In today’s episode, we speak with Tracy DeWitt, winner of the Food Network Challenge and an educator with nearly 30 years of experience teaching and mentoring aspiring chefs.
Chef Tracy believes that nurturing passion and preparation is more important than focusing on perfection. Taking this approach led her to win two gold medals and one silver medal on the Food Network Challenge. It’s no surprise that her life catchphrase is “sugar happens.” Today, as a Pastry Arts Chef Instructor at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, Tracy supports her students in an inclusive learning environment, where all voices are heard, and all learning styles are welcomed.
Listen as Tracy talks about the drama behind cooking competitions, supporting students to reach their goal, and how to not let “perfection” stop progress.
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Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Chef Tracy Dewitt, a victorious alum of the Food Network Challenge, having won two gold medals and one silver medal on the show. She has also led gold and silver medal-winning teams in two national pastry championships. In 2010, Tracy won the American Culinary Federation Western Regional Pastry Chef of the Year, and in 2011, she competed – and won! – the Competitor’s Choice Award for her depiction of the Grand Canyon.
Tracy has been a chef educator for nearly 30 years at some of the finest schools in Arizona, including Scottsdale Culinary Institute, and Le Cordon Bleu. Today, she is an Escoffier pastry arts chef instructor who supports her students in an inclusive learning environment where all voices are heard and all learning styles are welcome.
Join us today as we chat with Chef Tracy about culinary competitions, her journey to teaching, and the pastry trends to watch in 2022.
And there she is. Good morning, Tracy. How are you?
Tracy Dewitt: Hi Kirk! Hi! How you doing? Thanks for having me.
Kirk Bachmann: Can I just tell you, first of all, it’s amazing to see you. I have no idea where the time goes. Where do the years go? They’ve been kind to you, can I just say right off the bat.
Tracy Dewitt: Thank you.
Kirk Bachmann: Number one, you get an A-plus – as a teacher that resonates, I know – an A-plus for your preparation for our chat today. Can I tell you, I am blown away! I’ve never had so many notes and comments sent my way by a guest, but I am not surprised. Always the teacher, always the pastry chef. Your mise en place is spectacular.
How’s life in Arizona?
Tracy Dewitt: It’s great. I sent you a lot of notes yesterday because I you to know how much I love teaching. You know that teaching is my bag.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s your jam.
Tracy Dewitt: The one-on-one with students is what I live for. We closed classes yesterday and I got to speak with some students one-on-one, and that just filled my heart up with joy. It gave me that push you need as a teacher to keep going.
Things are great here. Fantastic.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. That keeps you going. Thirty years in front of students, always on stage – and we’ll get to the stage in a minute. It never changes for you, right? The class is always changing. The challenges, the opportunities, constantly moving in front of you.
Tracy Dewitt: Yeah, especially with post-pandemic online learning. Online education has turned out to be a miracle for so many people. To hear the testimony from my students on how much they love being able to embrace their passion for cuisine and pastries that never thought they would be able to attend a school because they don’t live near a school. They don’t want to leave their family, and they can’t leave their family. Sometimes many families living under one roof.
I’m really glad to be able to finally have that learning environment that is more broad and open to all learning styles, being inclusive to include everyone in my classroom that never thought they could get there before. People who were watching me on TV or my students before.
I actually had a student in my class who I had at Le Cordon Bleu.
Kirk Bachmann: No. What are the chances?
Tracy Dewitt: Yes, at Escoffier. Leon? I was looking at the name and going, “Man, that looks familiar.” Then I texted him – I think I called him on a Friday. “You haven’t been in class, what’s going on?”
He said, “Chef, it’s me! You remember me?”
“I thought your name sounded familiar. Well, get to class, okay?” Tough love.
Kirk Bachmann: Not on the script, so I’m going to challenge you because I know you prepped a lot. Coming back to that remote learning coming out of the pandemic, how was it for you? Many, many years as an in-person, in-front-of-students chef instructor. How was that transition for you?
I know that you love it. That’s obvious. What were some of the challenges or easy opportunities for you?
