Over the past couple of years, Rocket Baby Bakery in Wauwatosa has gotten to be quite a rock star bakery. And now, thanks to the recent hire of Sarah Mironczuk as pastry chef, it has got staff to go along with it.
Milwaukeeans may best know Mironczuk for her appearance on the Halloween episode of the Food Network’s "Sweet Genius," during which she won the final round of the competition with a spider-shaped white butter cake flavored with cayenne, covered with chile oil buttercream, and garnished with black radish butterscotch sauce and a sprinkling of crushed ice cream cones.
But, that was back in 2012 when she was the pastry chef for Harbor House, working with Chef Zach Espinosa and his crew. Prior to that, Mironczuk worked with Chef Thomas Hauck at c.1880 where she says she invented the always popular "Whatchamacallit" dessert.
But, she wasn’t always a pastry chef.
"I was a bartender for a long time," she says. "I actually opened Art Bar. I worked at River Horse and then I was a retail management for MAC cosmetics in Mayfair."
Mironczuk admits that she didn’t love working in retail. But, the job paid well and she worked for a company that allowed her to live almost anywhere in the U.S.
"I always wanted to live on the west coast," she says. "My best friend, who is also my tattoo artist, lived in Sacramento. And he convinced me to move there. While I was there I worked for BareEscentuals, and then I decided to go to pastry school."
She attended Le Cordon Bleu, where she earned her degree in Baking and Pastry Arts. She interned at a French-inspired baker in Northern California before returning home to Milwaukee.
"I was done there," she says. "I ended up getting divorced and – as great as California was – it didn’t have the charm of Milwaukee."
And, while she was away, Milwaukee had gotten even more charming. A new bakery had opened on the west side of town, and it was creating quite a bit of buzz.
"When I came back home, I knew I needed to be at Rocket Baby," Mironczuk says with certainty. "But, at the time they didn’t have any openings."
So, Mironczuk spent two years gaining valuable experience at area restaurants and – most recently – at the Tuckaway Country Club. And she was elated when a friend showed her the job opening Rocket Baby had posted to Facebook.
"I’ve been waiting for two years for this position," she admits. "And it’s amazing."
We sat down to chat with her about her Food Network adventures, what we can expect from her and the bakery in the coming months and her perspective on being a woman in the service industry…
OnMilwaukee.com: So, now you’re here. How does it feel? Is it everything you imagined?
Sarah Mironczuk: When I interviewed here, it was amazing. I sat down to talk with Shannon. And she was telling me about the bakery and what they were going after – more like Tartine style – artisanal, hand-crafted.
It felt like I was talking to myself.
Ultimately, she wants to see someone bring her ideas to life. And I like the challenge of making that happen. And then you have Geoff and his refined palate, and he’s always coming around and encouraging me to tweak and make things better.
It’s important that you work with people who keep you on your toes – and who inspire you and keep you getting better and better. And that’s what we have here now.
OMC: How did you end up choosing pastry as your career, as opposed to another line of work?
SM: I didn’t really like retail management, but the money was good. The thing that really bothered me was that we were encouraged to get to know people, and make a personal connection. But, it was all about selling to people. And that’s the difference about this.
But, I worked. And I got married. And after I had my first daughter, I knew I wanted to be the best role model for her possible. And so I decided to follow my passion.
I’d always loved the art and creativity of baking, and it was really always something I wanted to do. So, I enrolled in culinary school.
OMC: How did you know it was something you wanted to do? Did you grow up baking?
SM: No, actually I didn’t. I didn’t make my first cake until I was older. But, it really made an impression on me.
When I was 18, I worked at the Milwaukee Mental Health Complex. I was doing security. It was one of the weirdest jobs I ever. One day I was trying to bribe my supervisor to let me use his truck to move into my apartment. And I told him I’d bake him a cake in exchange.
It was a white cake with chocolate ganache frosting. And I remember wanting to taste it, but I didn’t want him to know. So, I took a tiny slice and filled it in with frosting.
That was the first time I realized there was something to it – that I really wanted to do it.
OMC: Did he lend you his truck?
SM: He did. Because I didn’t give him the cake before he let me move.
OMC: So, tell me about "Sweet Genius." How did that come about?
SM: I was at c.1880. And "Sweet Genius" was my favorite show. I love Ron Ben-Israel; he’s just so peculiar and was very intriguing to me.
