Trace, at the W Hotel, creating unusual homestyle-meets-French-technique desserts like her famous drunken donuts and Meyer lemon budino. O’Leary was recently nominated for a James Beard Award, and anyone who has tried her sweets knows why.When Janina O’Leary was fourteen years old, she packed up a few belongings from her hometown of Del Rio, Texas, and moved to the Big Apple for culinary school. After graduation, the talented baker and pastry chef worked for big-name places like Per Se, Bouchon, Del Posto and more before coming back to her home state with her husband to raise her son. Lucky for us she’s downtown at
Zagat: So I always wonder about pastry chefs, do you have a crazy sweet tooth?
Janina O'Leary: Yes, I’m definitely not the pastry chef who says they don’t eat sweets. I crave more salty stuff because I’m working with sweet items all the time, but I love sweets. I have a two-year-old at home, and so I’m always trying to make any dessert with a little less sugar, using honey or brown sugar.
Zagat: What are your son’s favorite desserts?
JO: Oh, let me tell you [laughs]. I make a banana cake for him that’s more like banana bread. He loves ice cream, so I’ll make that at home or take some home. He calls chocolate truffles “chocolate chuckles,” so I’ll make milk chocolate truffles at home. It’s his treat. We’re doing potty training, and he can only have it if he uses the bathroom.
Zagat: What’s your favorite dessert, either that you make or out in the world?
JO: We joke that I’m always perfecting the donut. I love donuts. I enjoy making ice creams, because you can do so much with it. I love doing herb flavors.
Zagat: I got to tour the bee apiary on the roof, and it’s great. How are you planning to use the honey?
JO: In general it’s really hard to switch out sugars. The great thing is, this honey is so rich and has so much depth to it. It’s really not hard to add it into things we’re doing, because it’s such an asset. It’s really easy to substitute most of the refined sugar and use honey, but I keep a little bit in there for stability purposes. Stuff like the ice creams, it’s going to be nothing to me, like not even a change, because I use mostly honey and inverted sugars.
Zagat: Do you have any advice for bakers out there trying to make desserts a little healthier or use natural sugars?
JO: Brown sugars and honey are always a great replacement. They bring more than they take away. Always a 70/30 ratio isn’t too crazy, raw sugar, honey or brown sugar. As long as you keep some of the refined sugar for the stability of the recipe, you shouldn’t have much of a problem.
Zagat: So you spent a lot of time cooking and baking in New York, especially at a very young age for culinary school. Was that a culture shock, to move from Del Rio to Manhattan?
JO: Yes [laughs]. I was lucky and a little bit crazy too. I thought this was what I wanted to do, and I was like, all right, I’ll try it. Del Rio is a super small town. I remember telling my parents and my mom had a bit of a heart attack. Her rule was, if she went with me for a couple weeks, we’d try it out. It was a huge change, but I felt at home right away.
If you would have asked me then, I would have been like, I don’t think I’ll ever go back, I don’t think I’ll ever leave. I loved it a lot. It’s kind of crazy because I worked all the time.
Zagat: How many hours did you work per week?
JO: I guess Per Se would have been where I had the craziest schedule. I was young and crazy and OK with working the night shift at Per Se and then the super duper early morning shift at Bouchon. I wanted to learn about molded chocolates and the viennoiserie side of things, the baking. I was crazy enough to get an apartment a block away, and they knew. Big mistake [laughs].
But it’s so fulfilling. Just like it is here, just in a different sense. I never thought I’d be part of a hotel restaurant, but it’s been an amazing transition.
Zagat: Did you know you wanted to do pastry? Did you bake before you went to culinary school?
JO: I did. My mom is an amazing cook, and my aunts are crazy great bakers. Growing up, there was always something sweet on the table. A holiday would be seven cakes, something ridiculous. My aunt always wanted to open up a bakery. I remember her talking about it when I was really young and thinking, “Hmm, you can do this for a living. That sounds great.” I would bake with her, but it was simple German chocolate cakes and pies, very Texas-style stuff. But I saw how excited she was about everything she did.
I remember thinking, “Well, I’m going to look up culinary schools,” and talking to the director of student affairs, who was like, “This is crazy. We never have a 14-year-old who is so proactive about wanting to come to school.”
Zagat: You mentioned some awesome chefs. What do you feel like you took away from those experiences?
JO: Sebastian [Rouxel] from Per Se, I still call him for professional advice. Pichet Ong, who consulted for me at the Village Tart, we’re still great friends, and he still gives me great advice all the time. The way he never takes anything too serious is how I think about it too.
Brooks Headley at Del Posto, who just won a James Beard Award this year for pastry chef, is the complete opposite of every pastry chef I’ve ever worked with. In my background before Del Posto, it was very much technique-inspired, French-driven, very simplistic yet everything needs to look perfect. Brooks is much more rustic and playful. He jokes that he doesn’t like straight lines. He doesn’t like things to be cut perfectly. It should look gooey and messy on a plate. It should be something also fun.
Zagat: You’ve been in kitchens since you were basically 14. What kind of work would you do if you weren’t doing pastry or working in a kitchen?
JO: Wow, I don’t know. I remember I wanted to do photography when I was younger. It’s hard to imagine myself doing something else, because I’ve done this for so long.
I play around with stuff at Trace, and I’ve done food styling in the past. I was able to do a couple of projects with Martha Stewart, like little books and stuff, when I was working at Del Posto. I love cookbooks, and that’s something I want to do. It’s fun to break something down. I’m very much into transferring or transitioning things you do at a restaurant into something wonderful and playful and you can do it at home too.
Zagat: Coming back to the Trace team, Valerie Broussard, Trace’s forager, is a big part of that. What are some of the more unusual things you’ve used from her foraging?
JO: I don’t know about unusual, but it’s always something new. Different herbs are something I love about what she gets on my side. We have herbs that we grow on the rooftop and on the fourteenth floor. She’ll literally come down and say, “I have some great lemon thyme that needs to be picked. Can you use it?” And of course we’re not going to waste anything, so we’ll use it in an ice cream.
It’s fun how it develops from her seeing something at the market to doing a special with it. In Texas, the changes in the seasons are so quick, so that’s the fun part of being able to change the menu all the time and keep things super lighthearted.
Zagat: What’s next for you?
JO: I’m not sure. There’s so much going on right now. I’m happy where things are. Just continue to grow and develop here. There are a lot of things I can’t say. There are definitely some new projects that will be very exciting.