Sepia pastry chef thinks change is good
Once a graphic designer with a hesitancy toward change, chef Cindy Schuman has certainly seen her share of it.
The Buffalo Grove native has endured a career behind a desk in the corporate world and in an impressive array of kitchens before settling down her spatula as current pastry chef at Sepia restaurant in Chicago.
Life after college at the University of Illinois, where she obtained her graphic design degree, began as a production assistant designing ad layouts at an advertising agency. Growing weary of her computer screen, Schuman indulged her time at home in a very sweet hobby. She experimented in the art of baking and impressed friends and family with her goodies at get-togethers. "I would flip through magazines like Family Circle, Food Arts and Chocolatier and pull different recipes from those," Schuman says. A close friend admired her treats and encouraged her, with a recommendation, to try her talents in a real kitchen.
After acquiring her first culinary job as assistant pastry chef working weekends at Carlos' restaurant in Highland Park, Schuman decided to leave the advertising world and fully commit to baking and pastry. Schuman has moved through kitchens at The Four Seasons, Aubriot and Kevin restaurant, all in Chicago. Without a formal pastry degree and only one course at the French Pastry School in Chicago under her belt, Schuman worked her way to top pastry chef at Sepia with her raw talent, skill, persistence and eye for the arts. She found a comfortable kitchen in which to grow and is keeping life simple. She lives with her husband and cat in Hanover Park.
How did you learn the baking and pastry basics? I simply learned as I went along and I practiced. Every restaurant I've worked at I've learned new things. I didn't have the training of culinary school, but I learned fast actually being in the field and working hands-on. I learned a lot from the pastry chef at Carlos restaurant and also a French chef at The Four Seasons.
What inspired you to apply for the assistant position at Carlos restaurant? The opportunity just kind of opened and I didn't want to pass it up.
How did you impress them? I didn't hesitate in the kitchen. I learned and took over the responsibilities quickly.
What is your baking and pastry style? I refer to it as purist form. I do not mix a lot of flavors. I try not to hide any flavors that I started with. I like to keep flavors simple and clean so as not to overpower one or the other.
How has your background in graphic design prepared you for this career? It has helped me a great deal in presentation. Also, it has helped me with designing plates as far as what looks good together, shapes, colors and that aspect of it.
Would we find you dabbling in graphic design at home? Unfortunately, no. I have been away from a computer for so long, working in a kitchen, it would be difficult to catch up. When you've been away from it as long as I have, programs have evolved so quickly, I don't think I would have the patience to start learning it all again.
Do you bake at home for your husband? My husband is also a chef (David Szymanski, chef partner at Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano in Deer Park), so we're rarely cooking or baking at home. I don't have the chef's dream kitchen, it's actually very small, so I do very little baking there. But, I sometimes surprise him with treats from work.
What is your favorite thing to bake? Cookies. I'm pretty simple that way, give me cookies and I will be happy. As far as on the menu here at the restaurant, I love all my children the same. I don't like to pick favorites.
What do you love about the craft? I find it to be instant gratification from the guests that are here to dine, knowing that they are enjoying something I made.
What would you tell someone who is thinking of switching to a career in the kitchen? If it is something they feel strongly about, they shouldn't let anything stop them, not even the long hours on their feet.
Have you recognized similarities between your dual careers? None at all. All the restaurants I've worked in have all been independent. The graphic design environment was not, it was very much corporate. A button-down-shirt, a-lot-of-rules, kind of atmosphere. I feel kitchens are more family oriented, more relaxed and comfortable.
What was the most difficult part about switching careers? Accepting change and having enough courage to try something new. The kitchen is an atmosphere of controlled chaos.
Any favorite cookbooks? Not a certain cookbook, but I do reference the Roux Brothers (French chefs Michel and Albert). They feature good, standard cake batters.
Do you have any encouraging words for our home cooks who are reluctant to bake? If you can measure ingredients and follow a recipe, you can bake anything.
Tell us about your recipe. Apple Cake. It is a simple apple cake recipe I received from a friend that I have used at other restaurants. It's the start of fall so I think its perfect as far as seasonality. This would be great for a Sunday brunch or afternoon treat.
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2 cups sugar
½ cup brown sugar
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups thinly sliced apples
2 cups vegetable oil
3 lightly beaten eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
In a large bowl, mix sugars, flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt then add sliced apples.
In a separate bowl, mix oil, eggs and vanilla; fold into dry mixture, making sure to coat the apples. Pour into prepared pan and bake about 40-50 minutes until cooked through and golden brown.
Chef Cindy Schuman, Sepia, Chicago