Francoise Villeneuve: What inspired you to first pursue cooking professionally?
Hillary Blanchard-Rikower: I was a graphic designer, and I worked in an advertising agency for many years. That's what I studied in college, but I wasn't happy behind a computer. I had been cooking my whole life. My mom was a wonderful cook and baker, as well, and I had been baking since I was 2 years old. I always came back to baking whenever there was a time in my life when I wasn't happy at my job. I decided what could be better than to make that my career, so it was a little scary. I quit my job and went right into pastry school and within two months of starting school I got a job. That led the way for doors to be opened up to me. I was on the right track because it happened so quickly, and from that moment on, I haven't stopped.
FV: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
HBR: I didn't finish culinary school because I had a job, and I learned most of what I learned today from chefs that I worked under. If you want to learn the techniques, I think culinary school is a great way to start and a great resource. I don't think it’s a necessity. I know quite a few chefs that have never gone to pastry school. It depends on your knowledge beforehand and if you have the opportunity to work for free—to stage—to do an internship and learn that way. You can't just do one or the other. A little bit of school would be great, but you’ll never learn in culinary school what you need to to be a chef.
FV: Where have you worked professionally as a pastry chef?
HBR: My first job was at Mas here in Chicago and that was Nuevo Latino with Spanish influence—Argentinean, Mexican, and all of the South American countries but really clean, traditional, and upscale. It was really a great place, and I learned so much from the chef there, John Manion. He's been all over Chicago and the world. I was at Mas for two and half years. I started as an assistant and moved into the pastry chef role while I was still in school. When I finished school, I got a job at Custom House, Sean Maclaine's newest restaurant at the time. I was an assistant there, and I overlapped at Mas so I had dual roles for a while. I worked part-time at both.
Then I was at Custom House for a little over a year and had the opportunity to do the opening pastry chef at The Gage. It was large fine dining gastropub and the first of its kind in Chicago. It had 400 seats and a huge bar; it was really a grander place. I worked there under Dirk Flannigan and really learned a lot about running a large kitchen with four or five assistants working under me. So it was an extremely different experience than I had been used to. It was busy all the time with a private dining room. We were open for lunch, dinner, and brunch. It was a lot of responsibility, but it was something that really helped me in my career as far as being a manager and I learned quite a bit. Then, about two years later, I was a little worn out, and I wanted to pull back a bit more and focus on the food. I felt I needed to learn a bit more so I left The Gage and bought myself a ticket to go to Barcelona. I just wanted six weeks to myself to discover its food, culture, world, and pastries, and I fell in love with the city. I found a job working in a café while I was doing some staging and taking it all in. I ended up meeting my husband there, so that's why I didn't come back for a year and a half, but now we’re back here. I felt like I had to stay and when I came back and got the job here at one sixtyblue. I feel like that experience in Spain made me the best pastry chef so far.
FV: Why do you think that is?
HBR: Everything I do here I pull from what I learned when I was living there [in Barcelona]. It’s such and incredible environment, and their philosophy on food is quite a bit different from here in America. Particularly in desserts. They don't eat the same way. They do their desserts lighter, more savory, not as much sugar. There are a lot of cheeses and fruits and chocolates, and they don't load it up with sugar. I'm not saying that’s bad—I have the candy bars on my menu—but I just found it so refreshing to be able to have a dessert and not feel so awful after eating and get the flavor of the dessert without it being overly sugary and sticky-sweet. That takes a very light touch. It’s very different, and it’s hard to explain to somebody else but I have a good balance of mixing the two.
FV: Who were your mentors and what did you learn from each of them?
HBR: At Mas, I definitely learned the most about working in a restaurant in general because that was my first restaurant job. I learned a lot about Latin cuisine. Then, at Custom House, I learned under Alyssa Nero and Sean Macclaine—he's a James Beard Award-winning chef. It was phenomenal to be in his kitchen. I took from there a bit more of a fine dining aspect and culture. I learned how to take the pastries to the next level, how to do the mignardises, the truffles, and the little extras that you do in a fine dining restaurant. He was focusing on seasonal, local ingredients a little bit more. I feel like it took me up a notch in my career.
At The Gage under Dirk [Flannigan] I learned to run a kitchen of magnitude. It was a lot more business and management and running a large kitchen with a lot going on all the time. Then staging at places in Spain, it could’ve been for one or two days. Everyone I came into contact in the kitchens there, I learned so much from—like a new ingredient or a technique that they used. I don't think I'd be where I am today if I hadn’t had those experiences. Each one made me learn something new, and this is the perfect balance of all of them.