Tracy Dewitt: The biggest challenge is when your internet goes out.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s fair. That’s fair.
Tracy Dewitt: Filming in my kitchen, because we couldn’t go to the corporate office or the studios, everything was shut down, I had no ideas that lawnmowers and alarms, and there was construction down the street. I was like, “This is hard!” To create the perfect virtual world to bring people into my kitchen and into my living room and into my office so that they can get to know me better, and so I can share my knowledge with them. The technology has been my biggest challenge.
Kirk Bachmann: I love the fact that you said, “perfect,” because have you learned, as I have, that it doesn’t have to be perfect? It can be organic. It can be real. It’s okay if you hear a little doggie in the back. We’ve grown accustomed to it, right?
Tracy Dewitt: Yeah, but jackhammers? I don’t know. I had to draw the line somewhere. I literally went across the street and asked them, “Could you stop jackhammering for one hour?” They were like, “No. We’re done at five. Sorry.” The house is done now, across the street, so we can go back to filming.
Kirk Bachmann: Good. Good. Hey, I have to ask. Arizona – is that Camelback Mountain behind you?
Tracy Dewitt: Right here? Yes. That is Camelback Mountain. And the Praying Monk, here. And the top of the mountain up there.
Kirk Bachmann: Gorgeous painting. I haven’t been there in many moons, but I can remember climbing around there when I used to visit you down in Scottsdale. Do you know who was on the show the other day? Oh my gosh, I forgot to tell you! Jon-Paul!
Tracy Dewitt: Jon-Paul beat me to it! Aw. Hi Jon-Paul.
Kirk Bachmann: Just barely. Just barely.
Tracy Dewitt: Following your footsteps, Jon-Paul.
Kirk Bachmann: It was great to chat with him, for sure.
Hey, let’s dive into you falling in love with pastry, falling in love with food, falling in love with teaching. I think I read somewhere that you fell in love with the art of making pastries, preparing pastries, during a trip to Paris. Cooking wasn’t your first passion. Was it Paris that sold you?
Tracy Dewitt: Yeah. I had been working at a bakery. Pastries just landed in my lap. I was not dreaming as a six-year-old to become a pastry chef. I was a teenage girl wanting to go to the mall and buy clothes. I just needed some extra cash. I was fifteen when I got my first job at that bakery, but I actually had been working at the library. My dad got me that job, and I did not like the job at the library at all.
Kirk Bachmann: Really quiet.
Tracy Dewitt: Maybe I’m not quiet enough. That’s probably what it was. I used to hide in the elevator and lock the key so I’d be in between floors.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh!
Tracy Dewitt: I’d be like, “La-da-da-da-da.” Just so I could be a little noisy, and just be away from everybody.
Kirk Bachmann: Where was this? Where are we?
Tracy Dewitt: Ridgewood, New Jersey. We’re in north Jersey near the George Washington Bridge.
Kirk Bachmann: What exit?
Tracy Dewitt: 173, I believe.
Kirk Bachmann: Of course you know.
Tracy Dewitt: It could be 168. It depends on if you’re getting off in Midland Park, Fairlawn, Ridgewood, you know. I grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey.
Kirk Bachmann: Lot of cooking and baking in the house growing up?
Tracy Dewitt: No. Not a whole lot. My grandmother made Welsh cookies every year. Those were a tradition. She was from Wales. She came over on the boat, Ellis Island.
Kirk Bachmann: I don’t think I knew that. That’s great. Wow.
Tracy Dewitt: She did a lot of lamb. We ate a lot of lamb roast growing up. My mom cooked a lot, but I didn’t feel like she and I spent a lot of time bonding over cooking. It was more like we were just cooking to feed ourselves.
But then when I decided – actually, I was just walking home from school with my friends and I saw this bakery was opening soon. There was a sign in the window to come on in and apply. I was like, “I hate that library job!” So we went into the bakery where the smells were amazing and the pastries were filling the cabinets. They were just getting ready to open. “We need help!”
