In this episode we speak with Chef Frank Vollkommer, the Director of Culinary Industry Development at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, and one of only 11 Certified Master Pastry Chefs in the nation – the highest level of pastry chef certification that one can receive.
Frank carries decades of experience as a chef, educator, business owner, and research & development chef. His creations have been featured in publications such as So Good: The Magazine of Haute Patisserie, Pastry Arts Magazine and Baking and Pastry North America. To top it off, he’s also a champion motorcycle road racer and gold medal winner at the Culinary Olympics.
Listen as Chef Frank shares his thoughts on his career success, entrepreneurship, culinary R&D, and honing one’s craft while taking on challenges.
Kirk Bachmann: Hello everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode we’re featuring Chef Frank Vollkommer, certified Master Pastry Chef® and the Director of Culinary Industry Development at Escoffier, and also one of only 11 Certified Master Pastry Chefs in the nation.
Chef Frank has built an amazing brand over the past 30 years in culinary education, and his creations have garnered extensive awards, and are featured in publications such as So Good: The Magazine of Haute Patisserie and Pastry Arts Magazine. In his spare time, he’s also a champion motorcycle road racer. Join us today as we chat with Frank about his amazing career, culinary research & development, and his keys to success.
Good morning, Chef. How are you? Thanks so much for being here.
Frank Vollkommer: Good morning, Chef! Thank you for having me.
Kirk Bachmann: You bet, I’m excited to see you. What do you got going on behind you there? It’s so beautiful.
Frank Vollkommer: These are sugar showpieces that I made in the last couple of years. The one over my shoulder on this side is all representative of food and culinary arts, cooking, pulled sugar, blown sugar, pastillage, molded and some hand form stuff. The one on this side is a lily pad and floral theme that I did last spring.
Kirk Bachmann: So gorgeous. Now I think we all know what sugar is. But pastillage, did you say? Can you help us with that?
Frank Vollkommer: Pastillage is a dome made out of mostly sugar, a little bit of corn starch, some gelatin, sometimes it’s a little tiny bit of glucose to make it form more easily. You roll it out as thin as possible, then shape it, and it dries. It’s a fantastic sugar medium for things like airbrushing and making structural items. It’s pretty strong, a lot like plaster when it’s dry.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. My eight-year-old, Grayson, her nickname is Sugar. She would be all over those for sure. Hey, we said competition at the onset, and I saw some stuff on Instagram. I’m gonna embarrass you here a little bit, but…motorcycle road racing? What? How did that happen? The picture I saw…I’m pretty sure your left knee was touching the ground. Are you going like 300 miles an hour? Like what’s going on with this?
Frank Vollkommer: I’ve always been into motorcycles. At a really young age my dad took me to the racetrack, and I got to watch all the great road racing heroes of that era. And I said, “Someday I’d like to do that.” And it took me a long time to be able to do it. But during the season I compete in a road racing series here in the Midwest, the CCS Midwest Championship Series. I got my start in New Hampshire in the New England CCS series. I’ve been racing for…I think this is my third season. Last year, I was fortunate enough to clinch an amateur 500 CC championship. And I’m going to try to repeat that here in the Midwest this year. I’m off to a good start, the results of the weekend were very good. I had seven races and seven wins. I’m really proud of that.
Kirk Bachmann: The Michael Phelps of the culinary world now in the racing world. So, it’s not a midlife crisis at all, right? I mean, this is your lifelong passion.
Frank Vollkommer: No, it’s chronic. (laughter) Motorcycles are very important to me. And I get a lot of energy from doing things outside of cooking and pastry. Motorcycle riding, motorcycle racing is one of those things that just gives me energy.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that…energy and be creative.
Frank Vollkommer: The competition is also really fierce, and that motivates me a lot.
Kirk Bachmann: Is there something with chefs and speed? I’ve got a motorcycle, too, but believe me, I’m horizontal on it. I just putz around. But I’ve got friends, and I’ve got chefs here at Escoffier that have fast cars, and they’re really into it. Is there a correlation between that excitement, that challenge that relates to the chef world as well?
