During 2020, pastry chef Leigh Omilinsky suddenly found herself without work as Swift & Sons, along with other restaurants around the country, were quickly shut down by government officials dealing with the coronavirus.
In that period of confusion, Omilinsky, a winner of multiple Jean Banchet awards, found an outlet for her talents through an old friend. She’s known Daisies owner Joe Frillman for years; the two worked at Tramonto’s Steak and Seafood in suburban Wheeling. Frillman, also dealing with the fallout from the suspension of indoor dining (“It kicked me in the face,” he says), started a weekend market at Daisies where customers could buy produce from his brother’s farm and goods from local vendors including beer and kombucha from Pilot Project Brewing and cheese from Beautiful Rind. Frillman invited Omilinsky to sell her pastries to capitalize on the morning crowds spilling over from the Logan Square Farmers Market on Sundays.
It soon developed into a situation where customers had to show up early or leave with a frown. Omilinsky’s sweets routinely sold out. Meanwhile, Frillman and his investors saw potential in the market; it was fulfilling a community need. They began machinations to convert the space to a full-time market and lunch spot while searching for a new space to move dinner operations, eventually finding a space with enough space for a cafe.
Frillman needed someone to fill the pastry case at the new Daisies, scheduled to open in mid- to late-February at 2375 N. Milwaukee Avenue. That location will have a morning cafe component and the aforementioned pastry case, so Omilinsky was the ideal fit. For years, Frillman pondered what it would take to pry his friend from Swift & Sons, the chic steakhouse in Fulton Market. Omilinsky had settled in with Boka Restaurant Group, making desserts for Nico Osteria and the James Beard Award-winning company’s restaurants since 2019.
The pandemic’s stresses and a pregnancy gave Omilinsky an answer for what it would take for her to leave Boka. Omilinsky has watched Frillman work as a father with small children achieving a work-life balance, something she wants. She has a 6-month-old and doesn’t want late nights. Mothers face an uphill struggle working long hours while recovering from pregnancies. That’s something groups like Beverly Kim’s (Parachute) Abundance Setting tackle.
Omilinsky wanted a partnership in the business. And so, she is now the new head pastry chef and partner at Frillman’s Radicle Food Group.
“I think she’s probably one of the best pastry chefs in the city,” Frillman says. “We think it’s a huge asset in what we want to do and grow in the future.”
Omilinsky says the “gears are turning” as figures out her dessert menu. Right now, Daisies offers three desserts, including a pretzel cheesecake (another Midwestern favorite). With a legit pastry chef, not just a cook or chef masquerading as one, they hope to revamp the menu with eight desserts.
Pasta is the backbone of Daisies’ dinner service, an Italian meets the Midwestern theme. Omilinsky’s desserts will match that ethos. She’s still working on her plated offerings. Frillman teases her about somehow utilizing jello molds, a staple of many Midwestern kitchens. At the Daisies market, Omilinsky’s maritozzi, a kind of Italian sweet roll, was popular. She also hopes to start a gelato program.
While pastry chefs are unsung heroes of restaurants, they’re also the first ones to get cut when companies are looking to reduce costs: “Why are you going to pay a pastry chef $50,000 a year to make an $8 dessert that’s mostly given away anyway?” Omilinsky says.
That’s part of what makes the partnership with Daisies; there aren’t a lot of pastry chefs who are partners in a restaurant. The mantra ingrained in culinary school restaurant workers is that “pastry chefs are the period at the end of a sentence.” Knowing her craft is under-appreciated, Omilinsky made it a point to cross-train, learning bill coding and how to manage a dining room. Successful pastry chefs must cross boundaries (culinary schools don’t usually teach them the savory side of cooking, which presents another challenge). Working during the pandemic reminded Omilinsky of working during 2008’s recession. Staff needed to learn to evolve to survive.
Ignoring talented, but undervalued, workers — like pastry chefs — is a problem for the entire restaurant industry, Frillman says. He’s keen on hiring well-rounded workers, ones who can thrive in a variety of roles.
“Oftentimes pastry chefs are more organized than savory chefs — no offense,” Omilinsky says.
Daisies, 2375 N. Milwaukee Avenue, new location scheduled for a mid- to late-February opening; Daisies farmstand — name TBD — scheduled to open summer, 2523 N. Milwaukee Avenue.