Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts
Now a Chef Instructor at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, AZ, Tracy DeWitt began her baking career at the age of 15, when she took a job at a French-Viennese pastry shop in New Jersey. A trip to Paris a few years later left a lasting impression that ignited DeWitt’s passion for fine pastry and motivated her to attend culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America, where she graduated with two degrees, one for Culinary Arts and one for Baking and Pastry. After honing her skills in the pastry departments of various establishments, including the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs, CO, DeWitt landed a job as a culinary instructor, a role which she has embraced for almost 30 years. With a motto of ‘Sugar Happens’, DeWitt’s philosophy is that nurturing passion and preparation is more important than focusing on perfection, a belief she conveys to her students every day. Here she talks about her career journey, the lessons learned from pastry competitions, and her innate love for teaching.
What first drew you to the world of pastry?
When I was 14, I started a part-time job at the local bakery in Ridgewood, N.J. I was fascinated by watching the cake decorator make elaborate wedding cakes, and then the baker would spend every Sunday training me on the laminated dough. From there, it took off, and the bakery owner took me under her wing and showed me the ropes. When I graduated high school, she gave me a plane ticket to Paris, France, to see a confectionery food show (Paris-style). OMG! That trip changed my life and the trajectory of my career. I saw how far you could take a degree in the culinary arts! I was willing to shoot for the stars, so when I returned home, I applied and was accepted into culinary school. My instructors in culinary school had a huge impact on my life and helped to mold me into the person I am today.
Why did you decide to become a culinary teacher?
I remember graduating from culinary school and receiving the ‘Outstanding Baker’ award from my chef instructors. At that moment, I remember thinking about how I would strive to be a teacher and a competitor. After gaining years of field experience, I saw a job opening in the paper for a chef instructor at a prestigious culinary school in my neighborhood. They took a chance on me and let me spread my teaching wings for the first time. Now here I am, nearly 28 years later, and still teaching. Making connections with people is a huge part of the food industry. A pivotal point in my career came when I was introduced to Kirk Bachmann, Escoffier Boulder campus President and Provost. He saw something in my performance as a pastry chef instructor and helped open doors for me in both teaching and competitions. I am forever grateful to Kirk for bringing me onboard at Escoffier and changing the way I view culinary education forever.
What’s the best part of teaching?
My passion for teaching has always been fueled when I realize I have broken through! That moment when I know, “This student GETS IT!” They figured out that “Sugar Happens,” and how to fix it or work with it. Voila, technique!
My greatest strength as a teacher is my ability to break down hard concepts into simple techniques. My students will tell you, I tortured them with butter roses and chocolate piping! But, once you have enough techniques in your toolbox, you will have the knowledge you need to draw from in any culinary endeavor.
I love it when students come back after graduation to tell me that they are the only one in their kitchen who knows how to make a piping cone, and THEY had the know-how to come to the rescue by cranking out the ‘Happy Birthday’ plate. Insert smile :)!
Teaching is my way to help students to see their full potential, build their confidence and encourage them to trust in themselves. One of the greatest rewards during my career was seeing my students work toward becoming successful chefs and instructors in their own right.
Recently, while teaching at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, I have had a significant impact on helping students realize their dream of having their bakery, food truck, catering, or cottage business. I meet with students daily over zoom to help them cost their recipes and price their merchandise for sale to see financial success. Pricing your products for sale is just as important to me as teaching them how to frost a cake or sugar flowers. Today, I continue to work with Escoffier graduates as they open new doors with their talents and entrepreneurial ideas. Many students will continue their education in our Entrepreneurial program to take their cakes to market!
What motivates you as a teacher, and how do you inspire your students?
I am dedicated and devoted to teaching. When students leave my classroom, whether it’s in person or virtual, I hope they feel personally changed and eternally inspired. My recipe for success as an inspirational teacher is to be myself! I know my craft. Now it’s time to see if I can help others develop their skills. If my feedback is sincere, authentic, and has good intentions, it will motivate them every time. Energy begets energy, and that starts with ME! It’s all about bringing energy to my classroom. I am known to break out in some silly song and repeatedly dance to get my point across. “THIN the LEAVES!” I would chant and make my best cheerleading stance, “Superstar” impression (you know, Mary-Katherine-Gallagher-style). All in hopes of seeing sugar leaves on the wedding cake that don’t look as thick as pancakes! (Many of my students who are reading this are laughing right now and chanting along; “Thin the Leaves!!!!”)
What’s the most important lesson you hope to convey to your students?
- A) Believe in yourself!
- B) Remember to maintain your sense of humor.
- C) Ditch your ideas for perfection and swap them for something authentic and from the heart.
- E) Recognize and cherish your individuality.
- F) Tell yourself, and believe it: “YOU can DO IT!”
You’ve done lots of pastry competitions – what’s the benefit of competing, and what are some of the lessons you’ve learned from doing it?
The benefit has always been to learn more and see more of what’s out there. It began when I watched Team France and Team Korea prepare for the 2004 World Pastry Forum at my campus. I watched carefully as they built pop-up kitchens to set up their practice arenas and the meticulous nature in how they set up their mise en place. Every movement was rehearsed and re-rehearsed as if preparing for the Olympics – the Pastry Olympics! I saw what it took to get there and win. I studied the techniques of champions to eventually become Champion in 2006 at the National Bread and Pastry Championship.
The greatest lesson I learned from the competitions was always to challenge yourself. You will know what you can do once you are pushed to your limits. Competition pushes you to your limits. You have to practice, practice, and practice until you run out of time, and then show up and do the best work you can for that day. My brother, David DeWitt, once told me that watching me compete in pastry competitions is like watching a well-choreographed dance with flow and grace, only to culminate with a magnificent sugar showpiece at the end! The name of my first gold medal-winning showpiece has been the guiding TRUTH, “Life is one sweet ride!”
(This article appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)