Frank Vollkommer: I would say that there is a correlation between the adrenaline you get racing motorcycles, and the similar feeling when you’re working on the line, and you’ve got a full board of tickets. But I would say the connection that I make with motorcycles, and with racing in particular, is the love for the technical aspects. One of the reasons I love pastry is it’s perfect combination of science, and technical skill, and creativity. And you need a little bit of both. Motorcycle racing is very much the same. There’s a dexterous component to it. There is an art to making it happen, doing it, and doing it fast. And then there’s a lot of technical…I’m really kind of a tech nerd when it comes to analyzing the details.
Kirk Bachmann: And it’s all gotta work, right? It’s gotta work that day when you get on the track, right?
Frank Vollkommer: When all those things come together, whether it’s pastry or motorcycle racing, you have good results.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Along those same lines, and we’ll come back to racing, everything coming together at the perfect time…a lot of people don’t know that the culinary world has an Olympics that occurs every four years, and it takes place over in Europe. And you’ve been over there, and you’ve won medals over there as well. Let’s come back to the correlation, but can you tell our audience just a little bit more about that level of competition? Is that the highest level of competition in our field?
Frank Vollkommer: I think so. The Culinary Olympics happens every four years, usually in Germany. And a few years back, I was fortunate enough to be part of a team that went. As practice for the Olympics, we went to several other international competitions, to work out the program, with the cold food and with the hot food competitions. And that preceded my Master Pastry Chef certification exam. So, I kind of used it as practice – both of my skills and improving my stamina in terms of working at that level – for long periods of time.
I think that competition represents the best opportunity to push yourself in whatever your vocation or profession is. Because when you’re practicing with that much intention, and you’re analyzing the details and being a critical thinker about your performance, you’re open to improvements or to constructive criticism, and you try to do it better every time. So, there’s a direct correlation between improving your professional skills and competition, based on how you prepare for it.
Kirk Bachmann: I love some of these keywords for our audience – pushing yourself, critical thinking, intention. Obviously, before you got to that level, I mean, you’ve got to be…by the way, your last name in German means perfection. So, lots of perfection going on here, both on the track and in the kitchen, right? Or intention. (laughter)
Frank Vollkommer: I strive to get as close as possible.
Kirk Bachmann: I absolutely love it. So let’s back up a few years and talk about…obviously, you had a passion for the track and motorcycles, and I totally, totally get that. When did this passion for the pastry arts come? I mean, to get to the top of your craft – did it start out in the cuisine kitchen or your grandma’s kitchen? Tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are.
Frank Vollkommer: Interestingly enough, motorcycles may have been somewhat responsible for my entry into the culinary profession. (laughter)
Kirk Bachman: Of course. (laughter)
Frank Vollkommer: I was racing motocross and endurance dirt racing at an early age, and at some point, it starts to get expensive. My dad said, “I think you’re going to need to get a job, chief.” So I knocked on the door of one of my local restaurant establishments and asked if I could have a job. And the gentleman that answered the door tossed an apron at me and said, “You start today.” So I started as a dishwasher in a kitchen, and worked my way from dishwasher to prep cook, and over the next couple of years, from prep cook to eventually sous chef. In my early 20s, I think I was 20 or 21 years old, I got to an executive chef level in what I considered to be a really nice establishment. I was always interested in pastry for the reasons I mentioned earlier, the science and the technique and the artistic expression that was available to me through that medium.
I used to keep more than one job, and my full-time job was as a chef, and my part-time job was as a pastry cook, assistant baker. I would go to restaurants early in the morning, make their desserts, and then rush over to my real job and start getting set up for service. I did that for a few years. At some point, I decided that if I wanted to make a transition into pastry, and if I wanted to really grow my career to greater potential, I would have to stop what I was doing and go to school. I had been saving my money – whatever I hadn’t spent on motorcycles was in a coffee can – and I enrolled in culinary school, went, and got a degree. The idea was that I would transition to pastry when I got out of school. And the reality is I went back into kitchens and also working in a pastry role. But more than a few times when working in the pastry department in a hotel, when someone found out I could cook, I ended up back on the line.
Kirk Bachmann: Of course, of course…yeah. (laughter) Get over here, Frank.
