Pastry Chef Jimmy MacMillan of Cathedral Hall at the University Club of Chicago

Pastry Chef Jimmy MacMillan of Cathedral Hall at the University Club of Chicago
April 2011

Former musician turned multiple-irons-in-the-fire Pastry Chef Jimmy MacMillan is an artist at heart. And in true artist form, it took MacMillan a whole decade of ducking in and out of kitchens between gigs before he left music behind for his true calling, pastry. Once he found his groove, there was no looking back, and today his desserts weave symphonic textures, colors, and flavors into intricate compositions.

MacMillan advanced through pastry programs at the Four Seasons in Austin and Seattle, the Driskill Hotel in Austin, the Houstonian Hotel in Houston, and the Conrad Hotel in Indianapolis, and credits his mentors along the way for instructing him in technique and the art of presentation. In 2006, he became the executive pastry chef at the five-star, Five-Diamond Peninsula Chicago, where he was responsible for the pastry design and development at the property’s four restaurants. At the hotel’s signature fine-dining restaurant, Avenues, MacMillan worked closely with 2011 Chicago Rising Star Chef Curtis Duffy to ensure a seamless transition from savory to sweet.

MacMillan’s desserts have been featured in pastry publications in the United States and abroad, including Spanish magazine, So Good; Italian magazine, Pasticceria Internazionale; and American publications such as Pastry Professional, Pastry’s Best, Pastry & Baking North America, and Pastry Art & Design. Additionally, MacMillan provided artistic direction, recipe development, and content design for the dessert and beverage chapters of the award-winning cookbook Tea Flavors. In 2009, he was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Pastry Chef award.

Today, the seemingly tireless MacMillan runs the consulting company JMPUREPASTRY with his wife, spearheads a Chicago Pastry Competition, and works full-time as pastry chef at The University Club of Chicago’s Cathedral Hall and Front Grill—making him a virtual one-pâtissier-band.

Interview with Pastry Chef Jimmy MacMillan of Cathedral Hall at The University Club of Chicago – Chicago, IL

Francoise Villeneuve: What inspired you to first pursue cooking professionally?
Jimmy MacMillan: Well, I really started out with being a musician. I was inspired by ingredients and food that I had while I traveled playing music. And I saw a lot of the creative energy that I had for writing songs applied to pastry work, too. The lifestyle seemed pretty cool—to not starve and have a kitchen. When you’re on the road, you have a guitar, but the venue is always changing. I liked the idea of having a venue and having the audience come to you.

FV: Where have you worked professionally as a pastry chef?
JM: Before starting up my own company [JMPUREPASTRY] and doing the blog, I worked at Avenues at The Peninsula Hotel. It was an interesting opportunity. I wanted to do cuisine at the highest level. I had already been working at The Four Seasons, with a high-end clientele, and I got to work with Graham Elliott and then Curtis Duffy—two really creative young chefs. I think they’re the young American superstars, really. They've taken everything we’ve learned in the last three years and have not lost everything we've learned in the last 500 years. They had recently received two Michelin stars, and that’s really not surprising since that was always the goal—to have a restaurant of that caliber.

FV: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
JM: I always recommend it, even though that wasn't my path. But it's important to know more about what you’re interested in. I’ve been to a lot of master classes at a lot of other schools, and I continue my education. [School] is important, and I'd recommend it.

FV: What’s your favorite interview question, and what answer are you looking for from a cook that is looking to work for you?
JM: It's important to me that the quality of the person would match the rigor of the position, so I ask them how they think about certain situations—some food-related, some not—to get an impression of how someone approaches his or her work and where being a pastry chef is in his or her life as far as importance. I want someone who will change and grow and be excited about any new thing, but who also does classic food while keeping it interesting. It’s kind of the key to Chicago chefs and the dining experience right now.

FV: What are your most essential tools and why?
JM: Recently, with the Chicago Mold School, I designed my own molds because I no longer wanted to use the same shapes over and over again—a sheet pan, a cake pan, etc. I thought I would create some indispensable shapes for modernist cuisine to have the control over the geometry of something, since it controls the balance of the dish and how much of a portion I give to the diner.

FV: What is your favorite pastry resource?
JM: My work is two-pronged. I think about ingredients and flavor, and it’s important to be interesting and classic and do old things in new ways. At the same time, on the presentation side, I try to work with the flavor first. Now, I have these ingredients and know the best way to present them for the best experience—based on what I would like to see, what I don't see, and what you haven't seen before.

FV: Do you ever feel like Chicago has an added pressure to be ahead of the curve?
JM: I don't know anymore because it's always been important to me, and that's why I came to Chicago. I expect it’s important to all professionals. Everyone is looking to do something interesting. Yes, it’s important in Chicago. After all, designers are now designing things for Target. It's not just in food; it’s starting to be the way people think. There are also many nice restaurants, like Charlie Trotter’s and Tru and Alinea, and as these cooks get more experience, they want to turn that into good food. I think it’s important to have your influences, but you don't want it to be a copy. It’s important as a professional to be original. To be contrived with food is certainly a crime. They [the Chicago diners] want things that taste really great but they also want things that are exciting. The consumers are really conscious of the way they spend their money these days. You go somewhere to experience someone’s personal interpretation of what's exciting right now.

I’m working with the group Chocovic in Spain to put on a competition in October that will be Chicago's main pastry chef competition. I competed for a while. It costs a lot of money. It’s a closed group, and, [for this competition], anyone who’s a restaurant chef can apply. You don’t have to have a lot of money to compete. It's about the creative pursuit. This is mostly for Chicago chefs. I would like to invite all of them to compete. We'll be ready to take submissions in March. Really, a part of the idea is to build up the community. We need things to bring people together. The [ International] Chefs Congress has a common goal. I think that's why it’s been so successful.

FV: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
JM: I have some new favorites. Huckleberries and poached red apples, coconut and yum berry—more traditionally, it’s been called bay berry, but it's a Chinese berry that’s really flavorful. We get inspiration from everywhere, and this company who manufactures things in Canada [gets us the yum berry]. Yum berry is shelf-stable so the company makes beverages from it—they're quick to get ahead [of the market]. I thought [the beverage company's] work would be a great inspiration for a plated dessert—in other words, flavor combinations in beverages like smart drinks and kombucha teas. They’re combining pomegranate and acai, which they made into normal ingredients. But what is interesting is there’s a health component. I like making sweets that are not bad for people, that are a bit exotic, and beautiful on the plate. It’s the same pursuit as [the beverage company], but we turn it into an artistic dessert.

FV: What’s next for you?
JM: After the competition, I'm looking to grow my personal business, JMPUREPASTRY. Right now, it starts with the mold products and the consulting that we do, but we want to come out with more interesting products. I can say we’re fielding a team to compete in France in 2011 for the Mondial des Arts Sucre competition. It’s a partner competition. There are two competitors, one male and one female, so every country has a male and female competitor. The number of female competitors is usually quite small at pastry competitions, and here it won’t be. We just got accepted so we’re building a team. My partner, Oscar Ortega, will be coaching the team, or co-coaching. And Oscar’s assistant, he’s living in the states now, but he’s fielded several teams for the Mexican pastry team, and he competed with Naomi Gallego. Since I'm working on my own competition, it’s important to see perspectives from halfway around the world and how other competition runs.

Related Links