And I thought – maybe I could do that. So, I contacted the Food Network. They just happened to be doing a casting call. So, I sent them my information and they called me the next day. Then, I went through a series of interviews that took months to complete.
I had just started at Harbor House when I got the phone call asking me if I could fly out to New York that weekend. Fortunately, I’d told Chef Zach Espinosa in the beginning that it was coming. So, I flew out there in July, did the show, and then had to wait until the end of October to talk about it (the show aired Oct. 25, 2012).
OMC: And you won. How exciting was it?
SM: It was single-handedly one of the best experiences of my life. The fact that it was a Halloween show… and I’m a Halloween fanatic. So, when I walked on stage and saw the Halloween theme, I knew it was going to be fun.
We were filming on Friday the 13th – and my daughter was born on Friday the 13th – so there was a lot of good juju. Also, since it was the Halloween episode, you kind of had an idea what you were in for.
OMC: And what was it like meeting Ron Ben-Israel? Was he what you envisioned?
SM: He’s not peculiar at all. My first time meeting him, he was dressed like a vampire and talking to himself. It turns out he had buds in his ears and was rehearsing. But, he’s actually quite nice, and rather normal. He’s funny and jovial and not really that peculiar.
Another thing I learned is that it’s all about editing. His TV persona is edited to make him seem peculiar. And the way they edited me made me seem really much like a single mom, fighting for my family. And that was just really played up.
OMC: Well, you do have a sort of rags to riches story. They dig that. But, back to your work here at the bakery. What’s different about working here, as opposed to a restaurant?
SM: I get to do Viennoiserie (laminated doughs, milk-breads and brioche) and I get to make desserts that can stand on their own strong – that can stand on their own and aren’t dependent upon other things. I like that. Boutique style.
Because you can’t really do these things in a restaurant. For instance, at a restaurant, you can’t just give them a delicious peanut butter sandwich cookie on a plate. When you’re in a restaurant, you’re typically looking at at least three components for a dish.
Here, you can make that one thing the star.
OMC: Who are your biggest influences?
SM: Elizabeth Falkner, I’m a big fan of hers. I think that she gets the playfulness of desserts. She likes to add humor – almost as if she’s laughing at herself. And I like that. She’s pretty old school – not really molecular – but she understands that dessert is fun, it’s a treat.
And there’s Christina Tosi – I can’t forget about her. And I love Jacquy Pfeiffer – but who doesn’t?
And I really love Thomas Keller’s Pastry Chef Sebastien Rouxel. He’s also very classic, but he also knows how to have fun.
OMC: What’s one of your favorite things you’re working on right now?
SM: Right now what we’re doing is trying to fulfill our vision. So, I just created these delicious little cakes – bouchons are the chocolate ones and financiers, flavored with almond.
Soon, we’ll be bringing out palmiers and pop tarts. Jalousies – with puff pastry and frangipane… and then seasonal galettes, because who doesn’t love a good fruity galette?
Ultimately, we want to make everybody happy, and we want people to find things they need to come back for again and again. We want to be like crack for the masses.
I love fall – the foods available in fall – so this was a really good time to start.
OMC: In the world of pastry, what ingredient or technique is currently over-used?
SM: Molecular gastronomy. I’m over it. I love the idea of the playfulness, but I think it’s overkill. Your agar agar and xanthan gum. It’s getting kind of far out there. So, being on the classic side of the spectrum, I’m just like "eh."
OMC: What ingredient should be used more often?
SM: Huckleberries. In everything. I really love huckleberries. They're not the easiest thing to find. But, they’re so delicious. On top of a yogurt panna cotta. It’s heaven.
If I had my way, they’d be in everything – in the Danish, we’d have jam…
OMC: What about being a woman in the kitchen? What’s it like working in a largely male-dominated industry?
SM: That’s been a roller coaster. Being on the pastry side makes it more acceptable for me to be in the kitchen. But, at the same time, because I’m a pastry chef, it almost puts you in a sub category. It’s like a joke.
People think I just play with sugar. But, the reality is, I have a great palate, and I’m a good savory cook.
There have definitely been instances – where people have asked me to do the dishes, and I wonder – is it because I’m done at my station? Or because I’m a woman.
If you don’t have a thick skin, you shouldn’t get into it. I’ve been brought to tears – especially in the beginning – but I overcame it. I always finished my desserts, even if I was crying.
You have to be fierce and tough. Like my friend Kate, who is also in the industry. She’s great. And we help one another; we both have a mentality that females in the kitchen should stick together. That’s important.
Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.
Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.