Frank Vollkommer: It did take me a few years to make that transition. But eventually I did.
Kirk Bachmann: And transition you did. Again, fast forward – tons of hard work, zooming back and forth between the properties, presumably on your motorcycle, and working your way up. And I said earlier, when we introduced you, that you’re a Certified Master Pastry Chef, so time to clarify that for everyone.
The title of Certified Master Pastry Chef, for those who don’t know, is presented solely by the American Culinary Federation, and it is the highest level of certification that a chef can receive. And you are, Frank, only one of 11 with this title in our country – so a very, very prestigious achievement. Can you talk a little bit about how you got there? Maybe even just a little bit about the exam itself? How do you get to that level? I’ve heard the stories, and I’m a Certified Executive Chef®, as you are, but there’s a gap between an Executive Chef and then to get to the Master Chef level. So maybe share just a little bit of that with our audience.
Frank Vollkommer: Certainly, and thank you. In the early 2000s, I was a Certified Executive Pastry Chef®. So through the American Culinary Federation, that’s a combination of academic testing and a practical, and then some professional experience requirements that get you to that level. Then you mentioned, there is a gap there in terms of preparing yourself for Certified Master Chef or Certified Master Pastry Chef. During that period of time, I did some competitions, and I used that to build my credentials and build my credibility within the culinary and baking and pastry professional field with colleagues. At some point, I recognized that I wanted to try to go to that next level. I asked for the support of a Master Pastry Chef friend of mine, and I was able to get an endorsement from those chefs and fill out the application. And a year later, after lots of really dedicated practice, I took the ten-day…at the time it was a ten-day exam.
Kirk Bachmann: Ten days. Ten full days…okay.
Frank Vollkommer: The way that works is – and this is the previous iteration of the exam – you would take your academic tests in the morning, so that might be baking science, it might be food service, math, accounting, a little bit about wine and spirits. It really broadly covers all of the aspects that would be on the academic side of our industry. And then you would transition into the kitchen. Each day had a theme of focus around a specific genre within the field. So it might be plated desserts, it might be entremet cakes, chocolate bon bons, petit fours, individual pastries, classic show pieces, etc.
Kirk Bachmann: So…everything.
Frank Vollkommer: Yeah, pretty much.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s like if you have a master’s degree in music, and you ask that person what instrument they play, and they say, “All of them.” (laughter)
Frank Vollkommer: All of them. (laughter) Yes, it’s quite competent, including some baking, which was also really interesting. So my skills on the baking side with artisan breads, with viennoiserie, with bakery items like pâte-à-choux, and making tartlets and things like that.
Kirk Bachmann: Classic, yeah.
Frank Vollkommer: Yeah, it all had to be worked out. I practiced a lot before the exam. And I wrote a book for myself to follow along, during that exam time, that had all of the recipes, the mise-en-place, and a timeline by the minute that I needed to follow in order to make it on time every day for each of the requirements. And it was really pretty tight to make it through each of those segments, and you want to use all of the time available to you and go to the Master Chef-level delivery.It’s not a competition. It’s a practical exam of sorts, but your product should be at a level that’s approaching competition.
Kirk Bachmann: And speaking to others that have achieved that level, the common denominator from what I’m told is that you don’t go to this exam to learn. You either know your craft at that time when it’s time to perform or you don’t. Right?
Frank Vollkommer: I would say the aspect of it that was most critical was having enough experience to address challenges that occurred during that time. I had this really specific timeline, but if something happened, and maybe the oven didn’t come up to temperature, or a little too warm in the kitchen for chocolate…how do you deal with that? That was a key learning for me in terms of how to manage a crisis.
Kirk Bachmann: Do you become in many ways…in France, when a chef rises to that level, they no longer compete -they mentor, they coach, they teach. Is it the same with the American Culinary Federation level? Or are you still competing?
Frank Vollkommer: No, I think that it’s individual. I’m not opposed to competing. I’m a very competitive person.
Kirk Bachmann: Obviously. (laughter) It’s just on two wheels going 175 miles an hour now, right?
Frank Vollkommer: (laughter) I think that competition and certification both represent opportunities to really push yourself outside of your comfort zone and learn a lot. I’m what I consider a lifelong learner. And the way to do that is to be mentally flexible, and present yourself with opportunities to grow, and learn, and not be okay with status quo.
