The Pastry Profit Push

Should you hire a pastry chef? How catering has benefitted at the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills.

Red velvet cupcakes with Nutella cream cheese icing.

At the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center, Executive Chef Sean Patrick Curry’s thinking about pastry and desserts runs counter too much of the current common view of the necessity or viability of an inhouse pastry department. With 386 rooms and 42,000 square feet of event space, situated in a western suburb of the city, the hotel—like many others during the economic downturn—had outsourced its bakery and patisserie needs to Chicago specialty shops. That was until Curry arrived in 2014, and, as one of his first acts as executive chef, lured Executive Pastry Chef Erica Tomei away from another Chicago property. The chefs have a long-standing professional relationship, and we asked them how Tomei’s tenure as pastry chef has helped to strengthen B&C operations and the whole F&B department.

Hotel F&B: Why did you actively seek out a pastry chef when competitors frequently outsource to fulfill those needs? 

Chef Sean Patrick Curry
Chef Sean Patrick Curry

Curry: We want to control every part of the dining experience; a pastry shop completes the equation…In the past, there has been no budget for a pastry chef, but over the last 10 years, the cost of local bakeries has gone up. Why would I choose to buy an average-quality product from a baker down the street when I can get Erica to make the same item of higher quality for about the same cost? Now, when customers ask for a particular item, I can say “yes,” and they won’t be getting the same product that other hotels and restaurants are offering…Nobody throws away money anymore. There’s a perceived value in Erica’s desserts that isn’t there for the customers in things we outsource.

Tomei: It really makes it one-stop shopping for our clients. Sean can take any special request without having to find someone who can make it…He knows we can do egg-free, nut-free, and gluten-free. We can offer healthy food to fit any special dietary needs.

Curry: Also, ordering from a specialty bakery for an event is always a gamble. “Did I order enough? Should I order extra to cover myself in case I need more?” Then there might be waste. For example, if we need truffles for amenities, Erica makes what we need. And if we run short, she can make more at the last second. If we make too much, we can reuse it

Executive Pastry Chef Erica Tomei
Executive Pastry Chef Erica Tomei

somewhere else to avoid waste.

Hotel F&B: How do your values as chefs merge to satisfy Chef Curry’s vision and to fit the overall F&B philosophy of the hotel?

Tomei: Our personalities mesh. We both have an expectation of high quality and want to present chef-crafted food that is fresh and locally sourced whenever possible. There is no reason hotel food can’t be as elevated as any restaurant or bakery. Since we share the same chef values, we plan an experience so that Sean’s food and what I create are harmonious and flow into each other.

Curry: We share the same chef philosophy. The pillars are “seasonal,” “sustainable,” and “chef-crafted.” Erica makes these incredible brownies, and I looked at the recipe and thought the chocolate she was using was too expensive. She made me taste the brownies. She won the argument. I guarantee we had repeat business because of her brownies.

Hotel F&B: How is inhouse pastry production used as a B&C sales tool?

Curry: Erica goes to all onsite visits. [Potential customers] get the personality behind the sweets. Everybody loves her. She meets with the brides-to-be to talk about wedding cakes,

Tomei’s custom creation for a recent Indian wedding
Tomei’s custom creation for a recent Indian wedding

and they realize they can get exactly what they want right here. Erica has even created a demand for her South Asian wedding cakes.

Tomei: I made a mango mousse wedding cake for an Asian wedding. That let me in the door. Two years later, a man came to me who had attended the wedding and had tasted that cake. He said it was “to die for” and wanted me to make one for his wedding. That kind of thing puts us on the map. I’ve loved the challenge of creating wedding cakes; you’re giving the bride and groom the cake of their dreams…The most bizarre was a bride who wanted Hello Kitty! on the cake, but the groom wanted zombies, and neither one was willing to give. Somehow, I came up with a cohesive design that made both of them happy.

Curry: That kind of attention makes a difference. You’ve given them something memorable that more than justifies the cost.

Maple-bacon ice cream sandwiches
Maple-bacon ice cream sandwiches

Hotel F&B: How does supporting a pastry department affect the bottom line for B&C?

Tomei: We have increased incremental revenue at the front desk from our retail pastry program, by selling individually packaged pastries, from breakfast goods to afternoon treats such as cupcakes, cookies, and brownies. Revenues are increased by doing the wedding cakes inhouse, as opposed to previously outsourcing wedding cakes and working the price into the package at a low rate and only being able to get basic traditional designs. Now brides and grooms can upgrade to our cakes and have them completely customized in design, with a plethora of unique flavor combinations. We also are seeing revenue from the upgraded dessert program in the restaurant and have captured large pieces of business because we can customize desserts and sweets.

Hotel F&B: Especially at social gatherings, the dessert course is often considered the pièce de résistance. How does Chef Tomei’s work satisfy that expectation?

Curry: I have never once had a dissatisfied customer. People walk away extremely happy.

Tomei: Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair. My desserts follow up this fantastic meal that Sean has created. But I’m the last food they’re tasting. My food is the memory.

Denny Lewis is a Hotel F&B veteran based in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Naked Snickers, made with honey cashew nougat and caramel swirl
Naked Snickers, made with honey cashew nougat and caramel swirl
Dulce de leche lava cake
Dulce de leche lava cake with cinnamon swirl honey ice cream, black pepper macerated orange segments, and tarragon sauce
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