If you’ve been to Chicago and care at all about dessert, chances are you’ve stopped into Sweet Mandy B’s. Churning out candy-colored confections straight out of your childhood fantasies, this bakery is at once classic and innovative. From their iconic pastel-frosted yellow cupcakes to massive cookie dough chocolate chip cookie sandwiches, Chicago sugar fanatics line up out the door to satisfy their sweet tooth cravings.
Sherrie Tan, the bakery’s head pastry chef, is the mastermind behind it all – and when she invited me in on a Sunday morning, I absolutely could not say no. We chatted about her love for baking, the Chicago Instagram foodie scene and how to make it in the culinary world – and, of course, tasted plenty of delicious pastries, cookies and cupcakes.
Spoon: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Sherrie: I was born and raised in the Philippines. At age 19, I moved to the United States. I studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York for two and a half years – it was an Associate’s Degree, but I stayed longer because I did a lot of cookbook writing. Then September 11th happened – I was supposed to start looking for work in Manhattan but there were no jobs. So I chose Chicago! I worked as a pastry chef at Tru for two years, and then Charlie Trotter’s for two years, and then The Peninsula for three and a half years – then I got burned out with the whole restaurant business and the long hours I was working. And for the past seven years I’ve been at Sweet Mandy B’s!
Spoon: How did you start baking?
Sherrie: When I was younger, I always baked as a hobby. I didn’t realize how much I loved it – I wanted to be an interior designer, but I ended up not really liking it. I love baking and cooking more than interior design. My heart is in the kitchen.
Spoon: How long have you been at Sweet Mandy B’s?
Sherrie: Seven years. And every year, this place just keeps getting busier and busier. I like the challenges and I love that I have creative freedom.
Spoon: What do you like best about working at Sweet Mandy B’s?
Sherrie: The people! If you love what you do and work with great people, it’s the best thing ever. We can be busy, we can get stressed out, but in the end, I know that we can make anything happen.
Spoon: What’s the coolest project you’ve ever worked on?
Sherrie: The Birthday Bar! Cindy, the old owner, entered me in this contest. She told me three days prior to the contest to just come up with something with Nestle Crunch in it – it was their 75th anniversary and they were doing a nationwide contest. Rice Krispies are super popular here, so I decided to make something with Rice Krispies – crunchy, buttery Rice Krispies on the bottom, melted peanut butter and Nestle Crunch in the middle, and a chocolate layer with Buncha Crunch on top. It’s creamy, crunchy, sweet, and salty – I put a layer of salt, which is my secret ingredient. I didn’t think we would win because we were competing against so many big bakeries, but we ended up winning! Within 24 hours, I was flown to LA to meet Mario Lopez – it was so crazy!
Spoon: What is your favorite thing to bake?
Sherrie: Pop Tarts! We make the dough and the filling from scratch. I also love making the Lemon Pound Cake – it’s soaked in lemon syrup and glazed with lemon glaze.
Spoon: How do you come up with new recipes?
Sherrie: I think about food 24/7 – I’m around food all the time. I’m always thinking of new things to make people happy and new flavors that will work together.
Spoon: Does your Filipino heritage influence your baking?
Sherrie: If I have my own bakery one day, it will definitely be influenced. Here, it’s hard because we do old-fashioned American desserts, so I can’t really integrate much of my background.
Spoon: How did you start your Instagram, @sherriesavorsthecity?
Sherrie: It’s just a hobby! One of my first few pictures was of our S’mores Cupcake, and @chicagofoodauthority featured me. I was just doing it for fun and sort of fell in love with it. I started meeting people in the community – we get along and take any excuse to go out and eat. I also fell in love with food photography and food styling – that’s what I’m working towards.
Spoon: Is everything you Instagram from the bakery on the menu?
Sherrie: Yes! The Just Dough It, a cookie sandwich with cookie dough filling, is by far the most Instagrammed cookie dough sandwich on Instagram.
Spoon: Are your recipes and creations influenced by what you know will photograph well?
Sherrie: Sometimes – not all the time. First and foremost, it has to taste really good. If it doesn’t taste good, I won’t feature it on my Instagram – no matter how beautiful. I always think of aesthetic presentations too, but it has to taste good!
Spoon: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in the kitchen?
Sherrie: There are so many! I’ve burned caramel, I’ve burned trays of cupcakes, I’ve misweighed a batch of pound cake, I’ve forgotten the sugar. It’s normal because I’m making so much.
Spoon: What advice would you give to college students who want to get into the culinary industry?
Sherrie: Work for free – we call it stage. Even if it’s just for a day or two while you feel it out – you want to get as much experience as you can. Don’t expect to go into this business to make a lot of money, because you won’t – it’s about passion. Eventually it will pay off if you persevere, but you have to work your way up. And be humble, no matter what!
Spoon: What’s next for you?
Sherrie: If the opportunity presents, I’d love to have my own bakery. But right now, I’m more focused on food photography and food styling as my next step.