If there was a Queen of Marshmallows, a fantastical and fabulously badass character who resides in Candyland and spreads unexpected delicious joy across the lands, she would be a helluva lot like Pastry Chef Melissa Humphrey. But lucky for us – Melissa is very much a real-life pastry pro, and we all can indulge in her delights via the world’s first marshmallow cafe, XO Marshmallow in Chicago.
With almost 30 years in the industry – including 25 years as a pastry chef – Melissa is the authority on gourmet marshmallows. And she’s constantly pushing the proverbial envelope. Cheese Pizza Marshmallows? Done. Avocado Toast Marshmallows? Yeah, she went there. But Melissa and XO Marshmallow are more than just the latest Instagram flavor trend.
We caught up with Melissa for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that dives deep into a chef’s delicious creativity. Read the full interview and get to know her below:
You took almost three years off to travel the country before joining XO Marshmallow – what are some highlights from that trip?
“During those three years, I reached out to my Instagram and TrueCooks family and was like ‘I’m taking time off and looking to do stints in kitchens, I need a couch and I’ll work for free’.
Provincetown was the first stint, then I came back there a year later to lead the kitchen; it’s an amazing small little East Coast town. I was also in Abilene where it was over 100 degrees on my first night there and the AC was broken (laughs). I also cooked for pro athletes at the Nike Crossfit Games in California.
Those travels created some lifelong friends, and I saw how other pro kitchens worked and how fellow chefs manage the dynamic of being a chef and having a personal life. I’ll never forget it.”
People around you, music, books, travel – where do you find inspiration when you develop new creations?
“A lot of the inspiration comes from the things we (my team and staff) keep an eye on, like trends that are occurring in the pastry world on social media and across the board. Very early on during the pandemic, we noticed on Twitter that everyone was at home and making banana bread: it’s easy and you don’t need culinary experience to make it.
I approached one of the owners – why don’t we hop on this and make a banana bread marshmallow? There was a very quick turnaround time from recipe development to selling, but as soon as we released it, it was one of most popular marshmallows we’ve ever had.
I get a lot of inspiration looking at food trends, like our April Fools marshmallows. I did Avocado Toast marshmallows, and my goal was that I wanted it to look AND taste like avocado toast. And that’s exactly what I ended up doing (laughs). I like trying to come up with very unique flavors you’d never think of as marshmallows – like cheese pizza. I like to play with the savory side of marshmallow.”
What’s your ideation and creation process?
“It really depends on the complexity of the flavor I’m imagining. We have a standard base marshmallow recipe that we use, and having done this for four years I can conceptualize and get a pretty good idea of what I’ll need for the recipe.
For the pizza marshmallows, we based them off of each Friends character. Obviously Joey was the pizza ,and I used a variation of a Bloody Mary marshmallow we made before using the Spiceology Bloody Mary blend. Our entire cafe is gluten free, so these marshmallow flavors really messed with your brain so much. It was very confusing, but so freaking delicious.”
“So, funny story. After I quit traveling, I came back to Chicago and got hired as a sous chef. I was working at that place for about weeks when I saw a Facebook post pop up and there was a story from a friend who was on the hunt for someone who made marshmallows. She put me in touch with Kat and Lindzi.
I met them, assumed they needed extra hands, but I had no idea I was walking into a full-blown job interview. Also let alone that a marshmallow cafe was a thing. It turned out that two days before the opening their pastry chef quit. I gave them my resume, and said whatever you need done, I can make it happen. I was doing the sous chef gig and XO and working 90 hours a week, but XO got busy enough that I could work there full time.
(Laughs) It’s a completely valid question why marshmallows. Years ago I would have laughed at you. But now I love it.”
What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school?
“When I started culinary school I never thought I was going to be a chef. I had been working in restaurants since I was 14, but I thought I’d be a restaurant manager. I thought If I learned the back of the house it’ll make me more marketable as a manager – and I ended up falling in love with it.
