(This article appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
As one of only 11 Certified Master Pastry Chefs in the U.S., Frank Vollkommer is a member of an elite group of professionals at the forefront of the pastry industry. In addition to this distinction, Chef Vollkommer has logged over 30 years of experience in the pastry and confectionery industries, and more than 16 years as an educator. His work in culinary education includes leadership in the development of academic programs, curriculum, instructional design strategies, and assessment at prestigious schools including Johnson and Wales University, The Culinary Institute of America and the New England Culinary Institute. Having recently joined Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts as Director of Culinary Industry Development, Chef Vollkommer took time out of his busy schedule to talk about his past accomplishments, challenges and what the future may hold.
You are one of the few Certified Master Pastry Chefs in the United States, a designation that requires you to pass a rigorous exam. Tell us about your experience with that process, and what it has meant for your career.
When I decided to take the Certified Master Pastry Chef exam, I was an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. I had a goal to reach that certification level to be the best in my field. I recognized that the certification was going to push me both in terms of my ability and technical skill, and it would improve my teaching. I started practicing in 2000, and I participated in several international competitions in order to prepare for the exam.
At the time, the exam was a 10-day test, with a prerequisite that candidates were at the Certified Executive Pastry Chef level, which has its own set of criteria for experience and skill. The exam contained academic components in areas like baking science, culinary fundamentals and food service accounting. The technical competency areas included all aspects of baking and pastry – artisan baking, plated desserts, modern and classical cakes, individual pastries, chocolates, petits fours and decorative work. Each of the first four days began with a written test in the morning followed by a lab session in the afternoon. The original test was organized with the first seven days focusing on categorical skills, and the last couple of days were spent creating a final buffet.
The experience was life changing. The preparation for the exam took me two years of dedicated practice time. Participating in international competitions was a great way to push my skill level, be assessed by other chefs and refine my technique. But it was also a way to work on my stamina; both mentally and physically in order to make it through a 10-day exam. After a couple of days of trying to perform at that level, you start to become fatigued. When that happens, a candidate might start to make mistakes. I viewed those competitions and that activity and that dedicated practice time as a necessary part of my preparation.
The Certified Master Pastry Chef exam was reconfigured to an eight-day format in 2014. There has been recent discussion and committee work toward the creation of a test involving two, four-day modules taken separately.
What was the motivation behind applying for the CMPC examination? Was this a personal goal, professionally driven, or perhaps a combination thereof?
It was definitely a combination of those two things. On the personal side and in terms of aspiration, I had something to prove, and I wanted to push myself to accomplish reaching that goal for myself. Professionally, I knew that it would help to advance my career. It would improve my ability, my teaching practice, and my general marketability in the baking and pastry industry.
What was the toughest part of the examination for you personally, and why?
During the exam, there were moments where I had some challenges and needed to make some adjustments. Success was a lot about being flexible enough to adapt to and having the mental perseverance to push through challenges. Mistakes in the kitchen happen, especially when you’re fatigued, and there’s so much at stake. One of these moments happened on the last day of the exam, in the final hour while I cleaned and organized the kitchen space. The proctor of the exam told me that my chocolate showpiece on display in another room had broken; perhaps a result of someone bumping the table to get a better look. My heart sank at the thought that I would fail so close to the end. Over the next few hours, I wrestled with a feeling of defeat as I waited for the score results from the jury. Relief came when I learned that the showpiece had been scored prior to being damaged, and that I had achieved a successful result. The moment of realization that I had passed the exam brought on a wave of emotion – a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of relief that it was over.
I put a lot of effort and time into making sure that I have relevant ideas, and that I’m up to date with what’s happening in the industry
In addition to being a CMPC, you were a gold medalist in the Culinary Olympics. Can you describe the amount of work that it took just to prepare for that level of competition?
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in the Culinary Olympics with a team from the CIA. We did a couple of international competitions to practice for the Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany. That process took almost two years, around 18 months of continuous practice, which involved recreating our categories on a weekly basis. I was teaching in the morning until around 2:00 in the afternoon, then I would find a kitchen space and start working on my pastry program every day; sometimes into the night. After everyone had gone home, I would be the last one in the building working on entremets, showpieces, plated desserts, confections and petits fours. I would assemble all of that in a practice session on Saturdays and Sundays. We would assess all the components and take notes, make adjustments, and then do it again the following week. It was quite a rigorous 18 months or so to prepare. I remember being constantly tired.
For the pastry professionals who have an interest in competing, whether locally or on a global stage like the Culinary Olympics, what’s your best competition advice?
My best competition advice would be to read the rules and get lots of feedback from other professionals on your practice. Socialize your ideas; let other chefs taste your food and see your work. Take feedback from a wide variety of sources to get lots of different perspectives. Don’t be afraid to push the envelope a little bit, as long as you’re staying within the rules. To do this you have to be a little bit daring in your technical approach. You will want to show solid technique in everything that you present so that it reflects a high level of competency and refinement.
