Jimmy MacMillan of Pastry Virtuosity: “Desserts and pastry aren’t essential to survive”

…The learning curve is so deep it takes decades to be proficient at everything. You must be prepared to focus on one area at a time and study the recipes and techniques at length. If you try to be a great baker, cake decorator, chocolatier, plated dessert artist and gelato maker all at once you […]

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…The learning curve is so deep it takes decades to be proficient at everything. You must be prepared to focus on one area at a time and study the recipes and techniques at length. If you try to be a great baker, cake decorator, chocolatier, plated dessert artist and gelato maker all at once you will likely be a mediocre pastry chef. Any one area in the field can be a lifetime of study. Focus on an area that you are passionate about and immerse yourself in that area before moving on.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jimmy MacMillan.

An artist his entire life, Pastry Chef Jimmy MacMillan never expected to end up in a kitchen. During his first career as a musician, he took the occasional restaurant job to help make ends meet, but managed to accumulate over 20 years of kitchen experience along the way.

It was at The Four Seasons in Austin, Texas, when he realized that the creative fulfillment he found as a musician could be channeled into pastry design and innovation. MacMillan was hired on the spot at The Four Seasons, and this is where he quickly saw the parallels between cooking and art come together. MacMillan re-opened the historic Driskill Hotel featuring a state-of-the-art show bakery in 2002. From there, he opened several independent hotel properties, traveled abroad for specialized training with master pastry chefs and developed many pastry programs for luxury properties.

From Executive Pastry Chef at a Michelin starred restaurant to Director of Bakery Operations at Mariano’s Fresh Market and Corporate Pastry Chef at Dineamic Hospitality Group — MacMillan’s experience is varied and expansive.

On top of that, MacMillan has medaled in several major pastry competitions such as Truffe D’or, The National Baking and Pastry Team Competition, and The Indy 500 ‘Food Network Challenge’. He continues to compete and coach other pastry competitors, and was recently cast in a competition show for a major food network.

Recognizing that there was an opportunity where his vast knowledge, creative energy and experience could bring a fresh perspective and unique solutions to pastry chefs and businesses worldwide, MacMillan launched Pastry Virtuosity in 2011, a consulting resource for all food-based businesses including manufacturing, retail and hospitality. Since that time, MacMillan has worked full time as a pastry chef consultant, based in Chicago, IL.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

Early in my career, I spent a lot of time in restaurants when I wasn’t touring as a musician. My experience working in these restaurants as a cook and admiring the work of the pastry chefs is definitely a central part of my inspiration. Particularly, seeing the intricately plated desserts and chocolate showpieces — it was incredible to see the process of art and design transpire in food.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

I’m 100% dedicated to making baked items, desserts and confections. I was drawn into pastry because it combined so many disciplines that fascinate me: food, art, engineering, and science.

When I was a young chef working at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, I became obsessed with mastering composed desserts, which combine a number of pastry techniques on one plate. A chef creating these works of art must be able to create fine chocolate and sugar décor, bake delicate cakes and sponges and create tasty jams and fillings often using the most interesting bespoke ingredients they can find. When I would test a composed dessert for the first time, I made it standard to consider it ‘terrible’ so that we would continue to refine the dessert to reach a higher level. When we reached that level, my team would exclaim, “Pure Pastry!”, a phrase I still use today in the name of my business.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

One night while working at the Michelin starred Avenues at the Peninsula Hotel Chicago, we closed the restaurant early, but kept the kitchen open for one very special guest. I was excited to find out who this mystery guest was. After 18 courses I was able to serve three courses of dessert to one of the most famous chefs in the world, Alain Ducasse. I’ve cooked for many famous people, from Mohammid Ali to Madonna, but cooking for Alain Ducasse was a true honor and memorable moment in my career.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

Looking back, I’d have to say that I was fortunate to move ahead quickly in my career. But, with quick advancement came its own set of challenges. The learning curve was steep and there was a lot of competition. I would work 60–70 hours a week in the kitchen and spend my off-time reading any and all professional pastry books I could get my hands on. For about 10 years, my focus was on improving my skills and everything in my life revolved around pastry — even my vacations! When I took time off, it was to study with the best pastry chefs in the world. I traveled to France, Switzerland and Barcelona to learn from and study among the best.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

I have found that my desserts must strike a balance between beautiful and familiar. What I mean is that pastry goes beyond the innovation and creativity of the presentation. When it comes to pastry, people will rave about your dessert if they find it to be reminiscent of their childhood.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

That is a loaded question! It could be so many things. I’d have to say that a great burger or bowl of noodles is quite satisfying; but, when dining out, my perfect meal is sharing several appetizers, enjoying one main course and ordering all the desserts on the menu!

