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Mindy Segal

Though Mindy Segal eschews the entrepreneur label, she does seem to have a nose for exactly what Chicago foodies want.

Lou Foglia for WBEZ

How Mindy Segal built an empire of butter, sugar and weed

For Chicago’s pastry whisperer, the answer is serendipity – and a heaping of knowing what millennials want next. “My drumbeat has always been a little different than most people.”

“I just make what pleases me,” Segal tells me on a recent Sunday while pulling a coconut bundt cake out of one of the five industrial ovens in her eponymous Bucktown bakery.

The bakery has been open for three years and a line nearly every day since. Nirvana blasts on the overhead speakers as the pastry chef moves the cake from the oven to her work station. Her gestures are swift and confident. She moves with purpose. “I’m glad it pleases other people.”

At 57, Segal is dynamic with a dash of spiky. She speaks directly and honestly, animated both by what she loves — music, her two dogs, a good bake — and those things she doesn’t.

Mindy Segal at HotChocolate

Mindy Segal, pictured here in 2005, made her name in the Chicago food scene with her first restaurant HotChocolate.

Jim Frost/Chicago Sun-Times

The megahit television show The Bear? “I don’t care, I’m good,” she quips. (Segal did, however, bake the focaccia featured in the second season finale.)

Chicago’s restaurant industry? “I’m done with it. I literally divorced myself from it when I closed my restaurant.” (Segal closed HotChocolate in 2020.)

And the idea that she has built one of Chicago’s most innovative, exciting confectionery empires — and is still churning out hit after hit? “Not really. I never thought about it that way.”

Though Segal eschews the entrepreneur label, she does seem to have a nose for what Chicago foodies want, especially those who came of age on the internet and now have money to spare. Call it a millennial sixth sense.

“The love she has for the craft resonates so deeply with people,” says Dana Cree, a pastry chef and founder of Pretty Cool Ice Cream. “She has an ongoing curiosity that makes her so special. And she has a point of view, too.”

Or, Segal zigs when others zag. “My drumbeat has always been a little different than most people,” Segal says. “It’s my own unique style.”

Mindy Segal chocolate cake

A chocolate cake that highlights “Lait Extraordinaire,” a custom dark milk chocolate that Segal and her two pastries chefs developed with Swiss chocolate company Cacao Barry.

Lou Foglia for WBEZ

A particular alchemy forms when Segal combines butter and sugar. In 2005, Segal decided to open her own restaurant and called it HotChocolate, a name inspired by the movie Coming to America. And since the name demanded a drink, Segal made one from a thin ganache paired with homemade marshmallows. The dessert was arguably Chicago’s first viral treat of the early aughts.

Then, well before Illinois legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2020, came THC-infused candy. The Illinois-based cannabis company Cresco approached Segal about a partnership. Mindy’s candies debuted in 2016, got a big boost when recreational weed took off and last year, her gummies still held a top five market share in Illinois.

“Mindy was really the first one to say, ‘You could have something that gives you a great effect but also tastes delicious,’ ” says Dana Mason, the vice president of wholesale marketing at Cresco. “Her edibles are unbelievable. The taste is unmatched.”

After spending two years perfecting a vanguard THC gummy, Segal now plays a mostly hands-off role at Cresco. She holds the nebulous title of “product ideation,” which suits her just fine. Baking remains Segal’s first and most enduring love. Consider the time Segal gave up wheat and spent a summer perfecting a tangy, chewy gluten-free bagel. To this day, Segal’s wheat-free bagels, which she sells at the bakery, stand among the most covetable offerings in a ballooning gluten-free industry.

Mindy Segal at Mindy's Bakery

“I just make what pleases me,” Mindy Segal said of her baking. Mindy’s Bakery has been open for three years and has had a line nearly every day since.

Lou Foglia for WBEZ

On this particular morning, Segal preps for a party at the Bucktown bakery. Standing at her station, Segal tucks a well-worn rag into her signature navy blue apron and wipes her palms against her thighs. All around her, the bakery pulses with activity. At one station, a young intern fastidiously presses halva dough into miniature tarts. Across the table, another baker mixes a giant vat of liquid chocolate, the overhead lights reflected in the deep, rich color. A half dozen employees swirl around one another with ease as though performing well-rehearsed choreography.