Kirk Bachmann: And you’ve never been…I look at your body of work – we’re so happy that you’re at Escoffier as well. So this whole idea of teaching to the next level, to the next generation coming up was something that was really interesting to you, and you taught at some very reputable, culinary-focused institutions over the years. Of course, now you’re with Escoffier. What would you say are some of your key takeaways as an educator now? You’ve recently achieved a master’s degree in education as well, so congratulations there.
Frank Vollkommer: Thank you.
Kirk Bachmann: But what are some of the key takeaways as an educator now? And you’re still only 30 – it’s unbelievable. (laughter) Ladies and gentlemen, it’s unbelievable.
Frank Vollkommer: That’s it, every year it’s 30 again. (laughter)
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, absolutely. (laughter)
Frank Vollkommer: Education was never really part of the plan for my career. When I had my first opportunity to teach was New England Culinary Institute. At the time, I thought that being a good technician equated to being a good teacher, and over time I learned that education and teaching is in itself its own science, art, and vocation that requires the same level of determined and focused practice to your craft, that being a good chef does.
So my focus started to shift. Eventually I went to teach at the Culinary Institute of America for almost 10 years, then Johnson & Wales University. When I kind of reflected on what my career path was, I realized that I was in education to stay, and that I should really do something to get my education on track as a teacher. So I enrolled in the master’s degree program, and just finished that up recently. But a key takeaway, I would say, is breaking down skills and theories to their simplest components and really focusing in on fundamentals. And being really determined in your practice of those fundamentals.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. It’s kind of like you’re racing as well, right? It’s the fundamentals of getting on that bike, stepping into the kitchen. Just to kind of fast forward a little bit now, how does all of that translate into a really interesting topic that we hear and read about a lot today, and that is culinary research & development. Would you say that’s a bucket in the education space? Or is it more of a business space, in your opinion?
Frank Vollkommer: I think it’s absolutely its own…it can be its own career path. Research & development or product development – I’ve done some in the past for some really great companies. Usually you have some guidance in terms of the scope of a project. For me, it’s really exciting and challenging to work within those parameters. It might be ingredient-based that might be functionality, it might be, “We want it to look and taste a certain way.” Those things represent challenges on the creative side, and on the science and technique side. Back to those fundamentals – you really need to understand the science and have those fundamentals in place in order to meet those criteria and be successful. So again, a good balance of understanding good, solid culinary and baking & pastry fundamentals, the science and technique, and then you can hit those targets more easily. But it’s a really interesting field.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, absolutely. And a great field for our current students and graduates to explore, for sure. While we’re on the industry, any thoughts on the current state of the food service industry? We’re hoping that pandemic is starting to appear in our rearview mirror, certainly. Any advice for aspiring culinarians and explorers who are considering a career in our industry?
Frank Vollkommer: Absolutely. 2020 was a very difficult year for the restaurant, hospitality, and service industries, and I think that as we come out of the pandemic, and things start to improve, I feel that the our industry is going to have a resurgence – a really strong comeback. There’s a shortage of skilled chefs, technicians for the industry, and there’s going to be a tremendous opportunity for anyone entering that market space in 2021 or moving forward. It’s a really good time to be to be an aspiring culinarian.
I also have a very strong entrepreneurial spirit. I owned my own cafe, the Bakery Cafe, for about five years. I had three locations and 30 employees, and I’m really proud of that. I learned a tremendous amount in that time. And my advice to aspiring entrepreneurs would be to get out there, work for other people, gain some experience, ask lots of questions, start developing your plan early. It takes a few years to develop a concept, to develop a business plan, and then really have everything in place before you open. And then, just surround yourself with good people, good partners, family.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that.
Frank Vollkommer: It does take a village to open a business and keep it operational.
Kirk Bachmann: …And be successful, yeah. In addition to all that, perfect segue to…if you could just add a couple more thoughts about what is your mindset? And what’s the mindset that an aspiring entrepreneur should have, in your opinion?
