How did this tenacious, petite gal become such an enormous pastry world presence? With persistence. Here are five of the craziest experiences that helped make her who she is today.

By Megan Giller
Updated May 23, 2017
Janina O'Leary Doughnuts
Credit: © Janina O'Leary

You wouldn’t suspect that pastry chef Janina O’Leary grew up in the tiny, rural town of Del Rio, Texas. She’s worked at Del Posto, Per Se, Bouchon and now laV in Austin, and she’s been nominated for a James Beard Award, among other honors. So how did this tenacious, petite gal become such an enormous presence? With persistence. Here are five of the craziest experiences that helped make her who she is today.

1. Moving to New York City as a teenager—by herself. Unlike other kids, O’Leary didn’t have fame or fortune on the brain: She wanted to be a pastry chef. At 14, she decided it wasn’t quite enough to bake holiday cakes and pies with her aunts and mother. She researched culinary schools in NYC, and when the French Culinary Institute accepted her, she moved across the country by herself.

2. Working at Per Se and Bouchon at the same time. A job at one Michelin-rated restaurant wasn’t enough for this lady. After working at Per Se for about a year, she decided to take on the early-morning shift at Bouchon Bakery as well. She lived an hour and a half away in New Jersey and would ride the bus into the city. But when the bus was involved in an accident, O’Leary hurt her toe, which promptly got infected. Rather than tell anyone, she just limped around. Her foot swelled so much that she had to buy new kitchen shoes! Finally chef Richard Capizzi said, “Wait a minute, you didn’t have a limp when you started here.” He promptly made her go to the hospital, where the doctor told her she was three days away from losing her toe.

Soon after, O’Leary moved from New Jersey to be closer to work—much closer. “I was crazy enough to get an apartment a block away, and they knew,” she said. “Big mistake.” In other words, she would sleep for a few hours and then run between jobs, learning about viennoiserie as well as prepping plated desserts for the upscale restaurant.

3. Catering her first off-site dinner with Thomas Keller. The scene? Relais Châteaux in Washington, DC. The gig? O’Leary’s first catering job. The other chefs? Sebastien Rouxel and Thomas Keller. “We were serving a chocolate crémeux with cocoa nib coulis, and I kept splattering coulis all over myself right in front of Thomas Keller,” O’Leary said, turning red at the memory. He must not have been too fazed, because afterward he brought her to Michel Richard’s restaurant Citronelle, where they sat with Richard at the chef’s table. “We shared pastry stories, since he started his career as a pastry chef,” O’Leary said.

4. Dodging crudo and wine while pregnant. In 2010, she had just opened the Village Tart, and Pichet Ong, who had been consulting on the restaurant, wanted to celebrate. He took O’Leary and her husband, Sean, to dinner at One If By Land, Two If By Sea. “Pichet is infamous for eating a disgusting amount of food,” O’Leary said. “I don’t even know how he does it.” But unbeknownst to Ong, O’Leary was pregnant. Like many women in the industry, she was unsure about what that meant for her career and wasn’t quite ready to spill the beans about her little bean. The first course was crudo, which she pretended to eat, and then they served wine, which she pretended to drink. “I only made it to course seven, and then he guessed I was pregnant,” she recalled. “We like to joke that he knew before I did!”

5. Making doughnuts for her son after making doughnuts all day at work. OK, so this one is less of an isolated event and more of a regular occurrence. After getting pregnant, O’Leary and her husband decided to move to Austin to raise their son, Declan. She quickly became known for her refined yet delicious doughnuts, which she makes daily at upscale French eatery laV (think warm brioche doughnuts with strawberry-Champagne jam and lemon curd).

And when she comes home, she continues to make them. Almost daily, O’Leary bakes for her son Declan, but she uses lower-sugar recipes and healthier ingredients to transform high-end pastries into kid-friendly desserts. (Of course, he’s not exactly the typical kid, since his favorite dessert element is cocoa nib tuile.) Here’s her go-to recipe for easy, at-home doughnuts.

Janina O’Leary’s At-Home Doughnut Holes

Though doughnuts will never be healthy, this recipe cuts down on the sugar and some of the technique to make a nice at-home translation of a restaurant favorite. Note that the dough doubles in size when fried, so 1 tablespoon of batter will yield about a 2-inch doughnut hole. Bonus: The only extra kitchen equipment you’ll need besides the standard stuff are a deep-fry thermometer, a small ice cream scoop and a cooling rack.

Makes 2 dozen

5 cups vegetable oil, for frying
1 cup milk
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
4 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

1. Place vegetable oil in a large pot. Make sure to have 2 inches of oil in the pot and at least 2 inches between the top of the oil and the top of the pot. If necessary, add more oil.
2. Attach the deep-fry thermometer to the pot and begin heating the oil over medium heat to 350°.
3. Line a baking sheet with paper towels.
4. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, egg and vanilla.
5. In another bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Stir the milk-egg mixture into the dry ingredients, then stir in the melted butter, mixing until a soft dough forms.
6. Once the oil has reached 350°, use a small ice cream scoop or spoon to drop 1-tablespoon-size balls of dough into the oil in batches. Do not overcrowd the pan.
7. Fry the doughnuts, flipping them in the oil, for about 1 to 2 minutes or until they're golden brown.
8. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the doughnut holes to the paper-towel-lined baking sheet.
9. Place a cooling rack atop a baking sheet and transfer the doughnut holes, allowing them to cool slightly.
10. Break into a doughnut to ensure each batch is fully cooked in the center. Serve warm with fresh strawberries and whipped cream (no sugar added!).