Mindy Segal’s secret to success in baking and chocolate

“I just do what I please,” Mindy Segal said on a recent Sunday as she pulled a coconut cake out of one of five industrial ovens at her eponymous Bucktown bakery.

The bakery has been open for three years and since then, there have been lines almost every day. Nirvana blares through the speakers as the pastry chef moves the cake from the oven to her work station. His movements are quick and confident. She moves with determination. “I’m glad other people like it.”

At 57, Segal is dynamic with a touch of pizzazz. She speaks directly and honestly, driven both by what she likes – music, her two dogs, a good pastry – and by what she doesn’t like.

The hit TV show “The Bear”?

“I don’t care, I’m fine,” she jokes. (Segal did, however, make the focaccia featured in the second season finale.)

Chicago’s restaurant industry?

“I’m done with it. I literally parted ways with it when I closed my restaurant. (Segal closed Hot Chocolate in 2020.)

Mindy Segal’s Hot Chocolate restaurant in Chicago closed in 2020.

And the idea that she built one of Chicago’s most innovative and exciting candy empires – and continues to churn out hit after hit?

“Not really. I never thought of it that way.

Although Segal — who won the 2012 James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef — eschews the entrepreneur label, she seems to have a flair for what Chicago foodies want, especially those who grew up on the Internet and now have money to spare. Call it a millennial sixth sense.

“Her love of this craft resonates so deeply with people,” says Dana Cree, pastry chef and founder of Pretty Cool Ice Cream. “She has a constant curiosity that makes her so special. And she also has a point of view.

Or, Segal zigzags when others zag.

“My drum beat has always been a little different than most people’s,” Segal says. “It’s my own unique style.”

A special alchemy is formed when Segal combines butter and sugar. In 2005, Segal decided to open his own restaurant and called it HotChocolate, a name inspired by the movie “Coming to America.” And since the name demanded a drink, Segal prepared one from a thin ganache accompanied by homemade marshmallows. The dessert was arguably the first viral treat in early Chicago.

Then, long before Illinois legalized recreational marijuana in 2020, along came THC-infused candies. Illinois-based cannabis company Cresco contacted Segal about a partnership. Mindy’s gummies debuted in 2016, boomed as recreational weed took off, and as of last year, its gummies still had a top-five market share in Illinois.

CANNABIS-04.JPG.  James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Mindy Segal discusses her Mindy's Artisanal Edibles line at her Mindy's HotChocolate cafe in Bucktown.  |  Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Mindy Segal discusses her Mindy’s Artisanal Edibles line at her Mindy’s HotChocolate cafe in Bucktown in 2018.

Annie Costabile/Sun-Times, file

“Mindy was really the first to say, ‘You could have something that gives you a great high but also tastes delicious,'” says Dana Mason, vice president of wholesale marketing at Cresco. “Her edibles are amazing. The taste is unmatched.

After spending two years perfecting a cutting-edge THC gummy, Segal now plays a mostly inactive role at Cresco. It has the nebulous title of “product ideation,” which suits it very well.

Baking remains Segal’s first and most enduring love. Think about the time Segal ditched wheat and spent a summer perfecting a tangy, chewy gluten-free bagel. To this day, Segal’s wheat-free bagels, which she sells at the bakery, are among the most coveted offerings in a booming gluten-free industry.

That morning, Segal prepares for a party at the Bucktown bakery. Standing at his post, Segal slips a worn rag into his signature navy apron and wipes his palms against his thighs. All around her, the bakery vibrates with activity. At one station, a young trainee carefully presses halva dough into miniature tartlets. Across the table, another baker is mixing a giant vat of liquid chocolate, the lights from the ceiling reflecting in the deep, rich color. Half a dozen employees swirl around each other with ease as if performing a well-rehearsed choreography.

Mindy Bakery Staff

Staff work inside Mindy’s Bakery in Wicker Park ahead of the April 29 launch party for owner Mindy’ Segal’s new ‘Lait Extraordinaire’ chocolate range.

