Mindy Segal and the new HotChocolate
One of Chicago's best pastry chefs explains the breakdown that led to big changes at HotChocolate.
But her boss pushed her. “I’m going to make a pastry chef out of you,” she told Segal. And eventually, she did. Segal became addicted to the transformative quality of baking. “A piece of steak is a piece of steak. Fish is fish.… But when you take eggs and flour and sugar and butter and sour cream or buttermilk, you can transform that into something that it wasn’t in the beginning,” she says. Through her work in the kitchen and at Kendall, Segal learned the science behind the transformations, and soon she developed baking instincts. Eventually, she learned to replicate a dish based on what it looked like and a list of ingredients. Recipes fell out of her process altogether.
It wasn’t until she opened HotChocolate in 2005 that Segal realized why recipes had always turned her off: She diagnosed herself as dyslexic. By that point, she had worked in Chicago kitchens for 15 years. She worked with Erwin Drechsler at Metropolis 1800 and Michael Kornick at Marché, and in her early twenties was the pastry chef at Charlie Trotter’s. To call Segal a fiery presence in these restaurants is an understatement: She is perhaps the only chef to work at Trotter’s who doesn’t have a horror story about the chef. In fact, Trotter may have met his match with Segal. Her kitchen demeanor is such that, even at that young age, she could keep up with Trotter’s demands. Trotter would test Segal—one night, without warning, he asked her to send eight fruit desserts to a table, knowing she had only four prepared—and each time, Segal passed the test.
But her fire came with a certain amount of immaturity. Segal floated from restaurant to restaurant, sometimes taking jobs that started in the middle of the night, often working the counter at Bittersweet Pastry Shop, which was owned by an early mentor. It wasn’t until Kornick opened mk in 1999 and asked Segal to work with him again that she settled down and grew up. People started taking notice of her neo-homey style. Her desserts—One Banana Two Banana (banana brioche bread pudding with banana sherbet) and Cake-n-Shake (exactly the pairing it sounds like)—became attractions in and of themselves. And Segal became a name brand. As much as Kornick would have liked to keep her around—“I wanted to make her a partner in everything,” he says—Segal could not be contained. In spring 2005, she opened HotChocolate, and she’s been busy, and profitable, ever since.