“Dr. Lucy” is a pediatrician by day and a pastry cook by night. (Photography by Drew Reynolds)

In the night kitchen

Behind the scenes at La Petite Folie restaurant, faculty members apprentice themselves.

On Friday nights at Hyde Park’s La Petite Folie, Lucille Lester, MD’72, cuts slices of Belgian chocolate torte, zigzagging chocolate sauce across a plate, piping on Chantilly cream, and garnishing with raspberries. She has worked pro bono as a pastry cook at the French restaurant since 2006. By day, Lester is pediatrics professor and section chief of pediatric pulmonary medicine at Comer Children’s Hospital.

“For a long time I sort of considered it my second white-coat job,” she says. “I’d take off that white coat and I’d go to the restaurant and put on the chef’s coat. It’s a world away from coughing, wheezing children and academic craziness. But it can be a different level of craziness.” The chaos of the kitchen, she says, can rival that in an emergency room—and the rigid hierarchy designed to combat it resembles that between medical students, residents, and attending physicians. At La Petite Folie, co-owner and executive chef Mary Mastricola, AB’93 (Class of 1979), tops the chain of command, with chef de cuisine Juan Muñoz a close second.

Mastricola and her husband, Mike Mastricola, AB’76, opened the Michelin-listed restaurant in 1999 after almost two years in Paris, where Mary trained at Le Cordon Bleu and two restaurants. La Petite Folie hosts plenty of faculty in the dining room, but it has also opened the kitchen to moonlighting academics—Lester as well as Law School professor Douglas Baird, who worked as a line cook one night a week from 2001 to 2004. Neither has formal culinary training.

Most restaurant owners don’t allow visitors behind the scenes, says Mastricola, but Lester and Baird are unusually passionate and disciplined volunteers who bring something valuable to the restaurant. The “kids” in her kitchen “would otherwise never have an opportunity to meet people like that”—and her young staff in turn get a chance to teach the professors what they know.

A longtime baker, Lester first worked with La Petite Folie after her son, then a waiter at the restaurant, recruited her to help bake Christmas cookies for one of the restaurant’s catering jobs. Since then, Lester has worked a 5 to 10 p.m. shift making desserts most Fridays. Uniformed in coat, apron, and backward baseball cap, Lester arrives with a bag containing her own knife, pens, and timer. She picks up where the full-time pastry chef, David Stern, U-High’05, leaves off after his daily shift. In the small dessert area equipped with mixers, pastry tips, and a French maple rolling pin Lester covets for her own kitchen, she follows instructions given to her by Stern, Muñoz, or Mastricola.

The instructions might ask her to make 48 mini spinach tarts, two chocolate cakes, two batches of cookies, or whatever she wants. Lester sometimes suggests new dishes for the menu: the chocolate torte recipe was given to her by a chef in Ghent, Belgium, where her son-in-law had a visiting professorship a few summers ago.
Known to the staff as “Dr. Lucy,” Lester’s medical knowledge comes in handy. She’s dispensed nothing strong­er than Tylenol in the kitchen, but waiters sometimes stop downstairs to ask her about diners’ food allergies.

Baird spent the first two months of his apprenticeship just chopping vegetables. Working eight- or nine-hour shifts, he was eventually promoted, assembling salads and side dishes on some nights, and finally was trusted to cook meat dishes. “Professional kitchens are really hot places,” he says. “It’s hard, physical, blue-collar work.” 
Baird credits the kitchen staff and especially Mary with teaching him how to make an omelet, how to chop and slice correctly (“I just freak out when I see other people holding knives” the wrong way, he says), and—most important—how to season food. The difference between soup in a fine restaurant and soup elsewhere “is often just making sure the seasoning is done correctly.” He now uses those skills when hosting large dinner parties at home.

Working at the restaurant spilled over into his academic life too. A specialist in bankruptcy, Baird expanded his prior focus on large corporations to include small businesses, coauthoring a paper with law professor Edward Morrison, AM’97, JD’00, PhD’03, about entrepreneurship and bankruptcies that he says he wouldn’t have written before working at La Petite Folie.

Beyond culinary skills and business insights, Baird says he enjoyed working with people from backgrounds different than his own and being the novice in the room. “I was treated as, well, here’s this person who’s coming to work with us. We’re not sure why. He doesn’t know an awful lot about how to cook, and he doesn’t speak the language,” Baird says (in most of Chicago’s French restaurant kitchens, including La Petite Folie, he notes, Spanish is the language of choice). “I was sort of the outsider who had to earn the trust of the people there.”

Echoing Lester’s observations, he adds, “Restaurant culture is rigidly hierarchical and academics are antihierarchical.” That fixed structure is less familiar ground for a legal scholar than a physician. “You can go to a workshop and argue with Gary Becker [AM’53, PhD’55]. You can’t cook in a professional kitchen and argue with whoever is running the kitchen at the moment.”