FV: What is your pastry philosophy?
HBR: I like to keep the flavors simple. I like to really keep them ingredient based and focus on the flavors. Using seasonal ingredients and really good chocolate, I like to throw in a bit of the unexpected … maybe having the diner see something they wouldn’t traditionally think about going into a dessert. I’d like them to say, “wow, I wouldn't have thought about it that way, but it works.” I don't do much of the gastronomy, the foams and froths and caviars. You'll find more of a traditional take [in my pastry] but with a bit of the unexpected. I throw a bit of the gastronomy in every once in a while, but I like to keep it simple. The food should be enough on its own. If you really highlight it right, you can create some great desserts
FV: What are your top three tips for pastry success?
1. Experiment, whether it’s in your house or doing stages
2. It’s really important to have a basic recipe to start from and then to perfect that recipe and build from there. There are a hundred ways you can make something your own, but you need a foundation of a really great recipe. My carrot cake is probably the first carrot cake recipe I've ever made, and it’s so basic and simple. Then, when I do it here, I add things to it so you really need to have a repertoire of basic recipes.
3. It’s important to learn tempering chocolate, the bakery environment, and the fine dining environment. Everybody has one they can see themselves in, but you can experiment. I love working in fine dining restaurants, but when it comes down to it, I'm a baker, so I want to be able to make really great bakery items as well.
FV: Where would you like to go for culinary travel?
HBR: There are two places I want to go. Northern California—I've been to San Francisco, but I want to take some time and do some experimenting and discover Napa Valley and Northern Californian cuisine. I've never been to France, and as a pastry chef, that’s everyone’s number-one place to go. Hopefully I’ll get there soon.
FV: What advice would you offer young cooks who are just getting started?
HBR: I would just say to get in the kitchen. From the moment I started my career, I was always interested in seeing what other chefs were doing. Even if it’s for a few hours, that’s the most important thing. If you have the opportunity, most restaurants will never turn somebody down if they want to work for a day. If you have the opportunity to go abroad and travel and learn, that’s a phenomenal experience. Then, just take an interest in reading books. Find chefs that you really want to learn from and learn about their story, how they did it, their techniques, and their advice. I still go to the bookstore and spend a couple of hours looking at what’s new.
FV: What are your most essential tools and why?
HBR: It’s not an offset spatula or a chocolate temperer. It’s my hands. I use my hands for everything, and I have the most control that way. You don't need much, you just need to be able to get in there and do it hands-on. People laugh at me as I stick my hands into things, and I’m always washing my hands or wearing gloves, but I feel like I have the most control that way.
FV: What is your favorite pastry resource?
HBR: I get Food & Wine and Pastry Arts magazine and Food Arts … I'm a religious reader of all of these. Then as far as the books go, I start online and do some research on Amazon. I keep track of what new books come out. I go to a large bookstore because they seem to have the biggest selection, and then I look through and see if something I thought I wanted is going to be beneficial or if it's too basic.
FV: Where do you like to go to eat pastry?
HBR: There are so many great pastry chefs in the city that it’s hard to choose. I love ice cream, so I think anywhere where I can get some homemade Black Duck gelato. And then I kind of follow where other pastry chefs go. I like Kate Neumann and Kristine Maccabe. There's quite a few bakeries I like, like Floriole. It’s hard to find bakeries that make very good bread. In San Francisco, there's Tartine, and people flock to it. I'm not so much a bread baker. I do it a little bit for service but I think somebody could be very successful with a great bread bakery in Chicago. Tartine is my favorite. I have pages marked with things I want to try. Nothing beats really good, freshly baked bread.
FV: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
HBR: Chocolate and peanut butter is my number-one favorite, with a little bit of sea salt sprinkled on the top. Anything sweet and salty. Salt is one of the most important ingredients in pastry. If there’s anything chocolate-peanut butter on the menu, I always order it. For the spring, I’m going to put it on the menu. Ever since I was a child, that was my favorite thing.
FV: What’s next for you?
HBR: My next step is to try to balance my career and hopefully having a family one day. But I don’t want to stop working. I don't see myself going anywhere. I love it here. We do specialty breads for menu items but we don't do the bread baskets that go on the table, so that’s a project that I want to try to take on.
FV: Does that clash at all with your role as pastry chef?
HBR: You need to be a really great baker to have that foundation, but the art of bread making is quite different from what I do. I know pastry chefs who do a great job of both but they’re very different—being a bread baker and a pastry chef in a fine dining restaurant. It’s a 180, because one is early in the morning, proofing the bread and so on; it’s just a completely different task.