Chicago and the world recently lost a beloved pastry chef. Chef Lutz Olkiewicz died at the age of seventy-nine, leaving admirers already missing his creations. He was the executive pastry chef at the Drake Hotel in Chicago for 25 years and later worked for the Sara Lee Corporation. The chef could build cathedrals with sugar cubes and paint landscapes with cocoa, but his specialty was the art of sugar blowing and sugar pulling, forming bows and delicate flowers. He was famous for his wedding cakes, and for his own daughter made an all-chocolate cake with chocolate roses. He loved to see people’s reactions when they saw his desserts, and even more when he watched as they tasted and swooned. The chef was a master.
Chef Olkiewicz was born in Germany and had a passion for sweets at a very young age. Even in the midst of sugar rationing in postwar Europe, he began an apprenticeship when he was 17 years old at his aunt’s bakery, and even made pastries for the U.S. Army. He continued with a three-year apprenticeship in Berlin, a five-year journeyman program that led to a master’s degree, and then worked in pastry shops over Europe and Canada before he landed in Chicago at the Drake Hotel. At the Drake, the chef made petit fours, mousses, custards, pies, puddings, cookies, croissants, fresh bread, and of course his famous cakes and tortes. He very quickly was recognized as Chicago’s finest pastry chef.
After winning numerous awards, the chef was named to the 1972 American Culinary Olympics Team and traveled back to the country of his birth where he won a Gold Medal. He gained worldwide recognition for his intimate knowledge of ingredients and his awe-inspiring techniques. When the chef was not in the kitchen, he enjoyed oil painting and sculpture, which he claims helped his artistry with pastry. “It’s important that a pastry chef be able to guide a piping bag without support, just as a painter can guide a brush without support,” he told the Chicago Tribune, and added, “It is the vision, eye for color coordination, and craftsmanship that enables the pastry chef to soar whether fashioning modern cakes, carving in chocolate, modeling marzipan or yeast dough or creating architectural buildings out of pastillage.”
Friends and co-workers of Chef Olkiewicz said his personality was larger than life, just like his pastries. He was generous in helping others with his culinary knowledge and offered instructions to perfect their skills, and always gave everyone big bearhugs. I have been clipping the chef’s recipes out of newspapers and magazine for years, many of them now yellowed and torn. I could never attempt to make his masterpieces, but had a great time trying. Chef, you will be missed.
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