Frank Vollkommer: Keeping it somewhat simple, do something that you’re really good at, that’s replicable in your absence, and build a business that can be sustainable. One of my mistakes was I built something that was very difficult to maintain.
Kirk Bachmann: Frank had to be there. (laughter)
Frank Vollkommer: There are so many moving parts. I tried to do everything, and that was very difficult to to manage. In retrospect, I would say simplify a little bit and scale up very slowly. Usually, there’s this excitement and initial success, and your customers will say, “You should open a second location, or you should open in my town.”
Kirk Bachmann: Sure, sure. (laughter)
Frank Vollkommer: And I did that. I expanded very quickly, and it became almost unmanageable. So I would say, start slow, build something that’s sustainable, and that you can replicate somewhere else when the time is right, and you’ll have a much greater percentage of success.
Kirk Bachmann: The simplicity advice is really, really important. I’ve read that screenplay writers also say the same thing. Keep it simple and keep it familiar. Work with something that you understand. We’ve got a little bit of time left here, Chef. I’m really, really curious, if you can share, is there something pretty interesting that you’re working on right now?
Frank Vollkommer: Well, I’m always working on several projects at once. On the creative side, I’m working on some really interesting pastry that would utilize a 3D-printed shell as the mold, instead of silicone or metal rings or plastic.
Kirk Bachmann: Fascinating.
Frank Vollkommer: I’m working with some friends of mine. Their specialty is 3D sugar printing, and so we’re designing a couple of shapes that would get filled with things like cake, biscuit, cream, mousses, ganache, those types of things. And it would take on the appearance of whatever the flavor theme is.
Kirk Bachmann: I think you said printed food? (laughter)
Frank Vollkommer: That’s correct, 3D-printed food. (laughter)
Kirk Bachmann: Unbelievable. Unbelievable.
Frank Vollkommer: That’s a creative project. I’m always trying to improve. I’m an educator. So I’m always working on education projects to improve the way that educational delivery happens.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it. As we wrap up, first of all, Chef, thank you so much. Congratulations on so much success in your career and more success to come. I think it would be real cool. The name of our podcast is The Ultimate Dish. So I will say to you, Chef Frank, what is the ultimate dish?
Frank Vollkommer: Well, I’m going to give you two answers.
Kirk Bachmann: Of course you are. (laughter)
Frank Vollkommer: I need to give you the ultimate dish on the culinary and the ultimate dish on the baking & pastry side. So, for the pastry side, it’s a modernized version of carrot cake. It has been a recipe that has won some accolades for me in the past and gotten me noticed, and I would say that’s my go-to. I took the components of carrot cake, which everybody loves – really simple – that carrot sponge with the with the cream cheese icing, and I broke that down, created a sponge that uses carrot puree as the liquid. So it’s the nice, bright orange color. It’s really moist, and it has a nice carrot flavor, and then all the spices that you would associate with carrot cake. The cream cheese icing that became like a fromage blanc, kind of a cream cheese mousse – it has a little tartness to it, a little lemon zest. When you build this entremet or a cake, if you close your eyes and eat it, it’s just like carrot cake, a little less sweet, but it has a completely different mouthfeel and flavor delivery.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it, i love it.
Frank Vollkommer: It’s great to revisit the classics. On the culinary side, I love my comfort food. Every Sunday, I make pasta at home. That’s my go-to for a recipe on the weekends. I make a spinach pasta or mushroom pasta, maybe a plant-based filling to go inside there. Now that we can have guests over, I invite people, and you know, we make a thing out of shaping the pasta and cooking together. It’s a great combination of cooking and social experience.
Kirk Bachmann: Are your friends surprised when the Master Pastry Chef rocks out the cuisine? The culinary side? (laughter)
Frank Vollkommer: Most people think of me as a pastry chef, and they’re generally surprised when they find out I can cook.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I absolutely love it. Chef, thank you so much for spending some time. I hope you’ll come back. We’ll get you in here. Maybe we’ll talk more about that carrot cake. It’s my kids’ favorite, by the way.
Frank Vollkommer: Yeah, I can share the recipe on our next visit.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it. Best of luck always, and thank you again for being with us on The Ultimate Dish.
Frank Vollkommer: Thank you.