Mindy Segal and the new HotChocolate

One of Chicago's best pastry chefs explains the breakdown that led to big changes at HotChocolate.

Portrait of Mindy Segal with Bubba the horse at Nobel Horse Theater. TOC 375.

Portrait of Mindy Segal with Bubba the horse at Nobel Horse Theater. TOC 375. Photograph: Erika DuFour

If the horse didn’t lift its leg, Mindy Segal was going to have a breakdown. She’d already come close to one breakdown—that’s why she’d trekked to this wellness spa in the middle of the Arizonan desert in the first place. After almost a week, she was feeling better. But the task she was facing—get the horse to lift its leg, then clean its hoof—was stressing her out. Segal was terrified she was going to fail.

It was a familiar feeling. In the six months leading up to her November stay at Miraval, Segal, 44, felt she’d been failing a lot. This was despite the fact that her restaurant, HotChocolate, turns a profit. Despite the fact that she’s widely considered the best pastry chef in Chicago. Or that she’s been a finalist for a James Beard Award six times. She felt like a bad restaurateur. She felt she had been forgotten by the press. Her kitchen was 100 degrees, and she was working in it 16 hours a day.

It was too much. She called her mentor Michael Kornick, talked to her friend Paul Kahan. Kornick directed her to a place he’d been before. They have an amazing program for stress, he told her. And there’s this activity that will change your life. An activity with a horse.

In 1987, Segal dropped out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with the intent of enrolling in Kendall College’s culinary program. But at that time, Kendall was a trade school, and a year of kitchen experience was required for admission. So Segal got a job with Hel’s Kitchen, a North Shore caterer. There, she fell in love with cooking. Pastry, on the other hand, she hated. She was not—she is not—good with recipes.

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