For the ninth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee, presented by the restaurants of Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, dining guides, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as voting for your "Best of Dining 2015."
James Beard award-winner Mindy Segal has been at the forefront of culinary innovation in the Chicago restaurant scene for over two decades.
As owner of Mindy's Hot Chocolate and former pastry chef at Charlie Trotter's, Spago and Marche, Segal has perfected the art of delicious, comforting desserts, artfully combining subtle combinations including hot and cold, crispy and smooth, and salty and sweet.
Segal was awarded the prestigious James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in the Country in 2012, and was nominated for the same category five times prior in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. She captured the Jean Banchet award for Best Celebrity Pastry Chef in Chicago and was named Pastry Chef of the Year by Chicago Magazine.
Most recently, Segal (self proclaimed "cookie nerd") released her first book, "Cookie Love," a sixty recipe cookbook designed to help home cooks turn classic cookie recipes – like shortbread, spritz and rugelach – into elevated masterpieces.
Segal will be in Kohler for the Food & Wine Experience, Oct. 22-25, so I thought it would be a good time to catch up with her. We spoke on the phone this weekend, and we chatted about how she got started, which cookie recipes she loves and her favorite spots to catch a bite in Chicago.
OnMilwaukee: What initially inspired your love of food?
Mindy Segal: You know, I grew up in a family that – well I’m Jewish – and mealtime was the time that we sat down and really connected with one another. From the time I was young to when I left the house, we always had dinner together. We always had Sunday brunch together. So, from an early age, food was instilled in my consciousness.
And I was surrounded by all these people who were just good at food. Everyone had something they were good at. Aunt Ida could supreme a grapefruit like nobody else. My mother made these unbelievable Swedish meatballs. So, we always had great food, and that really shaped me.
As far as my cooking goes, when I was in high school, I was a bad kid, so I was grounded a lot. And when I was at home, my mom would let me cook. So, I just cooked and cooked and I figured out I was really good at it, and I had a passion for it. When I was 13, my mom bought me a KitchenAid and I’ve been cooking ever since.
OnMilwaukee: You often reference Judy Contino (of Bittersweet Pastry Shop & Cafe) as one of the most influential people in your career. What specific things did you take away from your work with her?
Segal: When I graduated from culinary school, she was the first person I worked under. And she taught me her discipline of pastry. And she was a phenomenal, unrecognized pastry chef – really one of the best, and she was a spectacular. I’m not saying that I surpassed her. But, you’re only as good as the people that you’ve worked with, and I will always credit her with making me into the person that I am today.
You know, some of the best people never get recognition. And that’s because your intention going out there can’t be to get recognition. The intention of this industry is to cook for people and to create memories for people. And when you do that, that makes a different. She did that. And that’s what I do.
OnMilwaukee: You’ve been pretty influential in the sphere of pastry. Looking back on the last 10 years, what would you consider to be the most significant development in the culinary arts that’s influenced you?
Segal: I’m going to answer that in a different way. I’m solely a peasant cook, and I’m not of the molecular gastronomy, broken down food, sphere. And I think that one of the biggest influences over recent years has really been the whole notion of molecular gastronomy. And that's not me. My influences are very classic – French, Italian and Eastern European food – those things that influenced peoples’ table eating, their group eating, eating together.
I do think that one of the things over the years that has really come around is the slow food, sustainable food movement. And the local, sustainable, local sourcing of products and proteins has become second nature for people. And cooking from scratch has become something that is sort of natural for people. And that’s really great.
When I opened HotChocolate, I had a bread baker. And I did that intentionally. At the time, everyone had bread service. But, places were buying bread and it was really kind of sh*tty. But, I looked at the fact that, I’m a pastry chef and if I don’t make things from scratch, that says something about my craft.
There are so many ingenuine movements that happen in my industry that make me ashamed. But, this craft movement – really working and dedicating your life to your craft – that’s really something I believe in. It’s not about being famous, or being on TV, or being on a reality show. It’s about cooking – with your hands and your heart – and really feeding peoples’ souls. That’s what it’s about. Integrity driven, honesty and being true to your craft.
OnMilwaukee: Let’s talk about your book, "Cookie Love." What was it like writing your first book?
Segal: It was a really incredible growth experience for me. And I didn’t know it was until the book came out, and I started talking about it and meeting people who’d read it. At first it was like "I have a book deal, oh shit."
But, I’d been thinking about writing a book for a long time. And I knew I wanted to focus on one thing at a time, single subject books. And that maybe I’d do a series. I love cookies, so that was the first thing I wanted to tackle.
I learned how to collaborate with other people – to work with an editor, a stylist, a designer, a publishing company and a writer. It was extremely … it was a great experience.
OnMilwaukee: I know it’s like picking your favorite child, but do you have a favorite recipe from the book?
Segal: I have a couple. Truly they’re all good. So, would say bake through the book if you like cookies. But, the hot fudge thumbprints with smoked sugar are really special. And the browned butter shortbread crackers … that’s a great recipe that you can use for other things. And the dream bars… they’re phenomenal.
OnMilwaukee: What’s the biggest message you want readers to take away from the book?
OnMilwaukee: Are there any more books in your head, just waiting to get out?
Segal: Yes, definitely. I would love to write a pie book and a tart book. But, I don’t really know. I definitely want o write more recipe books. So, I have to think about it. At this point, I’m not ready yet. I’m really still riding the wave for the first one. We’re six months in, and it’s on its second printing. So, yeah, I’m going to do that first.
OnMilwaukee: The Chicago culinary scene has changed quite a bit over the past decade or so. What are some of your favorite spots?
Segal: I do, but they’ll probably surprise you. I’m a really big supporter of "a person who owns one restaurant" restaurants. When a restaurant is owned by corporate entities, it just sucks the soul out of them. When did restaurants become about the design and concept more than the food? It’s sad and unfortunate.
So, I love to support places owned by people like me. My favorite restaurant in chicago is Le Bouchon. I go there all the time, and I love to go there. I also love Osteria Langhe; the chef is always there. It’s personal. I love that. Every once in a while I squeeze in The Publican and Avec, but I’m big on supporting the little chef owned places.
OnMilwaukee: You were at UW-Madison for a time. Do you have any fond memories of your time there?
Segal: I spent the whole time cooking because I never went to class. So, I don’t. But, I had a really good time. I literally was walking to school one day, and I saw the bus going to Chicago. And I got on the bus and went home. And when my mom asked me what I was doing there, I told her, "I’m going to culinary school." And I did.
OnMilwaukee: You’ll be in Wisconsin for the Kohler Food & Wine Experience in a few weeks. What will you be covering for your demo?
Segal: I’m making cookies, and I’m making a dessert for one of the dinners. I’m making a tiny little chocolate pave and these pears, they’re poached in port wine and then roasted in the poaching liquid. And then I’m serving them with a nougatine and fresh cream.
OnMilwaukee: I know you’re a fan of Milwaukee, and that you love to shop for vintage items in Walker’s Point. But, how about Kohler? Have you been there? Anything you’re looking forward to doing while you’re here?
Segal: I actually don’t know. I haven’t thought about it. I’ve really been traveling so much, and I haven’t had a chance to sit down and really plan. I can say that I’ve never been there, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m really excited. I’m doing a dinner with Jacques Pepin, and that’s going to be… just great.
Want to see Segal in Kohler? Here’s where she’ll be:
Cookie Love – Says it All
Saturday, Oct. 24 from 10 to 11 a.m. at the Stella Artois Main Stage. After her demonstration Mindy will be available to discuss and sign her new book. Cost is $49. Purchase tickets here.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.