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How Janina O’Leary’s Small Town Roots Shape Her Fine Dining Creations

LaV's executive pastry chef worked in some of the country's best kitchens, but first fell in love with baking in her hometown of Del Rio.

Janina O'Leary
Janina O'Leary
Jessica Attie/EATX

From her bright, boozy sorbets to her warm, cinnamon sugar dusted brioche donuts, it's easy to fall in love with the sophisticated yet playful pastry inventions of executive pastry chef Janina O'Leary at laV.  A native of Del Rio, Texas, O'Leary left her small town to study in New York City at the French Culinary Institute at age 14, and went on to work in kitchens around the clock with greats like Sebastian Rouxel and Pichet Ong. Now, O'Leary ups the ante for what a pastry program can do, placing subtle, sweet touches in every corner of laV's soulful, Provencal-inspired menu. Read on for her take on deceptive simplicity and how to follow the seasons over the trends.

How did you get into baking? Did you begin your culinary education knowing you wanted to be a pastry chef?

My family is really close and I'm from a small Texas town, Del Rio. My aunts and my mom always baked growing up and I was always interested. All of a sudden it hit me-I could do this for a living! On a whim, I decided to go to culinary school and that's when I found the French Culinary Institute. My mom and dad were like New York City?! so they ended up flying down with me and staying a week.

My mom and dad were like, New York City?!

After about 10 years in New York, I met my husband at Del Posto, and we discovered we were having a little boy! We decided it was time for a change. He's from New Jersey, so he had been in New York for a very long time. He suggested Texas and I said, "Well, then, we're going to Austin." We moved to Austin when I was five months pregnant and neither of us had jobs. We just thought, We'll see what happens. Luckily it worked out!

At laV, you manage a thriving brunch, bread service, and dessert menu. How do you balance your focus in all of these areas?

It's tricky! It's my third opening and so I knew I needed to start small and aim big. When we came in, the bread program was super simple but gradually, with a bread baker who does an amazing job, it goes from being able to have sliced bread for service to something like a whole boule served warm with everyone to enjoy tableside with homemade butter. To use no chemicals, nothing artificial and to have bread baked every single day is such a labor but it's a labor of love. It sounds so corny but it's something you can walk away and feel really happy about.

Janina O'Leary Dessert

Jody Horton/LaV

Do you follow food trends or do you like to do your own thing?

It's funny because that's such a bad word for me-trend-but it's life. And it's so Austin. I try not to follow trends, but we bounce ideas around our kitchen. Our industry is so small, it's super refreshing and humbling to get a text message from a pastry chef in town asking, What do you think about this dessert or equipment?

Inspirations for me come from the seasons, childhood, and what's on hand. I like to think about what my son would like. One day the bar will have leftover orange juice and that's how we come up with an orange creamsicle ice cream. The style I like comes from me asking myself, What would someone who wants to just come in, eat and not think about the techniques enjoy?

Something like my brioche is a good example. I have spent five years trying to perfect it without overthinking it. It's really something that's been done for years, so how can you make your own?

What is inspiring you at the moment?

I'm more inspired by what's happening seasonally instead of hunting around for the next trend. Every person in Austin has the same ingredients available and a lot of people do source locally, especially here. It's a balance of finding a way to make it unique so people come in and don't say, Oh, another donut. Because you can certainly feel that when you come into a dining experience and you see butternut squash being used 15 different ways. It's good the way it is. That's the great thing about sourcing seasonally. You don't have to manipulate ingredients too much.

We're sourcing these local ingredients not because we're trying to market, but because it's our job.

We're sourcing these local ingredients not because we're trying to market, but because it's our job. We should be providing that for our guests without having to throw it in their face. That said, fall is tricky. There's not a lot of local fruit you can find yet but we don't want to cheat everyone out of their dessert experience. That's why we preserve fruit at its freshest for later. Or we bring a coconut meringue tart; it tastes great at any time.

You come from a traditional baking background and yet you feature gluten free cakes and crackers at laV. Do you enjoy baking for special dietary restrictions?

I am from a super small town and it was a very humble upbringing. I think the reason everyone was such great cooks was because they did a lot with what little they had. And when I went into culinary school I had no idea what escargot was from what. My time at Per Se was a great experience I don't take lightly. I know what it's like to save up for a meal, and it's something I bring here too.

That's why I love requests for gluten free or gluten free vegan cakes. It's totally possible; it just takes a little bit of thinking. My goal is for diners to come in and taste it and not know if its gluten free. You just walk away happy.

On your afternoons at home with your son, what's your go to sweet?

That's the trouble- he always wants something sweet! His favorite is banana cake.  It's really banana bread that we will make in a cake mold.

I never made food at home in New York. But here, now that I have my son and a husband who cooks at home, too, it makes it so much more fun. My son loves making pizza dough. He can tell you the ingredients. The first time I made pizza dough with him and he discovered what yeast does, his mind was like What?!

— Kristin Leigh