So they hired all of us, on the spot, me and two of my friends. After a couple of them gained ten pounds, they quit. We were eating too many pastries. But my friend MaryAnne and I, we stuck it out. We stayed there for a little while. I secretly made her cater her own birthday party. She’ll never forgive me for that. But we catered the whole thing. She thought it was for somebody else, and then the food showed up at her house that night.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it.
Tracy Dewitt: “I can’t believe you made me make my own pastries!”
That job led me to the trip to Paris. I ended up working at that bakery for three years. Last one standing. I became instead of a sales clerk, they brought me into the back room and showed me how to prepare – what did I start with? Chocolate chip cookies. What’s every baker start with? Chocolate chip cookies.
Kirk Bachmann: Cookies of some sort. Yeah.
Tracy Dewitt: Then we went to cheesecake. So I’m still in the creaming mixing method.
Kirk Bachmann: You’re a teenager still.
Tracy Dewitt: But I don’t know it’s the creaming mixing method until I go to school.
Kirk Bachmann: You’re just doing it. Okay.
Tracy Dewitt: I’m just doing it. Scrape, scrape, scrape, scrape, and scrape some more. The mixer, I think it was an 80-quart mixer, probably bigger than I was at the time. When I graduated three years later from high school, they took me to Paris for a food show.
Kirk Bachmann: No way! Really!?
Tracy Dewitt: Parisian pastry food show extravaganza. She handed me the tickets and I thought, “Oh, maybe we’re going to the Jacob Javits Center in New York.” No. Paris!
Kirk Bachmann: Successful bakery, evidently.
Tracy Dewitt: Successful bakery, doing well. I graduated from high school, and that’s why they gave me that present. They helped fund my way into the CIA and got my degree there in 19-blah-blah-blah. Then I went back, got another degree from them in the ‘90s.
Kirk Bachmann: Blah, blah, blah.
Tracy Dewitt: Blah, blah, blah.
Kirk Bachmann: Before you jump off that. Wow! Do you often think of that bakery, those owners? Had they not given you that ticket? You weren’t thinking about a career. You were there for three years; that’s a long time.
Tracy Dewitt: I was afraid of college. I was. I was afraid to college. I had total insecurities about my ability to even attend college. I was scared of it. I thought, “Hmm. Culinary school. It’s only a two-year commitment, not a four-year commitment.”
Kirk Bachmann: Not too far from home.
Tracy Dewitt: Not too far. Right up the river. I came home most weekends, hung out with my family. I don’t know what I was thinking, Kirk! I don’t know what I was thinking. I thought maybe it was going to be easy street, and I realized in the first six weeks. I called my mom, and I’m like, “This is NOT what I thought.”
Kirk Bachmann: Tough. Yeah.
Tracy Dewitt: I just about quit in the first six weeks. They had been feeding me sweet breads and foie gras and I was like, “I just want a hamburger.” My mom came to visit. She took me right to my favorite fast food joint, got me a hamburger.
Kirk Bachmann: Get that fix.
Tracy Dewitt: Look, you can get this fix anytime you want. Now go back in there and figure out how to cook that stuff! She made me go back to it. She didn’t let me quit much.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s fascinating. There’s a book in here somewhere. You have this serendipitous experience with this bakery that does, obviously, very well. They give you this unbelievable gift to Paris for a show. They go with you.
Tracy Dewitt: Yeah.
Kirk Bachmann: You have a chaperone that’s showing you around. Do you remember, were you thinking about culinary school before that?
Tracy Dewitt: Yes. By then, I had already applied to culinary school.
Kirk Bachmann: Got it. Got it.
Tracy Dewitt: I had already applied, and then I was like, “Wow! I should be going to a pastry school, but they didn’t have those back in blah, blah, blah. We had to go to culinary school instead and then when the baking program came around, I went back and took that as well.
Kirk Bachmann: Paris before CIA, or after?
Tracy Dewitt: Before. Graduated high school. Go to Paris, and then that fall, go to college.
