Meet the Pastry Chef-Slash-Video Producer Whose Pastry Competition Just Got a Beard Nomination

By
Thomas Raquel (Acadia) is among this season's competitors. Photo: courtesy JMPurePastry

We knew two of the James Beard Award journalism nominees from Chicago this year fairly well, we met the third last year when she won one... and then there was the one we had never, ever heard of. Even more surprising when you consider that his work features lots of people we've covered in some capacity— yet somehow the Chicago Restaurant Pastry Competition had flown completely under our radar. It turns out that wasn't an accident. Pastry chef and video producer James MacMillan had deliberately kept the profile of his video series low to the world outside the pastry chef and supplier community, learning as he went and waiting for an opportune moment to debut to the broader food community— like, say, the day he gets a James Beard Award nomination. So now MacMillan, who was the pastry chef for both Graham Elliot and Curtis Duffy at Avenues in the late 2000s, is ready for you to check out his series, which aims to showcase the best things being done in pastry, with the slickness and pace of the popular food TV shows but minus the personal drama and dysfunction they've been known to lean toward. Season two will wrap up next month with its finale, and we've got the latest episode below, but first, let's talk to MacMillan about how a pastry chef wound up becoming a TV producer.

So you're a pastry chef and a video producer? How did that happen? How do they go together?

I was the executive pastry chef at Avenues for both Elliott and Curtis' tenures, from 2000 to 2009. Then the luxury hotel sector took a nosedive, and I thought, maybe this isn't the best part of the business to be in. So I started doing consulting— my company is called JMPurePastry, the J is both me and my wife Julie. We do big projects, something that's hard to do, we solve it, which is fun. Like we did organic popsicles for Toyota and Prius. We designed a cool popsicle that looked like a car and worked out how to make them and drop-ship them to all these festivals and events like Lollapalooza. We're good at doing something custom and well-designed, though they're not all as glamorous as that.

At the same time, like a lot of pastry chefs, I was going to these competitions all around the world. And it's a huge out of pocket expense, and yet— no one comes to these things. You're making it for ten people in the room. And that just didn't make sense to me, when you consider how interested people are in chefs and restaurants.

If you go back far enough my first career was in music and music videos. And back when I was at the Four Seasons in Seattle around 2000, I took some film editing classes. To me, making pastry and making a movie are kind of the same thing— it's all material, it's all, how do you manipulate it, tell a story, interest others in what you do.

So I thought, why not make a movie that shows the way pastry professionals really are, and put it online for everyone to see. I'm not going to knock the food shows on TV but they're TV, they're about drama and who burned whose stuff. TV people don't understand cooking, they understand drama and humor so that's what you get. But I thought there was an opportunity to talk to the industry and those who are interested in it, to give them the opportunity to see pastry chefs in ways they haven't seen them before. So I started the Chicago Restaurant Pastry Competition. I recruited some colleagues like Curtis and Patrick Fahy to be judges, and some Chicago chefs like Meg Galus and Greg Mosko to compete.

And you won an Emmy.

For the first season. The second season's a lot better though. We learned a lot along the way. Also, it was just a Chicago competition the first season. The second season is national and the third will be international.

So who pays for this? Does it have sponsors?

We have brand partners. They're all high quality companies in our field, I was able to go to them and say, we're going to do this thing to raise the level and awareness of pastry as an art, would you kick a few bucks in? And so a lot of good companies said yes. It's hard figuring out how to find smart, sensible organic ways to do product placement without it being cheesy. That's something you wrestle with, but we never tell chefs they have to use this or that product. It is the companies whose products we use. It helps that they're small companies— we need to find a big corporate partner, but I know that will be a different experience, that we'll have to convince them to support something that's not so corporate.

But our partners been very supportive of it, and it's led to some good networking for them as they've become involved with each other on projects, too. One thing they get out of it is, they're the only ones who are allowed to attend the final competition.

So there will be a third season? Would you like to sell it to a TV network?

We're working on the third season already, we'll shoot it in September. I don't know how much longer it will run after that. We've talked to some TV people but the important thing for me is keeping it real. I watch every minute, I do all the selections— if I'm not going to make money at it, at least I want to make it the way I want to make it.

We couldn't have said that better ourselves. So even with integrity, you think it's interesting for the average viewer?

I think so. There's interest in what pastry chefs do, in the amount of thought that goes into every dish. It's interesting to let them speak in their own words, and find out why they made their choices.

Episode three of this season is below. The finale will be posted on April 22. See the full series here.