Ask Leigh Omilinsky why she got into pastry and the Skokie, Illinois native will tell you: “Because they’re pretty.”
No, really …
Really, she insists. In fact, it was a vacation to San Francisco with her family when she was 10-years old that sealed the deal. Normally her parents didn’t allow her and her sister to get many sweets, so it was a real treat, when, at the Top of the Mark for dinner, they were allowed to order a crème brûlée.
She remembers thinking how good dinner was. Her parents were relaxed, they had a gorgeous view and the whole experience of the brûlée stayed with her.
Baking had always been a passion – she’d make cookies almost every day after school and spent much of her teenage years working at bakeries and watching Julia Child and Jacques Pepin on television. She soon realized being in a kitchen where was she felt most at home.
CLICK for Exclusive StarChefs Interviews Delivered to Your Inbox! From there, she spent a formative month staging at Pierre Hermé in Paris before taking the Pastry Chef job at Nico Osteria at the Thompson Hotel in 2015 where she’s become known for rallying around causes that make an impact far beyond the plate. In 2018, she was named a “Rising Star Pastry Chef” by StarChefs.
This, despite taking piano and thinking, at one point, that she’d be jazz pianist. “I have stage fright, so I had to find another career,” she said.
She took classes at Kendall College before heading to Johnson & Wales in Denver to pursue an Associate’s Degree in baking and pastry arts and a Bachelor’s in Food Service Management. Before getting into fine dining she interned at a resort on Lanai in Hawaii and worked on the line at a restaurant in Denver. Eventually she ended up back in Chicago and worked at TRU, L20, and Sofitel before landing at Nico Osteria.
During that time, she worked with a host of James Beard award winning chefs, among them Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand; first at Tramonto’s Steak and Seafood as the lead pastry cook and then at TRU restaurant as pastry tournant. She also worked as Chef de Partie under celebrated Chef Laurent Gras at L2O restaurant.
In 2010, Omilinsky joined Sofitel Chicago Water Tower as Assistant Pastry Chef. Promoted to Executive Pastry Chef in 2012, she oversaw the hotel’s pastry program including private dining, amenities and the plated desserts at Café des Architectes and Le Bar. In 2013, Omilinsky was included on Zagat’s “30 Under 30” list and received the Jean Banchet Award for “Best Pastry Chef.”
Despite her many accolades, we found her charming and down to earth when we sat down to talk desserts.
On her pastry style: “It’s evolving. I’m definitely all about what’s seasonal but I’d say my style is very fluid. I try to use very clean flavors so there’s no ‘Hmm… what is this?’ I want my flavors to be direct.”
Favorite ingredients: "I’m fruit-focused. Currently, I’m working on a huckleberry dessert with butterscotch and hazelnuts; it’s kind of like a grown-up peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Last week I put a sweet corn and peaches dessert on the menu.
I also enjoy chocolate though chocolate is hard. I tend to put candied nuts on a lot of things. I’m into anything that’s crunchy."
Signature dish: "The French macaron. I’m French-trained so I always have that in-house."
Favorite thing on your menu: "I loved that peaches and corn dish. It was Brown Butter Pan Dolci, compressed peaches, basil, espellette, pecan toffee, sweet corn and olive oil gelato."
Something folks don’t know: "I have a pastry garden in my backyard. My friend helped me create what’s basically an edible garden so many of my flowers and herbs go straight to pastry; I have more than I can possibly use.”
From there, she spent a formative month staging at Pierre Hermé in Paris before taking the Pastry Chef job at Nico Osteria at the Thompson Hotel in 2015 where she’s become known for rallying around causes that make an impact far beyond the plate. In 2018, she was named a “Rising Star Pastry Chef” by StarChefs.
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[Note from Symrise: We salivated over the Boccone Dolce on her menu, a meringue shell, filled with toasted bay leaf mousse, summer berries, blueberry-vermouth jam, bay leaf gelato, lemon thyme and flowers. We also loved the Budino di Pane rhubarb, bread pudding made with in-house croissants – Omilinsky’s pride and joy – with fresh plums, plum-lemon verbena sorbet, plum-lemon verbena jam, olive oil honey and flowers.]
On what inspires her: "The seasons. My garden. If you get good produce, you really don’t have to do much else. I also go out to eat a lot and read a lot of books. I’ll read any cookbook by Julia Child. I also rely on ‘Southern Italian Desserts.’
Instagram is also a huge inspiration with all its crazy visuals. And travel. Being that Nice Osteria is Italian, I like to look at the regional areas of Italy which are all so different and take something that’s traditional and put my own spin on it.
For example, with ciambella, which is either a round donut-shaped cookie or cake, I ask myself "How can I make this mine?” Since Italian desserts are very nut, honey, olive oil based and also very regionally specific, I can take the idea of a dessert and put on my own stamp on it to make it more delicious. So, rather than making a dry ciambella cookie, I'll take the shape and use puff pastry and fill it with fruit. Just a simple twist on an amazing regional classics that defines Italy.”
On Chefs that have made an impact: “I think about Laurent Gras every day; his attention to detail and work ethic are amazing. He also taught me when to stop; when something is good enough and we’re done. I think that’s really important as we all work on something – and work on it more – to make it perfect.
I also follow the careers of Christina Tossi [of Milk Bar fame] and Angela Pinkerton. I like the idea of thinking about ‘how do you get there?’"
Trends in the pastry world: “I’m seeing a lot of people put turmeric in desserts which I really hate.
I’m also seeing classics come back in a new way. I’m seeing a lot of more French desserts. And the use of laminated dough."
Thoughts on savory pastry: “I think it was more prevalent a few years ago. It’s still definitely there. I find people either love it or hate it. At the end of the day, I don’t factor it into the way I plan my menu. Whether you’re at a fine dining establishment or a casual eatery, I think the best way to end your meal is with a warm chocolate chip cookie, so why mess with that?”
On baking at home: “I don’t even have sugar in my house. I try to keep it really healthy at home – thanks Mom!”
On the influence of Instagram: “Everyone is a photographer these days, so Instagram makes us all up our game. It’s definitely an influence and I keep it in mind for everything I do because once you put it out there it’s out there in the world, so I think pastries have to be pretty.”
On where she eats pastries: “I’m always trying other people’s desserts. I love going to Cellar Door Provisions, Lula Cafe and Floriole Cafe & Bakery. I’ll try anything but like I said before, I tend to be more fruit-focused.”
Thoughts on gluten-free: “You have to offer it in today’s world. We always have at least one gluten-free dessert on a menu. Surprisingly, it isn’t that hard. In fact, a lot of French desserts are flourless.”
Five-year plan? “I don’t have one. It all depends on the day.”
Best piece of advice: “My 7th grade band director who told me your worst day needs to be good enough – I try to think about that.”
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Images courtesy of Chef Leigh Omilinsky's Instagram (@leighomilinsky).