Kirk Bachmann: You’re on Cloud Nine. Tell us about Paris. You’re what, 18? 17?
Tracy Dewitt: I’m 17. All I remember was we went to a restaurant called La Tour d’Argent. It overlooked Le Notre Dame.
Kirk Bachmann: Just there.
Tracy Dewitt: Then we went to tour…La Tour d’Argent? Or Notre Dame?
Kirk Bachmann: Both! Both are classic Paris destinations.
Tracy Dewitt: Then I went to Place de Catalogne in some park. I don’t remember. Then it was just patisserie to boulangerie to the charcuterie. It was just from one beautiful shop to the next. Artistry. I love the culture of France. I’m obsessed with the culture of France. One my best friends lives in the south of France, and I go visit her there in Aix-en-Provence. That’s an artist’s dream city.
Kirk Bachmann: Sure. Julia Child thought so.
Tracy Dewitt: It’s amazing there. It was a special trip, and I’ve been back to France three times since then. Just got back from a trip to London. The food, for me, was not as good there. But I love the French culture.
Kirk Bachmann: Getting better. Getting better. According to Stanley Tucci, getting better.
Tracy Dewitt: There’s a lot of culture there, and I love that. I loved growing up outside of New York City because of the culture. Around you, there are ten different people speaking different languages, and I love there. “Where are you from? Where are you from?” I like meeting people and traveling.
Kirk Bachmann: So you’re going to culinary school, and you’re excited about the pastry part of the curriculum and all of that. Pick up from there.
Tracy Dewitt: I thought the culinary side was pretty fascinating. I especially loved when I got out of all those intro classes and got into basics and started getting my hands on knives and making soup and learning about the mother sauces because I thought, “This is something you’ll never lose. You’ll always have this with you.” I can still cook today because I went to the culinary program even though I wanted to be in pastry.
The difference there is that your internship is halfway through instead of at the end. I went to this French restaurant called the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. That internship then led me back to school where my very first class was baking with Rudy Lang. I’ll never forget Rudy Lang. “You gives the breads the Hawaiian punch! Don’t forget the punch!” I learned how to make break from Rudy Lang.
Then I went into the pastry class and that’s where I thrive. That’s cakes, chocolates, candies, sugar anything. I’m just going to jump forward a little bit. As I began teaching that craft of sugar-pulling and chocolate-making and wedding cakes, I began to realize – as you said in the beginning – we can’t be perfect. You need to ditch the perfection idea. I would tell my students, “We need it good and fast, not slow and perfect.” We must not try to obsess on the slow and perfect nature of things. The world’s moving way to fast for that. We have to move quicker.
Kirk Bachmann: How do students react to that?
Tracy Dewitt: They like it because it helps them to lower their stress. Remember, I come from this high-stress, low self-esteem kind of place where I’m trying to build people up – mostly myself at the same time. Life is how you react to it. A lot of people come in. “This happened to me or that happened to me.”
I say, “I know, but let’s focus on the good. What happened that was good that came from that?” We’ve all had trauma. We’ve all had experiences that are hard, but we get through it. We’re here, post-pandemic, talking. We’re going out again.
I think that it’s about forgiveness, that instant forgiveness that Greg Bell talked to us about. Instant forgiveness. Allow yourself to be imperfect. It’s going to weigh you down. You need to love yourself exactly the way you are.
Kirk Bachmann: And mistakes are okay, both practically and spiritually.
Tracy Dewitt: That led me to my catchphrase of life. “Sugar happens.”
Kirk Bachmann: It does indeed.
Tracy Dewitt: We have to sometimes camouflage the sabotage. Because like is full of sabotage. Sometimes it’s self-sabotage. We do it to ourselves sometimes.
That’s the part where, “Well this happened, and that happened!” We call them the excuses. It’s how you react to what happened that really matters. Changing your shift and your focus of your mind to say, “It’s okay that I totally dropped this cake on the ground and now it’s ruined. That’s okay.” People will forgive. We lead with compassion and empathy.