Drawing from my experience in competing, sometimes you get into a situation where you’re really committed to an idea, and it becomes difficult for you to absorb feedback and to change direction. So you have to be really flexible. Sometimes it requires throwing out an idea or a concept and starting over and that’s okay, it’s part of the process. As long as you accept the fact that that practice is helping you improve one component at a time and embrace the idea that it’s growth, even when it doesn’t go well, it still contains valuable learnings.
You recently did a post on IG talking about how you were working on formulations that extend the shelf life of bonbons. What did you learn about ingredient function in this application? Is this R&D testing – and staying abreast of the latest techniques – an important part of your teaching and curriculum management?
Testing out new things and growing skills is an important part of education and the development of educational content. Also, for me as a professional, it’s important to stay abreast of new techniques and technologies. I put a lot of effort and time into making sure that I have relevant ideas, and that I’m up to date with what’s happening in the industry. So, a lot of the work that I do is motivated by a drive to grow my skills and to stay current. More specifically, I consider myself a lifelong learner when it comes to my craft. For example, I work on ingredient formulations to do things like reduce water activity, improve texture and mouthfeel. With the trends of our industry in focus, Auguste Escoffier has recently launched a plant-based program. I’ve been doing some research on vegan and plant-based pastry and confectionery for the contribution of educational content in the new program offerings.
What is one of your favorite techniques or proficiencies – whether it be right now or of all-time?
A few months ago, I submitted an article to Pastry Arts Magazine on creating stencils with a vinyl cutting machine. To put some context around that- before the technology of a digital plotter printer was possible, I learned how to create hand drawn stencils for show pieces, entremets and decorative work that were cut using an X-Acto knife. These types of stencils were used with an airbrush, as a guide for cutting or for spreading mediums such as chocolate. More recently, I’ve been having a lot of fun with the vinyl cutter and enjoying the connection between some new technology and great technique in terms of making clean designs, whether it be decorative or for edible pastry components.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve taught a lot of courses on decorative sugar and chocolate work. One of the most important dexterous and artistic skills is being able to draw, create a template, and cut it out with a knife with some accuracy. Now, I have this way to show students both. This is how it works when you do it by hand, kind of old-fashioned way, organically, and now that we have this technology, here’s another way to do it.
Can you share any technical tips or considerations for someone wanting to master this particular application?
Start with dexterous hand skills. As a pastry chef, I think the skill of drawing is really important. To be able to sketch out ideas for entremets, plated desserts, individual pastries or show pieces. I would say to practice using drawing as a way to represent your idea, and then converting those to physical designs. This is a good way to practice and refine ideas; then when you add a little bit of technology it streamlines the process.
What are some of your current flavor favorites and how are you working with them – whether in testing or final forms?
Recently, I’ve been using a stone grinder made by 100%Chef. It’s called a Twin Stones grinder. I’ve been using that to experiment a lot with dehydrated fruit powders and couverture to make my own flavored chocolates. Things like dehydrated raspberry powder, a little bit of cocoa butter, some white chocolate, and some time in the stone grinder. You get these great colors and nice tart flavor. The same thing can be done with virtually any dehydrated powder such as matcha tea or dried herbs, for example.
Employers have recognized the need for a shift in approach to attract and retain talent in the food service industry.
Are these fillings for chocolates you’re talking about?
They can be fillings, or they can be used in panning, which I’ve been doing a lot of work with recently. You can also use them in molded chocolate tablets, chocolate bonbons-It’s a pretty versatile technique.
Is there a technique that you use in your desserts in an unusual or distinctive way?
I have kind of a classic background, and I really enjoyed becoming proficient at some of the old-school dexterous techniques. Our industry kind of moved away from them for a number of years. One of the things that I really have enjoyed recently is the trends that revisit those classic, dexterous techniques.
One of the things that I’m looking at as I do some creative work is; what’s the next classical trend that’s going to come back? For example, the use of dexterous piping ability blended with modern entremets that are made using silicone molds. When I was learning early in my career, silicone molds didn’t exist. So generally, I’m enjoying the idea of taking classical techniques and converting them to modern uses.
You’ve recently joined with Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts as Director of Culinary Industry Development; what is the work that you are embarking on? Any initiatives or strategic directions that you are working on?
My role with Auguste Escoffier is multifaceted. I work primarily on the development of industry relationships. Through these efforts, I collaborate with a number of teams, including marketing, information technology, instructional design, academics and career services. As a chef, one of my favorite aspects is the work I do with faculty on educational content development and video production. In addition, I have enjoyed conceptualizing and participating in the development of several exciting industry changing initiatives.
As you know, the pandemic has created a national staffing crisis across our industry. Many of our employer partners have said that they’re experiencing this challenge in epic proportions. Employers have recognized the need for a shift in approach to attract and retain talent in the food service industry. For this reason, I think that it’s actually a great time for students and recent graduates to enter an industry that is changing for the better. I can’t give you the recipe to the secret sauce, but our focus at Escoffier is to partner with the industry to find solutions to these challenges.
Photos courtesy of Frank Vollkommer