Craft Trumps Plate
There’s more to Chef Mindy Segal than just a pretty plate.
When she opened HotChocolate Restaurant and Dessert Bar in Chicago nine years ago, she was very much a plated-dessert chef. Now, Chef Segal, 46, has evolved into a more well-rounded pastry chef.
“My interests have changed and shifted—I am much more interested in laminated doughs, breads, cookies, and artisan pastry, as opposed to the art of the plate,” she says. “I’ve plated desserts and composed pastries for a really long time, and—I’m not saying it’s something I’ve mastered—but I’ve done it, and now I’m pushing myself to learn something different.”
Although she won the 2012 James Beard award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in the U.S., she defines herself in a far more humble light, insisting she’s simply a cook who works on her craft every day. And she is committed to helping underserved individuals build culinary skills and find positive career paths.
“I’m super involved in the Greater Chicago Food Depository and its Community Kitchens program,” says Chef Segal. The Depository, a nonprofit food distribution and training center, sponsors a 14-week program that teaches culinary skills to people who are coming from difficult circumstances and places its students in restaurant internships.
“I take interns all the time from the program, and I hire most of them,” says Chef Segal, who was working with two interns in the HotChocolate kitchen even as she talked with FSR. “One intern is training to be a chef, and one is training to be a pastry chef,” she explains, “and I’d love to take on more interns when my bakery opens.”
In the kitchen, her work now is more about the craft than plated art, and about taking her craft to the next level. “I wake up dreaming of Danishes, sandwich cookies, five-inch pies, hot chocolate popsicles, and cocktails paired with bakery dishes—those are the things I’m really interested in now, and I have a vision.”
Chef Segal’s vision, a restaurant-driven bakery, is expected to open this fall, likely in September, in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.
“I’m re-imagining what an American bakery is. My influences are French, Italian, and Eastern European, where my family is from, but my bakery will be very American,” she says. The bakery will have a large focus on bread, and even the savory menu will “come through the eyes of a pastry chef as opposed to the perspective of a savory chef.”
Undecided which name will hang on her bakery shingle, Chef Segal says she is torn between the obvious: HotChocolate Bakery and Café, and the more subtle: HC Bakery & Café. “The reason I’m leaning to HC Bakery & Café is because HC connotes HotChocolate, my brand, and it also connotes the concept of hand-crafted, which really says what the space is going to be about.”
She describes the 6,000-square-foot space as very funky, with the atmosphere of a bakery workshop even in the dining room, which will likely seat 100. “There will be no walls, no division between the dining room and the kitchen,” she says, adding that the plan is to completely merge the bakery and restaurant together.
“There will be three shifts in the kitchen, and we may even be open 24 hours,” continues Chef Segal. “We’ll do breakfast, lunch, High Tea, some sort of dinner service, cocktail pairings with bakery items, and midnight snacks until 2 a.m.”
When You Give a Guest a Cookie
Her vision calls for a “bakery degustation,” with creative pairings that might include cookies and milk punch, or a miniature sundae served with a cocktail, which guests are invited to pour over the ice cream.
However, bread will be the headliner, and Chef Segal has already designed four starters for the restaurant’s signature sourdough. In addition to a traditional sourdough, there will be a starter from sour beer, a wine-based starter, and another with a cider base. “Craft beer is a big influence in my food, but cider is something I’m becoming influenced by as well,” explains the chef. Sourdough bread will come out of the oven at 4 o’clock every afternoon, fresh for guests to take home or served in the restaurant as part of the savory menu.
As in her original concept, indulgence remains at the heart of the menu, and Chef Segal says, “A lot of our food is designed so guests will order dessert. That means we think about what guests might want to eat before they have a dessert.”
In the throes of writing a cookie cookbook, due to publish next April, it’s unsurprising that her favorite projects at the moment are cookies and breakfast pastry. “That’s my jam right now,” says the chef, who admits she doesn’t really manage her own eating habits: “I eat all the time, it’s really hard.”
However, she is committed to helping people eat healthier. “Having the right balance of food and nutrition is so important, and since this is what we do every day, it is our job as chefs to raise awareness,” Chef Segal says. “We can start by serving sustainable fish, locally sourcing meats, not buying commodity produce, using seasonal ingredients, and showcasing these products on our menu. Also, we can train employees to explain where products come from; that’s one way we can change the way people think about food.”