Balthazar head baker Paula Oland turned down O'Malley when he first asked for a job. Years later, she'd become his mentor—and family.
“She was like, ‘I don't know that you really want to work here,’” he says.
O’Malley was twenty-two at the time. Oland thought he’d be better off in the pastry department of Balthazar’s popular Manhattan restaurant than with her in their commissary bakery in New Jersey. So that’s where he went for a year. Not quite satisfied, he then worked at Morimoto. He left after another year, again not quite satisfied. He returned to Oland with the same question: Could he work for her?
Little did he know that his second request would evolve into eight years of mentorship, mastery, and high-volume dough.
Oland put him to work as the pastry chef of the then-humble Balthazar Bakery adjacent to the restaurant. At the time, bread was selling, yes, but Danishes weren’t. Some of the pies were basic. Underdog pastries like cannelé needed work.
O’Malley professes little innate creativity. But he’s okay with that, because he’s got skills. He can tell when something is made well – when flavor and texture come together right – and claims that’s why he and Oland fell together. They share the same palate and drive to get things right. She was a creative wheelhouse, he the machine.
At first, their work was largely technical. They improved croissants, and got the Danishes to sell. He helped introduce tourtières – a French-Canadian meat pie Oland had missed from her homeland. They explored savory options like quiche. Sales picked up. They added staff.
“Paula was like, "Now that we have all that stuff under control, now we can do all this stuff!’” O’Malley says.
They started on things less common for French bakeries, like German stollen and mincemeat pies and soda bread for Saint Patrick’s Day. One year, they made thirty-thousand dollars in profit from marmalade alone, making a department where there was none just because they liked marmalade and thought it would add value to the Balthazar experience.
But even when they succeeded, no recipe was final – no pastry perfect. “Every year, we retested our recipes like clockwork,” he says.
The first pecan pie recipe used whole pecans and corn syrup. Then they switched to maple syrup. Then they halved the pecans. Then they arranged them more decoratively. Then they toasted them. “Then garnishes. Then rework the garnishes,” O’Malley says of this test-and-improve pattern.
The tourtières sold by the hundreds. It didn’t matter. To the ground and braised pork, they added duck confit. Then mushrooms. Then started using lard in the pastry instead of butter. “I think she just had something in her mind that was like, ‘Oh, it should be more…’” he says.
The popular Bûche de Noelle changed yearly, too. “Why are we even doing this? Why is this the thing that we're spending all this time on when we sell thousands of them?” O’Malley remembers saying in frustration when her request for a syrup glaze morphed into chestnut-flavored syrup and then one with Scotch, too.
But he also remembers Oland being right.
“I can’t think of a time where we would go back and think something wasn’t better, even if just granularly better,” he says. “It ensures we are never complacent and that we are always offering the guest the best possible product we can that day. And that the restaurant grows with us.” They started selling tens of thousands of dollars in their department daily and had cops direct traffic at Thanksgiving.
And so, Oland built O’Malley’s perspective on hospitality not from one conversation or interaction, but throughout many years of steady pressure to improve.
He jokes that he absorbed her language – she’d use funny phrases like “that’s a sharp bake” to convey when the color on a roll or the nose of a croissant was just where she wanted it. But if it wasn’t there? She would say in passing that “the rolls look a little light today.”
“You'd have to go look and rip one open and taste it – it just demands your attention,” he says. “It was like a hunger. She encourages that gnawing restlessness of wanting it to be more and more and more. Knowing every single one is not going to be perfect, but that should be your goal.”
That drive now infuses O’Malley’s role as pastry chef and co-owner of Hungry Pigeon in Philadelphia. His department produces hamburger rolls, English muffins, buckwheat crepes, pasta, jams, scallion pancakes, chutneys, pastries… the list goes on. Inherited creativity comes through in his work with local farms and small businesses; he makes umeboshi from tiny green peaches or kougin-amann with extremely small-batch butter. He encourages both pastry and savory chefs to take home recipes or bead starter, and bring back ideas.
O’Malley and Oland talk regularly. He considers her more of a mentor than a former boss, and more family than mentor. “I can't help but think about that,” he reflects of how that second request for a job panned out. “Just how amazing we were. We had such a similar taste level, and our vision and our approach to things was so in line… I just love her.”