2018 Chicago Rising Star Pastry Chef Leigh Omilinsky of Nico Osteria

2018 Chicago Rising Star Pastry Chef Leigh Omilinsky of Nico Osteria
May 2018

Watching “Jacques and Julia” first inspired a young Leigh Omilinsky to pick up a whisk, and throughout high school in Skokie, Illinois, she worked part-time in bakeries. After graduating, she headed west to study pastry at Johnson & Wales University in Denver, and her first professional gig was at the Denver JW Marriott.
Omilinsky soon returned to Chicago to work with Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand—first at Tramonto’s Steak and Seafood as the lead pastry cook and then at TRU as pastry tournant. Omilinsky dug her fine-dining clogs in further when she went to work for Laurent Gras as chef de partie at L20, during which time the restaurant received three Michelin stars. 

In 2010, Omilinsky joined Sofitel Chicago Water Tower as assistant pastry chef and was promoted to executive pastry chef in 2012. For her work there, Omilinksy was named to Zagat’s “30 under 30” list. She won the Jean Banchet award for “Rising Star Pastry Chef” the same year and “Pastry Chef of the Year” in 2013. To further her skills, Omilinksy spent a formative month staging at Pierre Hermé in Paris. Now at Nico Osteria at the Thompson Hotel, Omilinsky’s pastry program— from hotel amenities to plated desserts—reflects her deep affection for Italian cuisine. She also has become a pillar of the Chicago pastry community, rallying around causes and her pastry peers and setting an example for pastry chefs who want to make an impact far beyond the plate.

Interview with 2018 Chicago Rising Star Pastry Chef Leigh Omilinsky

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start?

Leigh Omilinsky: I originally wanted to be a jazz piano player, but I have stage fright, so I had to find another career. I come from a food-focused family—I used to come home from school and make cookies all the time—and my mom always told me, “You’re going to do this for a living.” I took classes at Kendall College, and I could tell it was right for me. I felt at home my first time in a professional kitchen, so I decided to pursue a career in culinary arts at Johnson & Wales in Denver. Before getting into fine dining, I interned at a resort on Lanai in Hawaii and worked on the line at a restaurant in Denver. I eventually ended up back in Chicago, and worked at Tru, L20, and Sofitel before coming to Nico.  

CH: Who’s your mentor?

Paul [Kahan] is a great mentor, and Meg Galus took me in. I worked for Meg at Tru before she hired me at Sofitel.

CH: How did you prepare for your role at Nico Osteria and the transition from French to Italian pastry?

LO: Italy is my first love. I’ve been there five times, from Naples up the boot. Each region has such different ingredients and cooking styles, so the possibilities for inspiration are endless. I was there for two weeks last year and did a tour of some wineries in Tuscany with the Slow Food Board in Chicago. I also went to Rome; [the city] is just sexier than anything I’ve ever seen.

Before [The Thompson], I was only making French pastry. Here, I have more freedom to explore other forms of pastry, but the restaurant is busier than I expected, so I’m working on desserts I can execute faster and in larger quantities. It’s a challenge, but I feel like I’m coming into my own.

CH: What’s your biggest challenge?

LO: Managing people. My team is comprised of seven to eight people. Teaching a team your recipes and making sure they’re executed properly is like getting everyone to learn how to write in your handwriting. The sheer volume of output at [The Thompson] means that there are a lot of moving parts at work. We make all the bread, pastries, focaccia, croissants, and mignardises every day, so it’s hard to oversee every step of every process. The only product we don’t make in-house is our sourdough, which we get from Publican Quality Bread.

CH: How are you involved in the local culinary community?

LO: I work with Slow Food Chicago. They have a bunch of things in the works, like their wildflower program. I grow produce from in my backyard and then donate whatever I don’t use back to urban farming initiatives. I also work with Pilot Light and Share Our Strength.

CH: What’s your five-year plan?

LO: I could see myself living in Italy someday, getting married, and having babies. I would love to travel more: I’m currently planning trips to Rome and Paris. In 2013, I staged with Pierre Hermé for a month, so Paris has a special place in my heart. Professionally, I don’t know exactly what’s ahead, but I love this company and I would love to continue to grow and work with OneOff Hospitality.

CH: What advice would you give to your younger self?

LO: Slow down and write everything down.