Meet Chef Joel Reno: The pâtissier who once only needed pastry now kneads pizza

Joel Reno stands in front of a pastry case at his restaurant, Pistores Pizza & Pastry
Joel Reno in front of his fresh pastry case at Pistores Pizza & Pastry in River North. (Amanda Rosenberg/MEDILL)

By Amanda Rosenberg
Medill Reports

In 2012, chef Joel Reno received a call from the head of The French Pastry School in Chicago with an offer to teach. Years later, that job helped Reno meet his wife, receive discounted professional cooking equipment and start his first business. In late December, Reno, now 47, opened Pistores Pizza & Pastry in River North with his wife and co-owner Andrea Alvarez. 

After 30 years in the pastry field, Reno’s transition from profiteroles to pizza was surprisingly seamless, he said. But before he even thought about opening a restaurant, Reno held a series of jobs from dishwashing at The Loft in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to running a 45-person pastry team at a $2.5 billion casino, Encore Boston Harbor. 

Even as a child, Reno served breakfast in bed – cinnamon toast, eggs and coffee – to his parents in Melbourne, Florida. “I can count on one hand the times my parents took us to McDonald’s,” Reno said. His mother, a schoolteacher, and his father, an Air Force veteran, raised Reno to love food. His first real job in high school was as a dishwasher at The Loft, an American restaurant, where he graduated to line cook after a year. 

Following high school, Reno decided not to attend college. Wanting to jump head-first into professional cooking, he took a job in the kitchen of a yacht in St. Thomas. Reno liked cooking on the water but eventually decided, “If I’m gonna do this, I want to do it all the way.” 

Reno proceeded to cook in restaurants and developed a love for gourmet food. Despite low pay and long grueling hours, he said there was nothing else he would rather do. Working at Chicago restaurant Les Nomades under chef Roland Liccioni in 2001, Reno accepted his first official pastry chef position. 

“I just remember making pastry cream custard for the first time, and I was immediately hooked,” Reno said. “I was like, ‘Oh wow, I just put together eggs and cream and vanilla beans, and then all of a sudden, I have this delicious custard.’”

Reno then hopped around restaurants in California, including working as the head pastry chef at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. But he needed a change from daily baking. In 2012, he accepted a teaching position at The French Pastry School, where he had taken classes a few years earlier. 

“He has the sensitivity of a hot food chef and the precision of a pastry chef,” said chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, Reno’s mentor and boss at The French Pastry School. 

“Teaching made me a better chef,” Reno said. “It made me very patient and more understanding. … It really changed my life.”

After five years of teaching, Reno left to bake again at Encore Boston Harbor. Reno had 45 employees who would make up to 7,000 pastries a day. But in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the resort to lay off its entire pastry team, including Reno.

So Reno, who had helped others open pizzerias, decided to grab a slice for himself and start his own pizza shop. 

“One day, he called me, and I was shocked,” said Alvarez, Reno’s wife and restaurant co-owner. “Suddenly he just went, ‘I think I just wanted to do my own pizza place.’ And I was like, ‘Finally.’”

With full support from his wife and colleagues, Reno moved back to Chicago in December 2020 to open Pistores Pizza & Pastry. Pfeiffer sold Reno high-quality equipment from The French Pastry School at a discounted price to kick-start the process. 

But the building he leased was run-down with broken pipes, poor electricity and dead rodents. “It was a disaster,” Reno said. It took a year and a half of construction and designing to finally open the doors.

Today, from the pristine flooring to the glistening pastry case, nothing is ever out of place at Pistores. It’s not your typical mom-and-pop pizza shop.

Reno works from 6 a.m. to midnight daily to keep the pristine and well-run kitchen operating at full capacity. He manages his team, reviews every small decision such as the size of the chicken they order and plans seasonal menu items. 

“I don’t think anybody ever opened a place like this in Chicago,” Pfeiffer said. “Joel and Andrea are going to do extremely well not only because of their talent, but because of how much they care. … They just need to hold on to their seats because it’s going to be one heck of a ride.”

Amanda Rosenberg is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can contact her on LinkedIn or Twitter.