We Chat With Janina O'Leary of Trace, Austin
"I always say more of my style is to take something you really cherished and loved growing up and make it more adult or more playful, or make it more exciting and create almost that same feeling you had when you were younger."
The story of Janina O'Leary's charmed ascent into the pastry world reads like pages torn from a well-written book. She graduated high school at the age of 15 to move to New York City and become the youngest student ever enrolled at the famed French Culinary Institute. Towards the end of her studies there, Julia Child gave a guest lecture, and Janina approached her after the talk. When Janina asked for advice about how she might work in some of the best kitchens in the city, Per Se and Daniel in particular, Julia advised she "never take no for answer."
Janina took this advice to heart; she graduated and immediately secured a job in the kitchen of Laurent Tourondel's BLT Prime before moving into pastry at Daniel, where she worked for the esteemed Daniel Boulud for a year. However, her dream since she was a teenager was to work for the legendary Thomas Keller at Per Se. And one day, she decided to do something about it. Janina walked straight to Per Se during a snowstorm, entered through the back door, which led right into the pastry prep area, and stated her desire to work there. The lead chef, bewildered as he was by her boldness, was also short-staffed due to the storm, so he took her up on her offer. At the end of an impromptu ten hour shift, she was told to return the next day and fill out paperwork.
After over three years at Per Se and Bouchon Bakery, Janina decided to get more experience in different kitchen roles. She went on to work for Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich as the pastry sous chef at Del Posto. There, she learned the art of making pasta and worked with executive chef Mark Ladner and executive pastry chef Brooks Headley (who won this year's James Beard Award for his work). After two and a half years there, she opened up The Village Tart, with pastry guru Pichet Ong acting as her consultant. There, she juggled roles as the executive chef at a place that was a bakery in the morning, cafe for lunch, and served late night tapas, dessert, and drinks.
After thirteen years in New York, a pregnant Janina and her husband (whom she met at Del Posto) decided to fly south to Austin. Now the executive pastry chef at Trace in the W Austin, her wealth of experience is manifesting itself in each inspired plate she brings to exquisite fruition.
Have you always loved making desserts? I have! I'm originally from Texas and I grew up in this really small town, Del Rio. I grew up with my aunts and my mom baking and cooking all the time so I always kind of knew it's what I wanted to do. I graduated high school early so I could go to the French Culinary Institute in New York, so that's how that came about. My aunt had always wanted to open up a bakery, so it slowly started progressing from there. I was like, "Wait, you can do this for a living!" because it was just something, you know, we'd always just had fun doing.
The way you ended up working at Per Se is an incredible story! Can you talk a little about your experience there? I was lucky enough to get a job at Per Se, and that's where I spent over three years. Every place I worked was a huge learning experience but Per Se was really awesome because I was able to do a little bit of everything. It's in the Time-Warner building, and on the second floor they have Bouchon Bakery—so I was able to do more of the restaurant with its fine dining desserts and then also the overnight bake. Then they have this really amazing chocolate room, so it was my first experience doing a lot of molded chocolates and things like that. I worked in the chocolate room for quite a few months there.
I was insanely lucky to be there because, at that time, it was headed by Sebastien Rouxel, who came out with the Bouchon cookbook with Thomas Keller. He's Thomas Keller's corporate executive pastry chef and he's stationed in New York, so he was still very much the pastry chef there but in a more corporate role. He was sort of transitioning at the time. So I was able to work really closely with Sebastian and with Richard Capizsii who was doing both Bouchon and Per Se. I was able to literally work super hands-on with both of them, which is something...to work for two world-renowned, amazing chefs at one time was huge for me, and I was able to learn incredible things from both of them at the same time. That was the icing on the cake for me there.
You studied classic techniques before you went on to work with some legendary chefs. Do you feel like you've built upon your culinary education this entire time or learned more from hands-on experience than you ever learned in school? I feel like, throughout the process, and working for different people who have completely different visions and skills and techniques, it's kind of made me respect more of those classic techniques—so I definitely try not to lose that. But I think, throughout the years, I've been infusing that with more of a playful twist on old school techniques. I always say more of my style is to take something you really cherished and loved growing up and make it more adult or more playful, or make it more exciting and create almost that same feeling you had when you were younger, but in a more adult way.
Would you say that your experiences cooking with savory food influence the way you make your desserts? Definitely! I wouldn't say I'm a savory pastry chef—you know how that's kind of the trend right now—but it's really taught me balance, about ending the meal with something that's not overwhelmingly sweet or heavy. So it's kind of helped me, if anything, showcase the rest of the food, or create a good ending to a great meal. I love using herbs and edible flowers and items like that in desserts because I feel like it adds a little bit of dimension and depth. It lightens it up in a way, while creating more flavor. So I definitely love that kind of thing and herb ice creams do really well here so it's worked out.
How do you work with Valerie (Broussard), the forager for Trace? Do you ask her to find certain ingredients sometimes or does she come back with whatever is in season and available? It's a little bit of both. She's amazing. We have a rooftop garden upstairs and she'll say, "I have that lemon thyme that's really ready to be picked, can you use it?" and we'll bring it down and use it. And if I know a season's come up, I'll ask her and she'll go out and find a way to make it happen and get (ingredients) I request.
And is the Trace rooftop apiary up and running yet? Have you been using that for desserts? It's still very much the beginning of the process, but we have been able to use a little bit through samples. And I love using the honey in sorbets or ice creams. It adds so much depth. The honey from upstairs—it's ridiculous! You think honey is honey is honey, but it's so earthy and it adds such a great dimension to everything. We're so excited about it.
What's one of your favorite things to make right now? I really love ice creams. I've just been able to learn from so many different people, and so many different techniques. The way I do it is more of a gelato base so it's a little bit heavier in fat and a little bit creamier. That and doughnuts. I love, love, love them—you can never stop perfecting a doughnut!
What are you current inspirations? I joke that [my three-year old son] inspires all my desserts because last year he just discovered strawberries and all he wanted to eat was Cheerios and strawberries. I thought, "This should be an ice cream!" so I made the Cheerio berry swirl ice cream and cinnamon roll ice cream.
How did you react when you heard you had been nominated for the James Beard Rising Star Award? I was really shocked and excited. I was overwhelmed how everyone embraced it. I'm so boring though; everyone asked how I celebrated. I went home and I had a glass of champagne and an ice cream cone with my son!
About the Author: Veronica Meewes is an Austin-based freelance writer and food blogger who will travel for food but always comes back for breakfast tacos. Follow her on Twitter @wellfedlife and visit her blog.