“I thrive on chaos,” Segal laughs as he opens the oven door again to check on a Guinness chocolate cake. It takes more time. Segal returns to coconut cake. It’s placed on the cooling rack, sandwiched between a ramped pesto stromboli, a baked Italian turnover, and a large gluten-free pizza on a baking sheet. Soon, she’ll deliver the two savory pastries into the glass display case, a dividing barrier between Segal and the line of eager customers that snake around the room and block.

Segal picks up a notepad on which she has sketched a vague plan. Notably, the doodles are not precise measurements — “I don’t use recipes,” she says — but a roadmap for the rest of the morning.

Today, all of Segal’s preparations will feature “Extraordinary Milk,” a personalized dark milk chocolate that Segal and his two pastry chefs developed last year with Swiss chocolate maker Cacao Barry. Segal never thought she would make her own chocolate, but when Cacao Barry invited her, the idea seemed like fun. And now she has to find ways to use the two tons they produced together. “That’s the fun part,” Segal says. “We can all be creative.”

Mindy Segal Chocolate Cake

A chocolate cake that highlights “Lait Extraordinaire,” a personalized dark milk chocolate that Segal and his two pastry chefs developed with Swiss chocolate maker Cacao Barry.

The event, Segal says, will both celebrate chocolate, which she hopes to sell to other chefs, and provide an opportunity to catch up with friends in the industry.

What the evening won’t be, Segal says, is the announcement of the launch of a candy company. In fact, Segal seems allergic to the idea.

“It’s just a chocolate that we made and that we cook with,” she says. “I want to celebrate with people and I want them to be impressed.”

Behind her, Segal pastry chef Karen Gizowski steadily tempers a large bowl of melted chocolate. Tempering, the process that gives chocolate a smooth, shiny finish, requires a delicate hand. Gizowski, who worked at HotChocolate for a few years and returned to help Segal open the bakery, holds the title of house temperator.

Award-winning chef Mindy Segal recently launched her “Lait Extraordinaire” line of personalized chocolates – an intense 44.8% milk chocolate made in partnership with Parisian confectionery Cacao Barry.  Lou Foglia for WBEZ

Award-winning chef Mindy Segal recently launched her “Lait Extraordinaire” line of personalized chocolates – an intense 44.8% milk chocolate made in partnership with Parisian confectionery Cacao Barry.

“I don’t know if anyone else wants the job,” Gizowski laughs, holding a thermometer just above the bowl. “Chocolate is a really difficult job.”

A few meters away, Segal assesses the damage to the tres leches cake. Since the pastry will be covered in chocolate buttercream frosting, she decides not to worry about the fracture. “I like it that way,” Segal says. “I like that it’s not perfect.”

Segal is not interested in perfection. If there’s one defining quality in Segal’s food, says Erick Williams, a longtime friend and executive chef-owner of Hyde Park’s Virtue, it’s flavor.

“Mindy is incredibly intentional about flavor and perspective of delicious,” says Williams. “We would all do well to first make sure that everything comes out delicious from the kitchen. »

Mindy Segal Pastries

Mindy Segal never thought she would make her own chocolate, but when Cacao Barry invited her, the idea seemed like fun. And now she has to find ways to use the two tons they co-produced.

Back at the bakery, Segal focused on the next dish on her list: Bostock. Traditionally made from day-old brioche soaked in syrup, Segal put his own twist on French pastry with a flaky brioche. “Isn’t it beautiful,” Segal mused as he cut the flaky bread. “My pride and joy.”

The day was marked by joy (cutting up a flaky brioche) and frustration (burnt mini tartlets), and through it all, Segal remains unfazed.

“Those kinds of things used to stress me out when I was younger, but they don’t anymore,” Segal reflects. “At the end of the day, it’s about the journey. That’s what makes it great.

Over the next hour, Segal finishes his bostock preparation and returns to his cakes. She later makes the mini tartlets again and covers her cakes with icing. When she finally packs her bags around 3 p.m., Segal thinks about what tasks she has left for the next day.

Beyond that, Segal has no plan. She hopes Cresco will use Extraordinary Milk for a limited-edition THC-infused chocolate bar, marrying two of her passions, but she has no expectations. Segal stopped trying to control destiny a while ago.

“When you obsess about the future, you tend to miss what’s in front of you,” she says. “You cannot see the specialness of what you have created.” And when that happens, the magic can fade too.

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