Kirk Bachmann: Do you find that there’s more personal satisfaction, for you, in the example of a student who is just spectacular from day one, like you, or that student who has struggled, but somehow got through that because of your guidance? Maybe not perfect. Maybe not even an A student, but somehow overcame what was preventing them?
Tracy Dewitt: You’re going to make me cry, Kirk. Do you see the tissues?
Kirk Bachmann: Mission accomplished.
Tracy Dewitt: You see me with the tissues.
Kirk Bachmann: No, I love the passion.
Tracy Dewitt: On my MO.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s good.
Tracy Dewitt: I like both. I’m not going to say I don’t like both, but there certainly is that amazing satisfaction of helping someone get to a goal they didn’t see themselves accomplishing. Helping them to accomplish that goal when they had given up all hope otherwise.
The two young ladies messages that I shared with you yesterday just between us, they changed my life. Those kinds of conversations.
Kirk Bachmann: Now you’re going to make me cry.
Tracy Dewitt: My lead called me and said, “Where were you? I couldn’t. I was on with a student. I was just dedicated to that student in the moment and I had to be there.” I love my students. Love my students.
Kirk Bachmann: Let’s go back to Paris for a minute, the first time. Go to CIA. Do the internship. Then you dive into the industry. Here’s where you have to look into your soul. You were on a path, but when was that moment? These are the fascinating comments I love to hear from chefs. When was that day? I can share mine. Even if you’ve been in the industry for a bit, when was that moment when you knew – something happened – that this was what you were meant to do? This was your destination. Was it in the kitchen? In the bakeshop? Walking down the street?
Tracy Dewitt: Maybe it was the moment when my students skipped school so they could come see me in a Food Network competition. They cut class and they drove 11 hours through the night to Denver, Colorado so they could sleep in the parking lot and surprise me in the morning with their joyous love. Those are the moments that I know I’m meant to be a teacher.
Kirk Bachmann: What a beautiful moment! Wow!
Tracy Dewitt: I think I’ve been a teacher longer than I’ve been a chef, and all of my notoriety came when I was a teacher, and that always remained my guiding light.
Oh, geez. Here come the tears, Kirk. What do you have to make me cry for?
Kirk Bachmann: What a beautiful story because it’s selfless, right? It’s unapologetic. It’s vulnerable. It’s good. That’s good. I didn’t expect you to say that. I should’ve expected you to say that. I’m glad you said that. 11 students hop in their cars, drive from the Phoenix/Scottsdale area to Denver to see their teacher.
Tracy Dewitt: They cut my class! It was my class that they cut. I said, “You’re supposed to be there taking an exam!”
Kirk Bachmann: Of course you did.
Tracy Dewitt: They’re like, “But Chef! Come one! We thought we’d come here. We have t-shirts.”
Oh no! There’s your segue, Kirk.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh! I love it. I love it. I have to ask real quick, and we’ll come back to it. It’s always really interesting to me. When you were a student going to Paris, all that stuff, what was your favorite thing to make, and what’s you’re favorite thing to make today, and is it the same?
Tracy Dewitt: It might be. I like making eclairs. I find the eclair to be the perfect pastry.
Kirk Bachmann: French eclairs or German?
Tracy Dewitt: French. Four inches.
Kirk Bachmann: Skinny versus wide?
Tracy Dewitt: Skinny, four inches. They have to be, or Off with your head!
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it.
Tracy Dewitt: Back in the day, that’s how the eclairs had to be. Everything was precision. As you mentioned, I like mise en place. I’m big into preparation. Preparation calms me down because I’m a nervous soul. I get calm when I prepare.
Kirk Bachmann: It takes the anxiety out.
Tracy Dewitt: It does. “Okay, do we have everything? Do we have everything?” You check, you check. You triple check. You double check. Quadruple check. All the check. It sounds a little OCD, actually, now that I say it out loud. “Check! Check! Check! Check!”
