Chef Jimmy MacMillan is currently the executive pastry chef at The University Club of Chicago and has assembled an impressive resume for himself over the course of his career as a pastry artist. His span of work includes his experiences at The Four Seasons Austin, The Driskill Hotel (Austin), The Houstonian Hotel Club and Spa (Houston), The Conrad Hotel (Indianapolis) and The Four Seasons Hotel Seattle. Prior to moving to the University Club, he was the Executive Pastry Chef at Avenues and The Peninsula Chicago. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Chef MacMillan about this transition and what this move means to him from both a professional and personal standpoint.
Pastry Profiles – What motivated you to go from working at a high profile position at Avenues to an environment where your professional visibility could be reduced because of the exclusive nature of the University Club?
Chef Jimmy MacMillan - Many people are asking why I would walk away from the #1 hotel in North America to work at a city club. The University of Chicago has assembled a top notch team of food and beverage professionals with backgrounds in great hotels: Four Seasons, Ritz, Peninsula and others. The Executive Chef is Mark Baker who opened several key Four Seasons Hotels around the world and enjoyed a great popularity in Chicago. Chef Baker is highly interested in local and organic foods as well as offering the club members and guests the
same high quality you would find in any of the popular restaurants in Chicago.
Pastry Profiles – How does this move fit with your overall career goals?
Chef Jimmy MacMillan – At Avenues, I felt as though I had gone as far as I could in terms of pushing myself with the limits of that organizational structure. I believe that once you've mastered something – be it music, sports, pastry arts, etc. – you shouldn't be complacent with the attitude of "I've reached the top." That's the time to set a new pinnacle instead of being satisfied with achieving your original set of goals. I've always been told that you see the same people on the way down as on the way up. Thankfully that has not happened to me yet.
Chef MacMillan was a just a few weeks into his new position the first time we spoke and had just finished presenting his plated desserts to the University Club team earlier that day. He plated several of the desserts for me while we talked.
Pastry Profiles – Today was the first opportunity for you to demonstrate your skills to the team – what was that experience like?
Chef Jimmy MacMillan – Although they were really patient about letting me develop the items before having a formal presentation, they were definitely ready to experience the finished product. I’m surprised and pleased at how receptive everyone is to the new dessert plates.
Pastry Profiles – Does that put a damper on your ability to be innovative with your ideas?
Chef Jimmy MacMillan – Innovation is an overused term in this profession. For example, a few years ago foam was all the rage, until everybody started doing it. At that point it became old and there was a search for the next thing. I prefer to look at an innovation and try and explore every possible aspect of it. Whatever the innovation, someone put a lot of time and effort to develop it and deserves the respect of knowing how far you can go with it.
There can be limitations to creativity based on the clientele perception. Take a tiramisu for example. I would have a hard time creating a dish that did not have all of the classic flavors and components of this dessert. I could deconstruct it and change the components so it had the same basic elements – but I would have to cal! it something different. I’m just as interested in being creative as presenting dished that people love to eat.
Pastry Profiles – So it is important to be versatile.
Chef MacMillan – Versatility does come into play. Flexibility is the key to success. Here is an example of a classic dessert that I put on the tasting menu. It is a Lemon grass Panna Cotta with Melon Ribbons, Sake Noodle and Micro lemon grass. This dish has some recent technique, like the ‘caviar’ which is a bit overused without there always being a reason. Here the caviar is melon and fits in nicely with the fresh melon. Sake noodles on top could be considered a ‘new’ element but they aren’t overemphasized in the dish. The panna cotta was extremely light and paired well with the blend of mild flavors and textures in this dish —especially with the melon caviar.
The next dish he presented was a Passion fruit Creme Brulee with Green Tea Shortbread, Pineapple, Mango and Kiwi. This dish again demonstrated the play between flavors and textures pitting the creaminess and sweetness of the brulee against the crispy shortbread. The dessert also includes two other looks at passion fruit: a frozen Kulfi and a ‘sponge’-like meringue scooped out and filled with passion fruit seeds.
The next dish was a summer bread pudding consisting of sweet corn custard, brioche and blueberries. A sweet and savory dish that he was currently serving that was not part of the tasting. The use of the sweet corn in this dish and the passion fruit in the brulee brought up questions about the availability of ingredients and expectations of a Chicago dining experience. The garnish is freeze dried corn brittle and is a play on Chicago’s love for candy corn.
Pastry Profiles – Sweet corn and passion fruits do not come to mind as indigenous ingredients to Chicago. Do you take this into consideration when developing a new concept?
Chef MacMillan – Chicago is becoming more organic in its ingredient offerings, so there is an availability of a variety of quality organic products you wouldn't have seen here years ago. The corn is local mid west corn. You can get many amazing ingredients in Chicago, and the region is surrounded by great farms.
Pastry Profiles -- Is there an expectation of the Chicago dining experience that there will be some type of mix of the familiar with the avant-garde?