“I thrive in chaos,” laughs Segal, pulling open the oven door again to check a chocolate Guinness cake. It needs more time. Segal turns back to the coconut cake. It goes on the cooling rack, sandwiched between a ramp pesto stromboli, a baked Italian turnover and a large sheet pan gluten-free pizza. Soon, she’ll deliver both savory pastries to the glass display case, the dividing barrier between Segal and the string of eager customers that snakes around the room and block.

Segal picks up a notepad where she sketched a loose plan. Notably, the scribbles are not precise measurements — ”I don’t use recipes,” she says — but a roadmap for the rest of the morning.

Today, all of Segal’s concoctions will highlight “Lait Extraordinaire,” a custom dark milk chocolate that Segal and her two pastries chefs developed with Swiss chocolate company Cacao Barry last year. Segal never thought she would make her own chocolate, but when Cacao Barry invited her, the idea sounded fun. And now, she has to find ways to use the two tons they produced together. “That’s the fun part,” Segal says. “We all get to be creative.”

The cakes feature in a menu Segal and her team have put together for the party. The event, Segal says, will both celebrate the chocolate, which she hopes to sell to other chefs, and offer a chance to catch up with industry friends.

Mindy Segal pastries

Mindy Segal never thought she would make her own chocolate, but when Cacao Barry invited her, the idea sounded fun. And now, she has to find ways to use the two tons they produced together.

Lou Foglia for WBEZ

What the night will not be, Segal says, is an announcement that she is launching a candy business. In fact, Segal appears allergic to the idea. “It’s just a chocolate that we made, that we’re baking with,” she asserts. “I want to celebrate with people and I want them to be impressed.”

Behind her, Segal’s pastry chef, Karen Gizowski, steadily tempers a large bowl of melted chocolate. Tempering, a process that gives chocolate a smooth, glossy finish, requires a delicate hand. Gizowski, who worked at HotChocolate for a few years and returned to help Segal open the bakery, holds the title of house temperer.

“I don’t know if anyone else wants the job,” laughs Gizowski, holding a thermometer just above the bowl. “Chocolate is a really difficult craft.”

A few feet away, Segal assesses the damage on the tres leches cake. Considering the bake will be covered in a chocolate sour buttercream frosting, she decides not to worry about the fracture. “I like it this way,” Segal says. “I love how it’s not perfect.”

Staff at Mindy's Bakery

Staff work inside Mindy’s Bakery in Wicker Park before an April 29 launch party for owner Mindy’ Segal’s new chocolate line “Lait Extraordinaire.”

Lou Foglia for WBEZ

Perfection doesn’t interest Segal. If there’s any defining quality to Segal’s food, says Erick Williams, a longtime friend and the executive chef-owner at Hyde Park’s Virtue, it’s flavor.

“Mindy is insanely intentional about flavor and the prospect of delicious,” Williams says. “We would all do well to make sure that everything comes out of the kitchen delicious first.”

Back at the bakery, Segal has turned her focus to the next dish on her list: bostock. Traditionally made from day-old brioche soaked in syrup, Segal has given the French pastry her own spin with a laminated brioche. “Isn’t this gorgeous,” Segal muses as she cuts into the flaky loaf. “My pride and joy.”

The serrated knife easily moves through the fresh bread, which combines an enriched brioche dough with traditional lamination, a technique that layers thin sheets of buttered pastry. Segal plans to brush each slice with a chocolate syrup and sprinkle a Babka streusel on top. Pulling out a pair of blue plastic gloves as the David Bowie anthem “Under Pressure” blasts through the room, Segal gets a wild look in her eyes. “What I’m about to do is insane,” she laughs and then starts to sing along to Bowie.

The day has been marked with joy (cutting into laminated brioche) and frustration (burnt mini tarts), and through it all Segal remains unflappable.

“That stuff used to stress me out when I was younger, but it doesn’t anymore,” Segal reflects. “In the end, it’s about the journey. That’s what makes it great.”

Over the next hour, Segal finishes her bostock prep and returns to her cakes. She later remakes the mini tarts and covers her cakes in frosting. When she finally packs up around 3 p.m., Segal considers what tasks remain for the following day.

Beyond that, Segal has no plan. She hopes Cresco will use the Lait Extraordinaire for a limited edition, THC-infused chocolate bar, effectively marrying two of her passions, but she has no expectations. Segal stopped trying to control fate a while ago.

“When you obsess about the future, you tend to miss what’s in front of you,” she says. “You can’t see the specialness of what you’ve created.” And when that happens, the magic can fade, too.

Elly Fishman is a freelance writer and the author of Refugee High: Coming of Age in America.

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