Kirk Bachmann: It’s interesting. I think you know my father’s a Meister, a certified master through the German style or process. I never knew why. He used to always challenge me on what-ifs. You open for service. What if the oven doesn’t work? What if the water stops working? What if the electricity goes down? What if the buttercream doesn’t set? What if, what if, what if. I’d always be like, “Yeah, Dad. I’m going to go on the other side of the bench. I’ll just be over here cooking.”
It didn’t make sense then, but it totally makes sense now. You’ve got to be prepared. That removes some of the anxiety. I had a baseball coach that used to say the same thing. What are you nervous about? You’re ready. You’re prepared. You can have anxiety, but don’t be nervous. You’re prepared.
Tracy Dewitt: I remember my brother said while we were competing in Atlantic City for our very first national title that we won. He said, “It was so crazy watching you. It was like a choreographed dance. You guys were just flowing and floating like cogs of the wheel.”
My husband and I, we compete together. Once they turn the clock on and they say, “Go!” Thirteen hours or eight hours, whatever it is, you’re only nervous up to the moment until they say Go. Once they say Go: Here we go. We have a plan. It’s written down. It’s color-coded – It really was color-coded.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s like running a race. Let’s go, as Tom Brady says. You just go for it.
Tracy Dewitt: The way that I figured out. I should hold the thought I have for when you start getting into those competitions.
Kirk Bachmann: Let’s go there. You’ve had a lot of success, obviously, jingling there next to you.
Tracy Dewitt: That’s my first one.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m going to need to call and say, “Listen. Let’s get these into a frame. Come on now!” Get them off the hanger.
Tracy Dewitt: Can we do that? Can we put them on the wall?
Kirk Bachmann: Yes. Right next to Camelback there. Tons of success. Food Network Challenge, National Bread and Pastry Championships. Boy, that just brought back a memory. I remember that. World Pastry Team championship, first place, gold. Silvers. I know you’re going to take this. You’re going to go with this Nashville story. I know you are. What draws you to competition? Because it’s different, and there’s different levels of competition. Bocuse d’Or versus Culinary Olympics. It’s two different mindsets. What draws you, Chef Tracy, to competition? Other than a phone call from me.
Tracy Dewitt: I’m going to blame it all on you, Kirk Bachmann. Kirk is to blame for all of this nonsense. Kirk, you showed up at my school one day, at Le Cordon Bleu of Scottsdale. I said, “Ooh, you want to see my sugar work?!” I brought you over and started pointing out all my sugar sculptures to you. You’re just the kind of guy that remembers that stuff.
A couple months down the road, someone calls you – because you’re important – and they call you. “Kirk, we need help. We need a chef. Someone dropped out of this competition and we need you to help us out.” And you thought, “Who should I call?” You said, “I’ll call…” I think you called Rick Exley and said, “Is Tracy interested? Does Tracy want to do this competition?” Nobody told me it was Food Network. Nobody told me that Susan Nodder would be there, one of my idols. And no one told me that it was going to be on television, and I would have to fly to Memphis, Tennessee. Not Nashville, Memphis.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, that’s right! And we’ll know why in a minute.
Tracy Dewitt: There were five competitors, and I was slotted for fifth place. Let’s just put it that way. I’m the nobody.
Kirk Bachmann: managing your expectations.
Tracy Dewitt: I’m the person filling in at the 11th hour who’s, by the way, never done a competition like that. I had never done one.
I went to my dad for inspiration. He went to Julliard School of Music. A blind pianist and conductor, my dad was. He’s always been that source of inspiration for me. So I decided to make my first show piece a metronome because I wanted it to tick-tock back and forth. I wanted that movement and that beat and the rhythm, because I grew up with that. My dad played the piano my whole life. Forced me to play the piano. No, he didn’t force me. He asked me to play the piano for a while, and I quietly retreated from that.
These kind of competitions you can’t really retreat from. You’re locked in. You’ve got airfare and you’re getting ready to go. What happened is the guy who was supposed to win the competition, the number one, his show piece fell to the floor. This is what happens in sugar work. One little vibration, the whole thing implodes. Then, Susan Nodder who was slotted to beat him for the first spot, then her show piece broke. I’m like, “Look at that! I’m in third place already!”