Chef MacMillan – Chicago has a lot of faith in the Chef compared to other cities. There is a trust associated with the reason why the Chef composed a dish and presented it a certain way.
Pastry Profiles – So a Chef has pretty much free reign in Chicago?
Chef MacMillan – Yes and no – 0ne of the biggest missteps is when you don't plan out the entire experience. You go to a restaurant and have a wonderful French entree and then it gets paired with an Italian dessert! Today's Chef is very different from those of ten years ago. It used to be you focused pretty much on the back of the house and the menu. Diners now are more experienced and there are a lot of details to consider. A good Chef/owner will have to wear a lot of different hats to be successful in this business. We need to consider of all the details.
Pastry Profiles – Speaking of wearing a lot of hats, one of the things that intrigued me when doing the research for this interview was the way that you incorporate bread service throughout the meal. How did this come about?
Chef MacMillan – Bread service used to be a very important part of the dining experience, the breaking of the bread. Then the carb craze started and people did not want bread with their meal anymore. It has started to come back now and there are a lot of things you can do with bread service to enhance an entree or appetizer. We made goat butter brioche, herbed English muffin and Yuzu bread to name a few.
At Avenues I would incorporate the herbs and spices from the dish or add complementary ones to the bread offerings. Most of the dough was ready to go into the oven for a quick bake off prior to service. Another key to bread pairing is having it come out hot and fresh.
The final plate was something that can best be described as chocolate in almost every conceivable presentation imaginable. Chef MacMillan calls it a Praline Crunch Bar with a Chocolate brownie and Marcona almond ice cream and it is easily a chocolate lover's dream dessert. He explained that this was his "traditional" dessert offering on the menu and that most of the ingredients in this dish were Chocovic products.
Pastry Profiles – The plates you have put together look a little different than what you currently have on your site. Is this an intentional move to try and change your image?
Chef MacMillan –Image is not that important to me. It goes back to what we talked about earlier in terms of innovation. Every menu I try to take a fresh look at what were doing. Really to the point of avoiding what we did last time so the work is always evolving. The message to the diner is to expect to be surprised and sample something you can’t get everywhere.
Pastry Profiles –So you are using the web and your blog to get this message out? (Check out Chef's blog JMPUREPASTRY )
Chef MacMillan – That is one avenue. I’m also currently working with David Paul Larsen on a project for publication. David is a fashion photographer in New York City with a unique talent for capturing creative food shots as well. The photos of our work in this article are test shots for the project.
Pastry Profiles – Your current postings and work also reference the Spanish Chocovic product. How did that relationship start?
Chef MacMillan – I have had a relationship with them for about three years and have attended classes in Barcelona with Pastry Chef Ramon Morato. They are a group of innovative Spanish Chefs who have been around a long time and have their personal approach to making chocolate. To them, the conching is an important part of the process. They believe that by using modern machinery it creates a quality product faster without damaging the beans. The process lasts from 1 – 5 hours to maintain integrity. The result is that the flavors come out differently than others who conch for 15-24 hours, with more flavors of the terra intact. They feel that since cacao beans are unique you can't make the same tasting single bean chocolate every year because they will reflect the changes in the harvest. Like wine, their single origin chocolates have vintages and vary from year to year. Another of their interesting product lines is the Selvaticas. These are good for plated desserts because they have a lot of acidity and strong flavor. For example they add yogurt to the milk and white chocolate which creates a final product that is different from everything else available.
Pastry Profiles – The profile pictures in this article are from demonstrations of the Chocovic product. Obviously in your profession there is lots of travel. How doesthat impact your other job of being a father?
Chef MacMillan -- As much as I can I try and bring the family with me. There is a balance to strike between dedication to your craft and to the other responsibilities in your life. One feeds the other. My kids love great chocolate and have got to experience visits to Chocolate schools and attend some special events. We make it part of our family life.
Pastry Profiles – Do you think that you would want to get back into competitions?
Chef MacMillan — One of the other reasons for leaving the busy job at Peninsula was to allow me to explore other things that interest me. The time commitment did not allow me to do that easily at Avenues. I did compete nationally, but often sacrificed sleeping for days on end! But more importantly I think that the environment here is more conducive to training and I have a better facility to do show work daily.
Pastry Profiles — Other than being the head Pastry Chef, writing a book, doing demonstrations and entering competitions — are there any other aspirations you might be pursuing?
Chef MacMillan — I would like to open my own shop one day. I envision it as being organic and vary accessible. There is an appreciation for high-end product for the general market if it is presented in the right way.
I would also want to be able to include kids in the mix to give them an exposure to pastry arts at a younger age. I’m looking forward to the future.
Learn more about Chef MacMillan @ http://jmpurepastry.blogspot.com
Lend a hand and vote for chef MAcmillan for the 2010 James Beard awards!
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OUTSTANDING PASTRY CHEF
Jimmy MacMillan, Cathedral Hall (restaurant), Chicago, Illinois
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