It’s not often that you hear of someone making a career out of something they were bad at. It’s also not often that you meet someone like Nicole Guini. Pastry chef extraordinaire at renowned Blackbird restaurant in Chicago, Guini’s recipe for pastry chef stardom was anything but ordinary.
Born and raised in Chicago to Argentinian parents, Guini learned what determination was early on in life. “My mother didn’t speak a word of English when she came here but she got a job and learned the language. She’s amazing…we’re besties.”
Guini’s path was never in pursuit of pastry. In fact, she enrolled in The University of Arizona, Tucson, and tried out several majors.
“I thought I would find myself there but instead I got lost.”
She returned after a year and her mother encouraged her to enroll in Columbia College to pursue a theater degree.
“After I graduated college, I was really poor. For the holidays, I decided to bake everyone cookies as gifts. I went to the Dollar Store and bought these cute tins. My goal was to make assortments of pastries and fill the tins.”
That didn’t turn out as planned. The recipes were hard to decipher. The cookies had fallen flat. All in all, it was a failed attempt.
Around the same time, Guini’s stepbrother had just enrolled at Kendall College in Chicago. “I called him and asked if there was a field of study that only involves pastry. I never realized there was an industry for this.”
Her inquiries didn’t stop there. Guini took up an internship and front of house position at Bleeding Heart Bakery—an organic and vegan-friendly bakery specializing in punk rock pastries. “It was an opportunity to see if I wanted to invest in this industry and take the leap.”
In 2008, when Guini did finally apply to The French Pastry School in Chicago, she wasn’t able to procure any financial support. “I couldn’t take on the whole sum of the tuition.” Rather than let that stop her, Guini found an alternate route. “I decided to go to Argentina, where the exchange rate was, like, 4 to 1, and I could afford pastry school.”
Guini left for Argentina in 2009 and received her Certificate in Baking and Pastry at La Escuela Patagonica de Gastronomica.
“I’m so glad it worked out the way it did. I’ve had so many wonderful internships and stages from The French Pastry School but they’re all the same. It’s a small pool that has the same knowledge. You obviously take what you want from each experience but my experience was so ultimately different.”
In Argentina, Guini did not have the luxurious of beautiful, modern equipment or temperature control rooms. “Everything was a bit of a struggle so I very much appreciate my experience.”
When Guini returned to Chicago, she picked up her first unpaid baking internship at Gerhad’s Elegant European Desserts in Lake Forest. It was one of those quiet kitchens with pristine white coats and lots of discipline. “I’m glad it was my first,” Guini nods to the work ethic that type of environment instilled within her.
“Sarah is a genius,” Guini gushes. “She’s talented. Amazing. She scared me—and still does—but she’s amazing.”
Speaking fluent Spanish, Guini was able to work with the pastry team at Spiaggia that were also largely Spanish-speaking and re-organize their entire pastry process. From taking spoken recipes and creating a log for each to converting measurements into grams, Guini ran assignments for the pastry team while learning how to make Italian pastries.
“Spiaggia was the place that introduced me to restaurants in Chicago. I didn’t necessarily want to pursue a restaurant environment but, once you do, it’s almost like you can’t go back.”
And she never did.
Today, Guini is the pastry chef of One Off Hospitality’s Michelin-starred Blackbird and sister restaurant Avec. Her work has just garnered her a Jean Banchet Award nomination for 2019’s Best Pastry Chef of the Year.
“People change so much throughout the course of their lives. It’s difficult to make decisions when you’re young. I’m lucky to have found the thing that makes me happy…that makes me wake up every morning with a smile.”
This holiday season, 12 superstar pastry chefs—including Leigh Omilinsky and Natalie Saben—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 Frosted Sugar Cookies with Sprinkles from Nicole Guini of Blackbird
- 337 g cake flour
- 10 g cornstarch
- 8 g baking powder
- 3 g salt
- 225 g butter softened
- 220 g sucrose
- 1 egg
- 30 g egg white
- 5 g vanilla paste
- 7 g almond extract
- 225 g butter, softened
- 453 g confectioners sugar
- 3 g salt
- 5 g vanilla paste
- 5 g almond extract
- Splash of cream to desired consistency
Cream butter and sugar until beautifully fluffy. Add egg white and egg, salt, and extracts. Scrape bowl well.
In a separate bowl scale all your dry ingredients. Add to your creamy butter mixture. Paddle until it just comes together. Bake for six minutes at 325F or just until a little bit of color starts to show around the edges. Allow to cool before frosting.
To prepare the frosting, cream the butter really well add confectioners sugar slowly. Emulsify well.
Use cream as need for desired texture.
Season with extracts and salt.
Decorate with sprinkles of your choice
(Yields thirty 1 oz cookies. Cookies can be prepared ahead of time and stored for a three to four days in a sealed container. Frost the cookies before consuming.)