To say that Janina O’Leary knew from a tender age what she wanted to be is a huge understatement. The youngest of five, she was raised in the border town of Del Rio, Texas. “I had small-town syndrome and wanted out,” she recalls. That led her to New York, where she moved by herself to enroll in the French Culinary Institute’s pastry program—at age 14. She was then hired at Thomas Keller’s Per Se—at age 15. Now 33, she is the first corporate executive pastry chef for the Bacchus Management Group, which includes Palo Alto’s Mayfield Bakery & Café; The Village Bakery and The Village Pub in Woodside; and Spruce and The Saratoga in San Francisco.
You grew up baking with your family?
Any holiday, it was 10 different desserts. It was more desserts than savory. At 12, I started thinking of doing it as a job. I looked at schools, even calling to get information. I presented it all to my mom, so she couldn’t say no. She cried when I told her.
How did you land the Per Se job?
I think they thought I was older. I found the back door to the kitchen and walked in. This was during an insane snowstorm, and they were short two people. I asked for a job. I expected them to laugh and I would leave. They did laugh, but let me stage. At the end of that 13-hour day, they said I could start tomorrow.
Why the passion for doughnuts?
It started when I did the Coffee & Doughnuts dessert at Per Se; then I did bomboloni at Del Posto. My doughnuts are not so sweet. They have little sugar in the dough, and they’re very light.
You later held huge doughnut pop-ups in Austin, Texas?
I thought I’d make 100 pieces and see how they did. They sold out in half an hour. It became a beast. I would sell 1,300 doughnuts at a time at Franklin Barbecue. I’d bake it all, and my husband would help sell.
Will doughnuts now be prominent at Bacchus restaurants?
I am introducing brioche doughnuts at Mayfield bakery and The Village Bakery. They’ll be fried fresh, with seasonal glazes. We’re doing beignets at The Village Pub and Mayfield cafe. At Spruce, we have booze-inspired old-fashioned doughnuts with mimosa or Chartreuse glaze.
Any other changes?
We’re bringing back whole cakes to the bakery cases, such as fromage blanc cheesecake, that can be enjoyed by the slice in the restaurants too. We added Nutella Baby Cakes to the bakeries—devil’s-food cake made with olive oil, with Nutella in the base and in the buttercream. People can’t get enough of them.
Originally published in the March issue of Silicon Valley