The kitchen may be closed, but Chef Johana Langi isn’t sitting still. Since her boss, celebrated chef Daniel Boulud, had to temporarily shut down his restaurants during New York’s COVID-19 lockdown, Chef Johana has been busy working on a new skill: making flowers out of fondant and decorating cakes. It’s that ethos of hard work and passion for all things pastry that bring her to 10 years working in some of New York’s best kitchens this fall—and all without a culinary degree. We asked Chef Johana about how she got here, and what advice she has for women on the way.
How did your career in pastry start? Give us the movie montage version.
I really wanted to go culinary school when I was in high school, but my parents said I should go to college first. I don’t think they took it very seriously. So I majored in English literature, thinking I wanted to be a food writer. When I was a senior I was really lucky to get an internship in the Good Housekeeping test kitchen, in the kitchen appliance department. We got all the newest ovens and we’d test bake all these cookies and see how they came out. We’d get new gadgets in and see the new and latest thing. I also did taste tests with the nutrition department. During my lunch break I’d go to Bouchon Bakery and get a macaron. The whole experience piqued my interest again.
I decided I wanted to go into the kitchen and I wanted to do pastry.
I was graduating in the Great Recession. I made a spreadsheet, listed all the restaurants I wanted to contact with the chef’s name, and started calling. A month later I landed an internship at Bouchon Bakery—the same one I used to get macarons from.
The internship was three months, 60 hours a week. The best part was that I was able to do tarts one day, macarons the next. They had a chocolate room so I could work with the chocolatier. All of their baking was done in the Per Se kitchen. I was able to work in the bread department and see how that kitchen worked. It was a really good immersive experience. I was able to see the organization of a well-run kitchen and all the hours you have to put into your job.
What was your first real job?
After that internship I was really lucky to get a position as pastry cook in a restaurant called Ciano. That was a really big turning point for me. For one, I was paid, for another, I met my mentor there, the pastry chef Bjoern Boettcher. He took me under his wing and was really patient. He realized I was willing to work really hard and do what needed to be done. He always answered my questions and was really honest with me about the industry. I followed him to other restaurants as well. After about a year and a half at The Lambs Club, I went to Saul Restaurant in the Brooklyn Museum to become a pastry chef, then to work at Junoon before going back to The Lambs Club.
A big highlight of my career was when I was able to take over my mentor’s position as executive pastry chef there. It was a really gratifying feeling. Making the decision to do pastry as a profession has been a distinction that’s really helped me.
How did you land your current role as pastry chef of Boulud Sud and Bar Boulud?
After The Lambs Club I took a break. I did a lot of traveling. I wanted to think about what else I wanted to do and what I wanted to be in the industry coming out of that role. Did I want to open something up, did I want to consult? The hours at a restaurant are so long and so hard. I’ve always put a lot of work and a lot of effort into everything I do. It’s easy to get burnt out after consecutive hours of working and forget why you’re there.
I saw Boulud Sud and Bar Boulud were looking for a pastry chef and I was so excited. I knew I wanted to work there. It would be a chance to work with takes on classic French desserts as well as to be creative. I applied and went through a very rigorous application process. I first met with the two corporate chefs and we discussed the position. It turns out I was going to be in charge of two restaurants—technically three—and I’d have to oversee a lot of things. After meeting with them I did a tasting at the commissary kitchen, and after that I had to meet with the teams at Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud, and finally Daniel Boulud.
I’ve found It’s good to be honest about what you’re looking for, as well as see if your personalities will match with the people you’ll be working with. In this case it was a fit.
You’ve worked in some very demanding kitchens. How have you overcome challenging moments?
During really hard moments, I just think, I’ve dealt with really bad situations before and I got through it. This is just another one of those moments. It’s not going to be forever.
It also helps to have a really good, stable relationship with your coworkers, your family, your friends. Having that sense of a home base, knowing you can talk to your friends, your mom, your boyfriend—that you’re not alone—gives you that grounding sense of self.
What advice do you wish you could give to the young Johana at the beginning of her career?
I would just say that it’s going to be really hard. Like, really hard. Really hard physically, really hard emotionally. So think about it hard, and understand what you’re doing when you decide to transition doing pastry for pleasure into doing it as a career. It’s very different.
Other than that, keep reading. Try new things. Go to museums. Travel. You never know where it’s going to lead you.
Where do you go for inspiration for new desserts?
I’ll often think about an idea for a dish and then try to recreate it in the kitchen. I’ll be mulling it for a few days or even months before trying it. A lot of times it’s not that great. A lot of dishes go through many tests, sometimes just one or two.
I like to travel to places I haven’t been to and places I’ve been curious about. Every time I go somewhere it always ends up being such a positive thing to my career. My first menu change at Boulud Sud was a dessert called the Chocolate Oscuro. It was inspired by a Spanish dessert from the Basque region made by toasting bread, melting chocolate on it and drizzling it with olive oil and salt. It’s kind of an afternoon snack. I did a dessert special that was a play on that and it did really well. Lucky for me, Chef Daniel came into the restaurant that night and I had him try it. He told me to put it on the menu.
What are some of your favorite non-pastry dishes to cook?
At home I’m very simple in what I like to cook for myself. I love making cacio e pepe. It’s such a comfort food and I’ve made it so many times for myself I can make it pretty quickly. I like really salty foods and spicy things since all I do at work is eat a lot of sweet things! Though I do like to make myself brownies.
See what some of the other chefs we’ve featured have to say about their experiences in, and out, of the kitchen.