The Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center has a new pastry chef in-house, Erica Tomei. A Chicago native, she started working in the industry 14 years ago at a small catering shop, and most recently she served as the Chicago Marriott Naperville’s first pastry chef.

At the Naperville Marriott, Tomei worked alongside then-Executive Chef Sean Patrick Curry who recently advanced to the regional championship of the International Association of Conference Centres’ Copper Skillet Competition as one of two chefs representing the association’s North American chapter.

Curry is now the executive chef at the Hilton, and the two are reunited. Tomei’s creations work hand-in-hand with Curry’s modern farm cuisine, using seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients.

“For me, Erica completes the equation,” says Curry. “Whether it’s a business luncheon or a dinner banquet, I want our guests to have a full restaurant experience. The pastry chef rounds out that vision.”

Tomei brings with her some signature concepts, like a honey-infused pastry that incorporates fresh honey from the beehives on-property. She also developed her own yeast strain, through a dough starter she has been cultivating at home for six months. She will use the starter as the base for the hotel’s new artisan bread. Tomei and Curry have plans to launch a patisserie in spring 2016 that will be open for business to hotel guests, as well as for walk-in or call-in orders to the public.

The Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort offers 36 meeting venues and 42,500 square feet of combined meeting and exhibition space, including a 13,000-square-foot Grand Ballroom.

We spoke with Tomei about her passions in the kitchen and some exciting new happenings on-property.

Meetings Today (MT): Tell us about your honey-infused concepts and why having an on-site beehive and using local honey is important?

Erica Tomei (ET): I’m always looking for new ways to incorporate honey into my pastries. Currently I utilize the honey through my honey cake recipe I developed, honey shortbread cookies and my signature cinnamon honey scones. Other ways I plan to incorporate honey will be through some items I will sell in the patisserie once it opens in spring. Items such as honey ice cream, honey cashew nougats, white chocolate honey truffles and my signature artisan bread.

Having the 10 beehives here on property is our way of contributing to the environment as bees pollinate 1/3 of our natural food supply. We are helping our future generations have a health and natural source of food, whereas without the bees we would have to look into other options such as possibly cutting out that 1/3 supply of natural foods or by using GMO to grow it, which relates to many health issues.

My executive chef, Sean Patrick Curry, is a certified beekeeper and he loves tending to the bees as it is a very tranquil state of mind for him. I come into play and use the honey once we extract it.

MT: You use yeast that you are cultivating at home and that will be used for the hotel’s artisan bread. How cool! How does one cultivate yeast and create a dough starter?

ET: I have been cultivating my own yeast for six months now. I actually call my starter my dough baby, and feed it on a weekly basis. I love the idea of it being a natural product I have created and grown for my signature bread I will be selling out of the patisserie, much why I like having the beehives and using the honey from them. To cultivate your own yeast is really a simple process, but much like a baby, it needs a lot of attention in the beginning so it can start out strong and nutrient.

Yeast is a natural bacteria and all it takes to grow it is some time, the perfect temperature and moisture. I use it as my leavening agent in breads and it converts the fermentable sugars in the dough to carbon dioxide, creating air bubbles, and when it bakes, the bacteria dies leaving behind these beautiful little air pockets throughout the bread giving it it’s texture.

My cultivated yeast also lends a unique and desirable flavor through the fermentation process.

MT: What are your favorite things to make for groups at the hotel?

ET: My favorite items to make, especially for groups, are mini pastries. This allows me so many options and ways to completely customize for our clients based on their needs and likes. It also allows me to put my own flavor profile to each creation. For example, I had created a fantastic pretzel salted caramel mousse cream puff, which was an original to me and not something you will find anywhere else. You can really take any classic mini pastries and find ways to manipulate it to put your own spin on it. 

I love meeting with clients to get to learn more about their group and event because it helps me create something special for them based on their likes, food menu, and theme if there is one, and then the creativity process begins from there! I’m not afraid to think outside the box when it comes to flavor profiling so for me, almost anything is possible from goat cheese, to beets to beer and herbs and spices.

MT: Are there any plans in the works for groups to get involved with you and your team behind the scene? Like a pastry classes or demonstration?

ET: We are planning on creating programs to allow groups fun and exciting ways to team build and learn from our talented chefs here at the hotel. One way is a challenge we call Iron Chef, which allows the groups to break off into teams, work together and complete the culinary challenge provided to them. Chefs will be available to assist and give advice if need be and it’s just a good time.

Other plans I have in the works are to provide a baking class for newlyweds and possibly even a kids baking class because I feel it is so important to get kids in the kitchen and make them feel like they are part of the food making process and in turn they have a great sense of pride that they helped out. 

MT: Anything else you would like to share about your projects, like the patisserie set to open in 2016?

ET: At the hotel, we will be offering a variety of pastries for retail from breakfast pastries to desserts starting during construction of the new patisserie. Customers can also start calling in custom order cakes for special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, retirement, etc. We will continue the retail part of the patisserie even once it opens come spring, and we really want it to be an outlet for customers to think of as their new local bakery in town and treat it as such so it will be open to whomever wants to stop in and not just people doing business here with us, it will be open to the community.