2015 New York Rising Star Pastry Chef Mina Pizarro of Juni

2015 New York Rising Star Pastry Chef Mina Pizarro of Juni
February 2015

Despite growing up in the Philippines surrounded by women who cooked, Mina Pizarro never felt a natural affinity for this labor of love so central to Filipino culture. When she moved to New Jersey at the age of 12, her aspirations still lay beyond the kitchen: she wanted to graduate college and become a TV personality. 

Pizarro moved on to production and advertising—a position that flipped a switch on her creative drive. Looking for a better creative outlet, she found a work-study position at the Institute for Culinary Education, which allowed her to test the waters before committing to full tuition. Falling for pastry, Pizarro committed first to nine months, then a career.  

A formative internship at Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne led to a job offer, and while Pizarro had originally planned on working in bakeries, she instead got a series of influential teachers in various fine-dining kitchens, including DB, Le Cirque, and Per Se. Pizarro worked as pastry chef at Veritas and SHO Shaun Hergatt before decamping to California, a pivotal change of scenery and mentality. Returning to New York and infused with a West Coast perspective, Pizarro worked first for Cesare Casella at Il Ristorante, then took the helm at Shaun Hergatt’s Juni, where her creativity—unleashed—blends with a California-inspired vitality that no doubt makes her Filipino family proud. 

Interview with New York Rising Star Pastry Chef Mina Pizarro of Juni

Rebecca Cohen: Where are you from?
Mina Pizarro:
I’m from the Philippines. My family moved to New Jersey when I was 12.

RC: Was food important growing up?
Naturally. Food is an integral part of life for Filipinos. It’s a large tradition. Generations have centered around food, until recently. It’s a major part of gatherings. It’s how we express our hospitality. It’s a central part of anything. I was surrounded by a lot of women who cooked, but I didn’t have the natural affinity to cook with them. As a girl I had to help, but that’s the only capacity I held—rolling spring rolls, a lot of prep work.

RC: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
Not at a very early age. What really turned me on to cooking was the natural beauty of food—that was the first hook. Not until I got into the kitchen did I start to love what food really was, what it stood for. At first, it was always the artistic beauty.

I went to undergrad with the intention of being in television, to be an on air personality. But that quickly changed. I definitely felt like I wanted to be behind the scenes, so I pursued TV production, then bridged over to advertising. Being in ads, I was working on the media side and felt that artistic craving coming up. So I began to think about cooking and pursuing it.

RC: What was your first kitchen job?
Right out of school I did my internship at DB Bistro, and that was really my first taste of any kind of kitchen. I blindly went into the restaurant and honestly thought I wanted to be in a bakery making pies and cookies—nothing in the direction of fine dining. But it just started to build from there. I call it blind luck. I started connecting with people who were really great teachers. My next job just lead to my next job.

RC: Did you attend culinary school?
While working in advertising, I pursued culinary school in a work-study fashion. I wanted to be sure it was something I wanted to do. I worked for my tuition at ICE in the evenings to get the feel of what it was like. Eventually I decided I wanted to do it full time. I did six months of instruction and three months of externship.

RC: What are some of the restaurants you’ve worked at?
I did my internship at DB Bistro. I was offered a position and so I stayed a total of 10 months. I spent almost a year at Le Cirque, then heard Per Se was opening, so I joined the opening team. Not to be cliché, but it was the French Laundry Cookbook that made me want to do this. I spent two and a half years there. My first chef job was at Veritas, where I connected with Shawn [Gawle]. Then I went to Napa for a year and worked with a woman who ran a local cooking school. Did yoga, drank wine. This woman showed me the ropes of California. It kind of changed my perspective—coming from the East Coast, about what food is and how it’s handled. When I came back, I worked for Cesare Casella at Il Ristorante on the Upper East Side. And finally I joined Juni when it opened.

RC: How would you describe your culinary style?
In the earlier part of my career I definitely had a very fine line-clean- color blocked kind of aesthetic. Now it’s very organic, very abstract. I almost feel like it’s more natural. Not so much about precise measurements—I’m little bit less uptight. I try to relay my personal perspective in a very natural fashion, something that’s not contrived.

RC: What are your long-term pastry chef goals?
I’ve never really felt like I wanted to open something of my own, because I don’t think my brain is very entrepreneurial. I’m kind of, very in that creative mode. But at the same time I feel that in my future, of course I want something of my own. But is it a restaurant? Vitality has become very important to me at this time of my life and career. Many of the items on my menu are trying to create a balance with sugar consumption, and incorporate things that are fermented, or from older traditions. I’ve started looking at food as something that has to lend some kind of vitality. My train of thought is still about flavor combos, seasonality, but it goes farther than that. I research classical traditions and how we can interpret that in a more modern-artistic way. But it’s very important to make something that creates balance. Maybe I’m just being self-conscious about consuming a lot of sugar!

RC: Where do you find inspiration for your desserts?
Sometimes an idea can start with just a visual of something I saw.

RC: How do you translate that to the plate? Process?
When I create a dish it’s about balance. The beauty is really important, but more importantly, it has to have textures—flavor is number one. I have fundamental requirements: something creamy, something crunchy, something that brings an element of bitterness, acid, sweetness, and saltiness. There are different categories which have to be in one dessert.

RC: What do you have in the pipeline at the moment?
We just started brainstorming. We’re currently working on a rice dish, trying to break the rice down and make a winter dish. I’m also working on my own ceramic pieces to introduce in the spring. That’s a technique I’m trying to capture.

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