I didn’t know much of anything and it was invaluable for me to learn the pro chef skills: culinary skills, sanitation, food safety. Things you might not think of right off the bat. You learn so much more than technique.
Not everyone needs school, but it was a good place for me. If you have the passion and drive and someone who’s willing to take a chance on you and hone that passion and creativity – that’s the key. But it’s optional. In school I learned from fellow students. You have access to different flavor profiles based on background; give five chefs the same recipe and you’ll get five variations. You’ll always learn from people around you, and that’s also important in everyday life.”
How do you experiment with flavor?
“A lot of it starts with the base idea and figuring things out from vendors and the best use of the product. I have very close relationships with Spiceology and Amoretti. For the marshmallows, it’s hard to add flavor AND keep structure without adding liquid. First I figure out the flavor then research who we can go to to help create it. I’m very brand loyal (laughs). If I find a company that has a superior product and great customer service – they feel like family. They’ll have my bosses money for life”.
Do you feel competitive with other chefs?
“I used to for sure. When I was working in ‘savory’ kitchens, the competition came from trying to make myself better. If they can do that, why can’t I do this? Right now it’s really interesting, I make marshmallows for a living and there’s not a lot of other gourmet artisan marshmallow makers out there. Most of them are mass-produced. Every batch is made by hand, cut by hand and packed by hand.
In terms of competition,I don’t feel it. I’m mostly competing with myself that it’s the best product we can make – that means production time, if it tastes delicious. We have an amazing group of regular customers who expect quality and consistency – my challenge is to meet that high expectation everyday.”
What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why?
“I really do enjoy trying to incorporate savory as much as possible. During the week, nine times out of ten if I’m out I order a cheese plate, not dessert. I’m also working with sugar for six days of the work (laughs). I’m a big fan of anything with heavy spices, smoked cheese, herb-forward and spicy-forward flavors like cumin and coriander.”
What’s a technique or trick you learned in school or along the way that even home cooks could use?
“There is this one thing that I think is super cool. During the marshmallow-making process, we use a gelatin and let it bloom in water, but the water would get cold and the gelatin would get clumpy. I went online and bought one of those desk coffee cup warmers and created a de facto Bain Marie – a warm-water whisk spa. My current kitchen was never intended to be a commercial kitchen – it was originally a laundry room. We have to make do, and we make the space work for us. The coffee cup warmer is a time saver – it’s great for ice cream scoops and water baths.”
Favorite thing to bake for yourself?
“I don’t bake for myself (laughs). I’ll cook sometimes, but I’ve tried to actively support local restaurants and chefs via food delivery or picking up. It’s been tragic for this industry as everyone knows, so I’ve tried to take an active role and support local small businesses that maybe didn’t get loans. I can’t remember the last time I cooked at home. If I have the opportunity to spend money and help keep the doors of a restaurant open and help ensure their staff have a job, that’s what I’m going to do. It’s how I’ll feed myself for the foreseeable future.”
What’s a spice you consider under-valued?
“Salt. I think many people take for granted just how much salt helps to bring out the flavors of other ingredients in a dish. Sometimes you think you might need more herbs or a certain spice, when in reality – all your dish needs is a little bit more salt.”
What are your breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant recs when in Chicago?
“I’m not a huge breakfast person, but I love breakfast for dinner. But usually if I’m lucky I’ll remember to eat by 2 p.m. (laughs). When I do, I love a greasy diner; there’s the Diner Grill – it’s an institution. It burnt to the ground years ago and people were crushed, but they rebuilt it recently and it’s open 24 hours a day. It’s really good diner food.
For lunch or dinner, there’s an amazing restaurant called Little Bad Wolf. In my opinion it has hands down the best cheeseburger in the city. People will fight me on that (laughs), but it is the best burger in the city.
For dinner one of my favorites is Quartino – an Italian small plates restaurant with a great wine menu, great selection and classical dishes that are well done. And the atmosphere is cool.”