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Vickroy: Teen baker gets time with famous pastry chef

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Updated: January 20, 2014 8:19AM



The best gifts are really opportunities — to learn, to grow, to discover.

And they are often as much fun to give as to receive.

Like all good Santas, teacher Eric Kallenborn wrestled with what to get the student whose name he drew in the Shepard High School speech team’s Secret Santa gift exchange.

“Leeana Skuby is a great student. She’s an excellent writer, a hard worker and a tremendous asset to the speech team,” Kallenborn said. “But I also knew she loved to bake.”

As he pondered the possibilities, ticking off things such as cookie sheets and other items she likely already had, Kallenborn came up with an idea.

He emailed Mindy Segal, renowned pastry chef and owner of the Hot Chocolate restaurant and dessert bar in Chicago. Segal is a 2012 James Beard Award winner for “Outstanding Pastry Chef in the Country.” Hot Chocolate, 1747 N. Damen Ave., has been featured on national TV.

“I love that place,” Kallenborn said. “It’s one of my favorite spots in the city.”

He thought maybe Segal had a cookbook he could buy for Leeana. He wondered if Segal would sign it.

Right away, Segal’s publicist emailed him back. Her cookbook doesn’t come out for another year, but Segal went one better.

She offered to let the student spend four hours in the Hot Chocolate kitchen working beside professional pastry chefs. In return, she asked that Kallenborn make a donation to her favorite charity, the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

On Wednesday afternoon, Kallenborn presented the gift certificate to Leeana, who beamed with excitement.

“This is incredible,” she said. “Crazy. I get to spend time with a real chef? And she’s like the chefs I watch on TV every night when I don’t want to go to bed.”

An honor student and Alsip resident, Leeana said her demanding school schedule does not allow time for classes in the culinary arts.

“Everything is all about getting into a good college,” she said.

But Kallenborn reminded her that it’s important to nurture the soul, too.

“Sometimes we don’t have enough time to explore those creative loves we have, there’s such a big push to do well academically and get into a good school,” he said. “But your passions are important, too.”

Leeana said the gift will “help me learn more about myself, what I like, what I want to do after high school. Who knows, maybe I just will open a bakery one day.”

She said her family is not big on cooking or baking.

“We never had the big Christmas dinners that everyone talks about,” she said. “My mom knows how to use the microwave, and my dad knows how to call Dominos (pizza).”

For most of her life, Leeana said, she focused on academics and helping the Shepard speech team become a force to be reckoned with. But during her sophomore year, she began noticing an urge to bake and create confections.

“I started watching ‘Chopped’ and ‘Cupcake Wars’ on the Food Network,” she said. “I got hooked.”

The following summer, Leeana began experimenting. Among the creations she has mastered is the perfect chocolate chip cookie, which took seven attempts.

“I made them for a month straight until I was happy,” she said, adding that the secret is the right ratio of ingredients. “That’s what makes a difference.”

She also loves to bake cupcakes and to modify recipes to make them her own.

Leeana said baking is a release.

“You can tell when I haven’t baked in awhile because I get cranky,” she said.

Leeana still has to contact Segal to set up a day when she can come to the restaurant and hang with the chefs. Kallenborn said he and the other speech team coaches will visit that day and judge her performance.

Segal recently signed a lease in Chicago’s Logan Square community and is reportedly opening a new bakery sometime next year. She said in a statement that she suggested the gift because it would enable Leeana to see if she really wanted to pursue baking as a profession.

During her four-hour assignment, Segal said, Leeana will work beside professional chefs, doing “whatever we ask her to do.”

Segal said that when she was Leeana’s age, she had no idea she was destined to one day own a restaurant, but she knew she wanted to work with food.



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