next culinary whiz-bang to make a conscious decision to pare down desserts. Pastry Chef Kady Yon may have a pixie-like frame, but don’t be fooled. She’s turning out some seriously mature and sophisticated desserts with elevated American flavors and a clean approach. The result is a refreshing dose of brightness that’s oh so welcome in desserts with rich elements like chocolate or sesame. Take one of her favorite flavor combinations—black sesame and citrus. When it comes to pairing with black sesame, chocolate is a perennial favorite, but Yon points out that it’s already a fatty ingredient. She prefers Meyer lemons or Buddha’s hand citron. She makes bold choices, all while bearing in mind the humility she learned working under her mentor, Pastry Chef Della Gossett at Charlie Trotter’s.
Inside The Elysian Hotel lies the boisterous Balsan restaurant and its more elegant sister restaurant Ria. Both are Pastry Chef Stephanie Prida’s domain. Prida eschews gastronomic pyrotechnics for beautiful food that is true to its flavor profiles. But she also is quietly innovative. Prida rethinks traditionally summery Meyer lemons into an earthy fall dessert with her Huckleberries, Brown Butter, Meyer Lemon Ice Cream, and Cinnamon Cracker — creating, in the process, one of the coolest crackers we’ve seen. It brings us back to a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, in a far more stylish form. Despite her inventiveness, she still is all about nostalgia. Prida thinks all pastry chefs strive to bring people back to a moment in time.