It hasn’t even been two years since Erika Chan first came to work at Paul Kahan’s renowned The Publican under the tutelage of James Beard award-winning pastry chef Dana Cree. Now, Chan is running the entire pastry program for all of One Off Hospitality Group’s Publican restaurants (The Publican, Publican Quality Meats, Publican Tavern, Publican Anker).
Surprisingly (but not too uncommon), Chef Chan never went to culinary school. Instead, she majored in nutritional sciences.
“I loved all the science classes in high school,” Chan says. “I fell into nutritional sciences in college but I loved it.”
Still, in the back of her head, Chef Chan always knew she wanted to pursue a career in pastry after becoming an enthusiastic home baker during her high school years.
“I started staging at a bakery in college while also finishing my internship to become a dietician. After my internship ended, the stage turned into a full-time job.”
Chan grew up in the suburbs of Boston and was drawn back to her hometown for her nutritional sciences internship. That’s where she stayed for a few years, working her way up through the ranks of fine dining restaurants like L’Espalier. “The chef was very hands-on and very into teaching, which I really enjoyed,” Chan explains of her time at L’Espalier. “But I wanted something bigger. I had never been to Chicago before and I knew it was a good food scene. So, I moved.”
That risky move paid off bigtime for Chan who immediately landed a pastry gig at two-Michelin Acadia. Eager to learn more about breads and brunch items, she also picked up a stage at The Publican. “I thought Dana Cree was a goddess. It happened that she was hiring for a sous and I decided to apply.”
What Chan didn’t know was that Dana Cree was making preparations to leave The Publican to open her own ice cream shop—Pretty Cool—in Logan Square. “I expected to stay and just work under Dana for a while but when her position opened up, I decided to go for it.” Another bold move that worked in Chan’s favor.
Chef Chan’s approach to desserts across One Off restaurants is simple. “My goal is to create things that excite me and my chefs. It needs to be fun to prep and use cool techniques. And, at the end of the day, it should be satisfying to any type of guest.”
But The Publican is where Chef Chan really gets playful while exhibiting tremendous technique.
Her Baba au Rum is like downing the most delicious shot you’ve ever taken; you can’t help but go back for more rum-sodden pastry.
The Cajeta Tart exhibits Chan’s mastery of flavor profiles as its primary ingredient is a Norwegian whey.
And then you have tremendous whimsy and skill with Chan’s cookie jar, an assortment of bite-sized gorgeous offerings all served up in different quirky jars.
When it comes to recipe development, Chan gives great credit to her science background. “Majoring in nutritional sciences really affects the way you look at food. I go back to my different chemistry classes when I learned a ton about different sugars and acids. And my knowledge of allergy and gluten-free products comes into play too.”
No matter how you slice it, Chef Chan’s desserts each promise an exquisite understanding of flavor and brilliant instincts of composition.
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