(This article appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Baking and Pastry Instructor
Joliet Junior College, Joliet, IL
Andy Chlebana inherited his interest in baking from his Mom, who was known for her impressive assortment of Christmas cookies and her ambitious birthday cakes. Andy’s first baking project was a batch of chocolate chip cookies, which we mixed up with a fork, but he soon progressed to more challenging endeavors. After completing an AAS in Culinary Arts from Joliet Junior College in Illinois, Andy headed to the Culinary Institute of America
in Hyde Park to focus on baking and pastry. He began his career working for the Four Seasons Chicago and then moved on to positions at The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island Grill
Room, the Ritz-Carlton Washington D.C. and Albert Uster Imports in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Andy has spent the last fourteen years teaching baking and pastry at his alma mater, Joliet Junior College in Illinois. Most recently, Andy was the Pastry Chef for ACF Culinary Team USA, representing the United States in the Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg in fall of 2019, where the team earned two silver medals. He lives in Plainfield, Illinois with his wife, Heather and their four children.
You achieved success in the world of high-end pastry before returning to your alma mater as a culinary instructor. What drew you to teaching?
It’s a long answer — it took a long time to head into the direction of teaching. In every kitchen I have worked in, I was trained and then eventually went on to become the trainer. There was never an explanation as to why I was doing what I was doing. We were always
told because that’s how we do it. I wasn’t sure if this was because the person telling me didn’t know, or there wasn’t time to worry about that because we were so busy. While I was working at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, I broke my foot at work – it was awful. I walked around on a broken foot for over a year, had surgery, went through the recovery, then the doctor tells me if I keep working in a kitchen, my foot has about 10 years before it will be useless. At this time, we moved to open the Ritz-Carlton Washington D.C. My foot was getting worse, so I left the kitchen. I was hired at Albert Uster Imports and worked my way up through the company. While I was there I learned a tremendous amount from our suppliers and I had an opportunity to share with the customers and they could in turn share with me. After working at Albert Uster for a while I decided I wanted to give teaching a shot. Once I started teaching I really began to dig into the why of what we do. Then I started competing and learned even more. I always try to make things better. I tell my students if something they do is perfect, they need to quit. If you achieve perfection, no point going on.
You studied culinary arts at a junior college and then went on to the Culinary Institute of America to focus on baking and pastry. How important was culinary school to your career success?
I wouldn’t be where I am at today without culinary school. My first Pastry Chef Albert Imming is a Certified Master Pastry Chef. Think about it. I’m 19 years old learning from one of the few CMPCs in the country. I also went on to study under Joe McKenna, another CMPC. I had a lot of growing up to do in culinary school, I have always been a hard worker just not very mature. I grew professionally and personally at school. When I graduated JJC I was having a hard time finding a job in Chicago. It may have been where I was applying or my lack of experience. At that point I decided to attend CIA — my brother is a chef and he was at CIA for the culinary program. I enrolled in the Baking and Pastry Certificate program and was offered two jobs at the top hotels in Chicago. I chose to work to go the Four Seasons where I worked for Franck Monnier.
You have won and placed in quite a few pastry and FoodNetwork competitions and you continue to enter pastry competitions. What motivates you to compete on the big stage?
Ah yes, we need to change that to have competed. I have done my Michael Jordan retirement, came back and then gone back, stopped again then gone back. I really feel that I am done competing. It has been an honor to compete in so many different forums and represent the US multiple times. The main reason I compete is to make myself better. Competition makes you more efficient, helps you think differently, and to work clean. It really is a challenge to make four desserts in 90 minutes. You really need to push to get everything done.
My kids get a kick out of me being on Food Network. I also feel that competing on TV puts something tangible out there for my students. They can see that I can walk the walk and do what I am asking them to do (in an extremely stressful environment).
I would say my proudest moment was representing the USA as captain at The Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie. I honestly never thought I would have made the team, much less be the captain. I had tears in my eyes that morning when I was getting dressed for the competition.
What advice do you give your students to prepare them for the realities of the professional pastry kitchen?
Be prepared to work hard and don’t give up. You need to love what you are doing. If you put in the effort and work hard, good things will come to you. Have goals, don’t be afraid to adjust your plan, and most importantly, have fun – it’s just sugar, flour, eggs and butter.
Photo credit: Anthony Tahlier Photography Inc.