Elyse Viner: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jimmy MacMillan: I cooked a lot with my mom at home when I was young—we were all assigned to help with dinner. But, I really didn’t think I’d be a chef at any point. My goal was to become a musician. My first professional restaurant job was as a dishwasher at 15 in Detroit. Then I went on the road touring with my band in high school throughout Europe. When I went off the road I had my restaurant job to go back to. I was lucky that I had jobs that would let me do that, but I really thought I was going to be in a band.
When my band broke up I moved to Austin, Texas. I was still playing music, but I looked for restaurant jobs. When I walked into The Four Seasons, they hired me on the spot. There, in 1996, I realized the high art of food and dessert. Art and food came together for me. Being a chef isn’t too different from being a musician or an artist. I’ve been working with materials my whole life; sculpture, painting, instruments.
EV: Was The Four Seasons, Austin the first true pastry kitchen you worked in?
JM: Well, I worked in a bakery before making pies and other pastry, but I was never in a kitchen plating pretty chocolate desserts until I was at The Four Seasons. A lot of pastry chefs don’t have the experience of working the line. They haven’t done savory food. But it teaches you a lot about how do you work in small spaces, and how there are six or seven ways to do stuff. Also, [as a chef] there’s not as strong a divide between savory and sweet products. You are more informed about produce. Sometimes pastry cooks miss out on hot techniques like sautéing, but you can make desserts with a great sauté technique.
EV: Where have you worked professionally as a pastry chef?
JM: The Four Seasons Austin, The Four Seasons Seattle, The Driskill Hotel in Austin, The Houstonian Hotel, the Conrad Hotel, and the Show Bakery in Seattle. The Driskill Hotel is a show bakery, which has a reputation for having amazing pastry chefs. The windows are completely open and you can see the staff making everything—making wedding cakes, tempering chocolate, etc. It’s like watching TV. It’s a real experience.
EV: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
JM: David Bull and Tony Sansalone—they’re Texas chefs. Tony is a pastry chef and it was the first time I saw a plated dessert in the highest artistic way. Also Sebastien Canonne; he showed me that technique is very important, like in music. It’s about executing amazing patterns. A chef has great ideas that need to be executed with amazing technique, but the technique shouldn’t be apparent on the plate. Stephane Treand is another mentor. I took classes with him in 2002 when he was in the World Pastry Championship; he’s a true artist and teacher. He showed me that from showpieces and plated desserts to petit fours, you can do it all; you don’t have to do just one thing.
EV: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
JM: I ask them examples of things that they have done to find out how they approach situations. Personality is a lot of pastry. I also ask them to describe their best designed dessert starting with the plate going up. But I really want to see them touch food. We make food to make people happy. I want to see how they make choices, so I have them make two plated dishes in five hours. Touching food is the best way to see what someone can do.
EV: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
JM: The same advice I was given: Go wherever you know the best pastry chefs are. Ask if you can work for them for free and ask if you can be in their environment. Stage. Go right to the source. Travel and make it part of your travel experience. Make a list of the 10 places you really want to work and call them. Introduce yourself and call them again and again and again, and keep track of when you visit. Be respectful, but let them know that you are available because at the end of the day you only want to work at the places you think are the best. I used to pull the Conde Nast Top 100 hotel list out and circle the places I wanted to work. Don’t settle.
EV: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
JM: I’m probably not going to answer this question in the way you want me to, but I’ll answer it in another way. My whole career is about exploring each ingredient in as many ways as possible. For example, a mango: I think of it as dried, freeze dried, raw, sliced. I love the whole palate of flavors. I don’t put more value or balance on one flavor over another.
EV: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path in Chicago?
JM: I really like the noodle shops in Chinatown.
EV: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
JM: In the restaurant industry I see cohesion; the chef is completely involved. He’s chef and owner, and designs everything from the atmosphere to the music—really the whole dining experience. You have to be thoughtful on every level to be just blown away. Cohesion is the best thing. The concept has to fit the food; when too many people are involved it impacts the diner.
EV: What about trends in the pastry industry?
JM: In pastry there are so many currents at one time. The trend was to have food spread out on a plate so that all components were shown to the diner. The current movement is towards presentation that is well-composed and easy to eat—the technique is there but not always apparent. People are calming down with the use of herbs and spices in pastry, and embracing using the intrinsic nature of the ingredient.
Molecular gastronomy is great right now because it’s past the introduction, it’s past the fantasy. You can have critical evaluation of style. Now we use those techniques and ingredients as commonplace to get great texture like hydrochloride, but that comes with exploration. We can now combine hydrochloride and spice trends and take everything we’ve learned and use it all together very thoughtfully.
EV: What is your pastry philosophy?
JM: Be thoughtful with all the techniques that are out there, and don’t have a limited palate. Use all the techniques [that are available to you]. We have all these technologies—why would any chef or artist limit themselves when we don’t in our everyday lives? The balance between humor and seriousness is important.
EV: What are your favorite cookbooks?
JM: The El Bulli cookbook. Frederic Bau’s Coeur de Saveur; it means heart of the flavors in French. And Wild Sweets.
EV: What are your top three tips for pastry success?
JM: Treat everybody with respect. Be legitimate, own what you know, and learn everyday. Start everyday fresh.
EV: What is next for you? Where will we find you in 5 to 10 years?
JM: I have two goals. One is to have my own shop; it will be open to kids as well as foodies and will have chocolates, baked goods and coffee. I’d like to do really cool things in a very exclusive place that would be open to everyone. I also want to work closely with a manufacturer of chocolate products or other pastry products on a larger scale.
EV: Is there a chocolate company in particular you would like to work with?
JM: No, not anyone at the moment. A company like Cacao Barry or Chocovic. It would be great to work with more of a source for pastry chefs to see how it’s cultivated and follow the process all the way to the pastry chefs.
EV: Is there anything else we should know about you or your work?
JM: The food I’m doing now is the best of my career. And I have the best relationship with my chef out of my entire career. When I first started working with Curtis we both agreed that we wanted the dessert and the food to look like it comes from the same kitchen—but it’s amazing that our plates look seamless. We support each other. The bread is coursed out as well, so the opportunity I have to do 6 pastry courses out of 15 shows a lot of support and confidence. It’s perfect. Every pastry chef should be able to have that room to stretch out.