“Pastry is the period at the end of the sentence. It’s not just pastry, which is generally the feeling.”
Chef Leigh Omilinsky boasts an impressive pedigree with spots like Tramonto’s Steak and Seafood, TRU, Sofitel, and three Michelin-starred L20. Having recently competed on Food Network’s Best Baker in America, Leigh has also been recognized by StarChefs as a “Rising Star”, named in Zagat’s “30 Under 30 List”, and honored with a Jean Banchet Award for Best Pastry Chef. The fact that she’s been taking professional pastry classes since she was a teenager comes as no surprise.
“I come from a very food-focused family,” she explains. “My grandmother was into food before it was cool. I would watch cooking shows with them—remember the show Great Chefs?—and bake cookies every day after school.”
Despite her many achievements, Omilinsky finds herself needing to champion the craft to which she and her team are fully dedicated. “I protect my team from getting shit on. I have to fight for the importance of pastry to be valued.”
For the past three years, Omilinsky has been lucky to work with the One Off Hospitality group in Chicago, which puts a high emphasis on excellent pastry programs. “I have eight people on my team,” she states proudly. “I’m so spoiled! We run the pastry program for the restaurant [Nico Osteria] and also the entire hotel [Thompson Chicago].”
But, there are still moments in the kitchen where boundaries need to be established.
“People have no idea what our day is like in pastry. Often, there’s the assumption that we’re just standing around while baking bread so we can do other things. But, no. I cannot have any more of your prep on my station.” Omilinsky is emphatic. “We’re the last to get food runners for our food. But between us and the bar, we’re the ones that have to fix any errors that occur for guests.” Truth. It is always a complimentary cocktail or dessert, isn’t it?
“I try not to be the chef who says this is mine and that is yours but sometimes that’s what gets you more respect.”
Omilinsky is also not the first chef to express that the kitchen would be a better space if gender was left entirely out of the equation.
“At least I’ve never been told that I can’t do something because I’m a girl.” That being said, her career has been marked with direct and observed bias.
“We can’t have stomachaches without the first question being, “Are you pregnant?”’ She emits a wry chuckle.
While expectations sometimes seem low from the industry, Omilinsky’s expectations for her work are set sky high—amongst three stars, if you will.
“Working for Laurent Gras [at L20] honed my work ethic. One day, I was there for 13 hours and was exhausted. I looked over at Chef—who had been there longer—and he was just scrubbing the floor. It was life changing that way. Yes, the food was amazing, but I wasn’t expecting the work ethic. It wasn’t old school but it was far from understanding.”
Omilinsky recalls working in the very silent, focused kitchen. There were no questions when it came to hierarchy. There was little to no leeway in the quest for perfection. She loved every minute of it. “It was special,” she states simply.
Through her experiences with running massive pastry programs and managing large teams, Omilinsky places great emphasis on her role as mentor. “I’m always trying to be creative. I nurture. I’m a teacher. A therapist. It’s hard but fulfilling. It’s a weird crossroad because the way we came up and were managed is not the way we are allowed to manage now—nor should it be. It’s just different.”
Change has been creeping into kitchens for a while now and Omilinsky sometimes struggles to find equilibrium.
“When I was nineteen and twenty-one, I was banging on restaurant doors begging for a stage. Now I’m still begging…but I’m begging people to come work. It’s a nationwide challenge, this cook shortage. It will overcorrect itself, and maybe in not such a pretty way.”
This holiday season, 12 superstar pastry chefs—including Nicole Guini 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 Grandma Bertha’s Mace* Cookies from Leigh Omilinsky of Nico Osteria
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 eggs
- 2 1/4 cup AP flour
- 1 tsp ground mace
- 1 cup chocolate chips
Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs. Add the flour and and the mace. Mix to combine. Refrigerate .
Scoop cookies and decorate with 3 chocolate chips.
Bake at 325 until golden.
*Mace is the lacy outer layer of the nutmeg seed. It adds a mild nutmeg flavor, used for both sweet and savory recipes.