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

I find inspiration everywhere! For flavors, the spark could be an interesting or rare ingredient like a tea or essential oil that I can build an idea around. A practice that I often utilize is visualization. For instance, staring at a blank plate and then closing my eyes makes it possible for me to ‘see’ what might be new or visually exciting.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

I’m currently working on several projects that engage me in various aspects of the industry. For example, I’m designing a line of luxury cakes for a national online retailer that sells flowers and chocolate covered berries. At the same time, I’m assisting in the development of better systems for a large artisan chocolate maker. And an ongoing project that is close to my heart, is my series of continuing education classes for pastry professionals. I design my classes to help other pastry chefs learn from my experience and guide them to achieve their own version of success. ‘The Pastry Chef Expansion Challenge’ as well as a variety of other classes are available through my website PastryVirtuosity.com.

The impact of each project is different, but by working on a variety of projects within the industry, I feel I am making an important contribution across the board.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

That question comes up a lot! It’s best to keep in mind that staying healthy, having a balanced diet and working on parts of the business that are exciting are ways to avoid burnout. You must find a way to enjoy the process and also remember why you chose this field. I always think, what good is it if I meet my professional goals, if I’m too rundown and tired to enjoy the success?

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

I was fortunate to have great mentors throughout my career that provided advice, but I can certainly come up with five things I wish someone told me when I first started as a pastry chef.

First off, no matter how many awards or how much publicity you receive there is no direct correlation between acclaim and income. For that reason, it’s important to grow them separately and not just focus on one or the other. One year, I traveled with a lead baker on my staff to a major pastry and baking championship in Atlantic City. We were there competing against ten talented teams from around the country, including the chefs from big casinos. We ended up taking second place overall. When I returned to work, the owners were disappointed that we did not place first and did not recognize the accomplishment. I went on to win many more awards, but not once did this directly equal an amazing job offer or increased income.

Second, the learning curve is so deep it takes decades to be proficient at everything. You must be prepared to focus on one area at a time and study the recipes and techniques at length. If you try to be a great baker, cake decorator, chocolatier, plated dessert artist and gelato maker all at once you will likely be a mediocre pastry chef. Any one area in the field can be a lifetime of study. Focus on an area that you are passionate about and immerse yourself in that area before moving on.

Third, desserts and pastry aren’t essential to survive. As a pastry chef, it’s easy to assume everyone is as passionate about eating pastries as we are in creating them. But many of the items we make can lead to health issues if not consumed in moderation as part of a balanced lifestyle. For that reason, we must stay ahead of trend and make conscientious ingredient choices for our customers. We are very fortunate that the public still craves dessert as rewards and for celebrations.

Fourth, wages for chefs will not increase as fast as the field is growing. In other words, many pastry chef positions pay about the same as they did 15–20 years ago. This is important to understand, so you can build your career to surpass the median. This can only be accomplished by working on your business acumen and always searching for new revenue streams. Whether you work for yourself or for a large company, it is the same. You will be rewarded for the value you bring to the marketplace.

Finally, the fifth thing I wish someone told me before I became a pastry chef was that I would have a front row seat to experience new chocolates before they come to market, eat amazing pastries in foreign locals in the back of a bakery on a stainless prep table, and meet amazing pastry artisans from all over the globe. The most exceptional thing about being a pastry chef is all the unique experiences you will have that would not be possible outside of the field.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

My most popular desserts are my reimagined versions of Coconut Cake with Blueberries and Carrot Cake with White Chocolate & Carrot Gelato. Despite those being the most popular, I’m frequently being asked to share the recipe for my Croissant Bread Pudding with Caramel and Chocolate Sauce.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If I could inspire a movement, I would love to teach all people how to cook in a healthy, affordable way. Food can be viewed as far too expensive for individuals and families, but if we as chefs can share our knowledge and teach people how to make healthy choices with meal planning and preparation, then we can guide individuals and families on a healthier journey within their financial means.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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