By Terres Gacek
Exercise enthusiast, athlete, and coach are words not typically used to describe a pastry chef. But these are all words that can be used to describe young talented Chicago pastry Chef Danielle Reusnow. Before food, cooking, and baking became her passion, she was best known as Danielle the level 10 gymnast. From age 5-20 she competed at the park district, club, college and even national levels. Being an athlete most of her life, Danielle developed into a hardworking and self motivating young women. She used these qualities to help her explore other interest and hobbies. Little did anyone know that this strong woman had not only physical talent but also a creative side.
Q: How did your interest in cooking and baking begin?
Danielle: My interest in baking began when I was in middle school, I would watch cooking and cake shows on the Food Network channel. I loved watching the cooking competitions, especially the cake ones. As a gymnast through most of my life, I am used to performing under pressure. But watching these cake completions really amazed me. After watching other people bake and cook, I wanted to learn for myself. But I had to find time in my busy schedule with between my club gymnastics practice, my coaching job, and my schoolwork. I found a class at my local Michael’s craft store and took all three of their cake decorating courses.
Q: You mentioned you like watching the Food Network, was there and particular chef that inspired you?
Danielle: I love watching Alton Brown. He features a lot of baking techniques, and I have always enjoyed watching him explain the science and chemistry of baking. In school I did very well in science related subjects like math and chemistry. Baking involves a lot of chemistry and I think that’s why I enjoy baking so much.
Q: At what point did baking become more than a hobby?
Danielle: While I was taking classes at Michael’s, I would show people pictures of my cakes and people were very impressed with my cake projects and would ask me to make their son’s, daughter’s, or whoever’s birthday or graduation cake. At first I would only make a few cakes for people I already knew, and later those people would tell other people and word got out that I made cakes. I continued to make cakes on the side for people through high school, by the time I was a senior I was making wedding cakes.
Q: Did you have plans to pursue the food industry after high school?
Danielle: I started college at the University of Illinois at Chicago; I received a scholarship to be on their gymnastics team, and I pursued a degree in industrial engineering. I knew I couldn’t be a gymnast my whole life, and I have always loved math. I figured a career as an engineer would provide me with a stable job and allow me to save money to open my very own bakery.
After going to UIC for two years, I realized that I didn’t need to be an engineer to make my dreams come true. So I left UIC to pursue culinary school. I did very well at Moraine Valley, and even won a scholarship after winning a dessert competition. I continue to be involved at Moraine Valley by cooking for their galas, cooking for about 300 people. I have worked in three gala events at Moraine.
Q: Can you tell us about your baking career so far?
Danielle: While in culinary school, I started working at my local Jewel bakery, working as a cake decorator. It wasn’t anything special, but I was able to gain experience working in a bakery. After working at Jewel, I was offered a head cake decorator position at a start up bakery called Bella’s. I was able to showcase my skills and make fantasy pasties. Currently, I work for Mariano’s grocery store as their lead cake decorator. I have been there for almost two years now. The best part about my job is just making someone’s day special through the means of food. I love the look on people’s faces when they see their cake for the first time and knowing that they are happy with my creations.
Q: What is your favorite thing to cook or bake?
Danielle: My favorite thing to bake…. would have to be homemade chocolate chip cookies! I love anything with chocolate!
Q: Do you have any cooking tips you would like to share with us?
Danielle: I am not a fan of store bought mixes or slice n bake cookies. Don’t just buy cookie mix, try making it yourself. I know people say it’s too hard to make things from scratch but it really isn’t that hard. And the taste of a homemade cookie is so much better than from a mix. With so many resources out there people can find easy homemade recipes. My advice for people is to make it yourself and try something new!
Q: Is it hard living an active lifestyle with a career as a baker?
Danielle: Yes, definitely! I am very passionate about keeping myself healthy and strong. In order to do that I can’t always eat everything thing I want all the time. But it’s so hard because I love food so much! I am constantly surrounded by delicious baked goods and I always want to eat cookies. What I find helpful is to keep balance in my life. I work out and eat very healthy but I don’t deprive myself of the food I want.
The hardness time I ever had was when I decided to check something off my bucket list and complete in a woman’s figure competition. I was on a strict workout schedule and diet. I was allowed one cheat meal a week and I made sure I ate whatever I wanted that day. It was so hard for me, but in the end it was a great experience and I met a lot of amazing people. I learned that I love food too much to be on a strict diet, and found a balance in my life that kept me happy.
Q: What’s next for you in your career as a pastry chef?
Danielle: My dream has always been to own my own bakery. Right now I am doing everything I can to learn the business end of the industry so that I can have a successful business. Just because I can bake well does not mean that I can manage properly. I am brainstorming ideas right now with a potential future business partner, attending seminars, and networking with people in the hospitality industry. I am trying to gain as much knowledge and experience as possible. I may stay at Mariano’s and promote more of my cakes and pastries that I do out of my house, or I will seek jobs elsewhere and see what I can learn. This next year or so in preparation of my business will be very essential for it to be successful. I will definitely not be opening the doors till I am as ready as possible.
Visit Chef Danielle’s Facebook page