Erica Tomei was headed down the path toward becoming a teacher when she was sidetracked by cake.
After getting her associate degree and working for a gourmet catering shop in downtown LaGrange she discovered that baking, which had just been an at-home hobby, was her passion.
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She switch gears and enrolled at Kendall College in Chicago, graduating in 2007. She interned at the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile.
"It opened my eyes to a whole new world of pastry and taught me how to discover my own style of pastry," she says. "I never worked in a hotel prior to that, but shortly after being there I knew hotels were the place for me. It allows you to touch base on all aspects of pastry from restaurant desserts to banquet high-volume baking to even elaborate wedding cakes."
Today Tomei, 33, is the head pastry chef at the Chicago Marriott Naperville where she says she relies on her teaching background daily.
"In a sense, as a chef I am doing the best of both worlds," she says. " I'm baking and teaching my team new skills as their leader."
I snagged chef Tomei for a few minutes before wedding season gets too crazy to talk about baking, berries and bees.
Describe a typical day: A typical day for me is to make sure my team and I are serving the guests of the hotel through all outlets, from banquets to the Artisans Table. After that, it's mostly about prepping for the upcoming events the next day, with an occasional meeting here or there throughout the day, and checking out inventory to ensure we have all the ingredients we need to be successful.
What do like most about your job? I like that no two days are the same. You may think walking in the door you have a pretty steady day ahead but pop ups happen quite frequently. Maybe it's from the restaurant and 30 people just walked in at the same time. It could even be a banquet that raises their number of guests a half-hour before the event. Whatever the situation, you need to be able to kick into high gear in a split second. There's no time to think too long or hard about it, you just need to react and serve the guest the best way you possibly can.
What is your culinary philosophy? How does that play our on your menu? Keep it fresh and seasonal is my philosophy. Flavor is everything whether it be sweet or savory. If we, as chefs, utilize our ingredients when they are at their best, not only do we show respect to the ingredients, but it results in a mouthwatering creation. For example, someone could say "Wow! That was the best strawberry rhubarb pie I ever tasted," now there's a ton of great recipes out there so why would that one be any better than the rest? If I'm utilizing the strawberries and the rhubarb when they are in season and at their best, then the ingredients speak for themselves. Here at the Artisan Table I use this philosophy everyday and change out my dessert menu every season.
I imagine you've created a lot of special occasion cakes. Is there creation you particularly remember? Wedding cakes are very near and dear to my heart. Above all in pastry, doing wedding cakes is my absolute favorite. Each cake is so unique to that bride and groom and it means a lot to them. It's rewarding to know you were a part in creating that memory that will go in their wedding album.
I can recall one situation that could have really took a turn for the worse. I was working downtown at the Mag Mile Marriott and our team had just finished a wedding cake. About half an hour later someone walked into the cooler only to find that one of the legs on the cake stand broke. Luckily the cake sustained minimal damage and we were able to get it onto another stand and clean the cake, all in time for the event to start.
Tell us about the hotel's rooftop bees. How do you use their honey in your desserts? We have three hives on site and own two more out at the Heritage Prairie Farms (in Elburn). The honey is like nothing you've ever tasted before and even makes the honey at the store taste like flavored corn syrup. I love using the honey any way I can such as honey white chocolate truffles, honey shortbread, honey ice cream, cinnamon honey scones and even in our signature wedding cake which is a honey cake with honey mousse filling.
What ingredients do you always have on hand at home? Besides always having the staples such as butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, I usually keep a bag of chocolate chips because you never know when your nieces and nephews will stop by and be in the mood to make some cookies.
What was the last thing you cooked at home? The last thing I cooked at home was breaded pork tenderloin with brown gravy, mashed potatoes and peas. The last thing that I baked was yellow cupcakes with chocolate frosting, just because I was in the mood. I cook and bake at home as much as I can and have time for. I typically don't have dinners planned out too far in advance because I like going to the store every few days to see what inspires me.
What is your favorite spring ingredient and how to you like to prepare it? I love strawberries. I like to do anything from a fresh batch of strawberry lemonade to strawberry ice cream sandwiches to even just slicing them and leaving them in a sugar water for snacking or putting over pound cake.
What do you do in your spare time? I enjoy gardening, painting and cooking. These are all good activities that help me to clear my mind and keep the creativity flowing.
What appeals to you about baking competitions? I like doing competitions for two main reasons: to challenge myself as a chef, and to see what others chefs are doing out there. The pressures of competing can be a little tense at times, but it's a great feeling when you do win.
So far I have won two medals, a first place gold for a celebration cake and a second place silver for a wedding cake, both of which were from the Sweet Winter-Fest through the (American Culinary Federation) of Southeast Iowa. I have also competed in the International Pastry Competition through Starchefs.com and Culinary Classics through ACF of Iowa. I would consider doing a televised competition in the future.
Do you have a favorite cookbook? My favorite pastry book is "Bouchon Bakery" by Thomas Keller. It's a great reference book with a wide variety of pastries, some of the recipes are beautiful French classics.
Tell us about this recipe: Blueberry and Bacon Whoopie Pie. These are fun and easy to make. Everyone, from adults to kids, loves a whoopie pie, plus this is a great way to get kids involved in the kitchen. I like to crush the blueberries a little bit so they distribute flavor more throughout the whoopie pies. Enjoy!
Make them at home or try them at Artisan Table, 1801 Naperville Road, Naperville. (630) 505-4900.
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