Kirk Bachmann: Podium, just like that!
Tracy Dewitt: Guess what place I finished in, Kirk? Third place. Okay. So we know where I started. I had to get my bearings. It was a rough competition.
My show piece also broke, but the difference is that I caught it. I was standing on a ladder and I heard it snap, and I held it in my hands. I’m on a ladder. I didn’t know how to get down the ladder. I looked at the cameraman. “Can you hold this for me?”
He said, “No. I’m not allowed to hold that.”
“Well, what good are you?” So I climbed down the ladder with the thing in my hand, and I managed not to fall, myself or it. I put it back up, and I got a bronze medal. It’s in my pile here. It’s in the pile.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I just love it. Did you have time to be nervous?
Tracy Dewitt: Well, I was really nervous through that whole thing? What I realized was that they were really interested in what I was doing. Maybe because I was new. I was the underdog, and these people’s show pieces had just fallen. The cameras were all on me. Then all of a sudden there was a crash, and the cameras went running.
“Oh! If you break something, they come running!” So I took a piece of sugar and I threw it on the ground. I made a noise. Then some cameras came back. I figured out the game pretty quick. I did get some pretty good air time in the beginning.
Kirk Bachmann: I did not know that you did that.
Tracy Dewitt: I even made up a story for the next competition. Ten days later. They called me ten days later. “We need you back for a gingerbread.” Again, 11th hour. “We need you in ten days to come.” I was like, “Whoa!”
I remember going to that one. I said to my friend, “We’ve got to make drama. You have to create drama for this to be good and the cameras.” We got fourth place. That was our drama. Right there, fourth place. We got no medals. We got shut out. I accidentally decided to put the plan together that we would take our gingerbread and we would show the cameras that it was all broken. Not a lie. It actually did break in transit. But we re-baked it all at her uncle’s house.
I can’t tell you how many competitions stuff has broken on the drive up. My husband and I were on our way to Denver and a deer ran in the road, and all of our chocolate stuff broke. We were in the hotel with hair dryers trying to melt chocolate, floating bowls in the bathtub try to create double boilers. Have boards on the carpet trying to remake our roller coaster at the last minute. It is just one crazy development after another.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that examples. Chills for sure when you mentioned that you’ve noticed that the camera followed the drama and you threw some sugar on the ground. Absolutely brilliant. But you’re 100 percent right. They want drama. They want things to go wrong and right.
Tracy Dewitt: My storyline within the Food Network carried on into further competitions. They started to develop my own Food Network rival, and he and I were in the chocolate competition. The judge said, “Well, I don’t think the show piece really makes me happy.” She was talking about my show piece. “Aw. It’s seven feet of chocolate with a little moving roller coaster. What could not make you happy with this?”
I ended up losing that competition. Second place, you don’t win anything for second place. You don’t get a whole lot of notoriety for second place, but we developed a rivalry. I said to the gentleman who won, “Maybe their going to have a rematch.” He said, “I want you on my team. I don’t want to compete against you again.” I thought that was a great compliment. It wasn’t a rivalry that I thought it was. It was a fabricated rivalry by the Food Network to create drama for us.
Kirk Bachmann: There was a time when the Food Network was really starting to – not really move away – but it wasn’t Emeril and Bobby Flay anymore. It was people that we didn’t know coming in and competing. Everyone watched the Food Network for a decade, every single day. Whether you’re in the bathroom trying to create a double boiler, or reconstruct things after a deer runs across the road – this is a message your students will here – did you ever want to quit?
Tracy Dewitt: So many times. The biggest time I wanted to quit was for the 2006 National Bread and Pastry Championship. We practiced our show piece. We had to make a bread show piece and a half chocolate, half sugar show piece. My husband made the bread show piece, and I made the sugar-chocolate show piece. Besides that, we had to do plated desserts, cakes, entremets, frozen entremets, bonbons, Danish bread. You name it. The whole shebang.
We get 13 hours to do that. I think that competition, we practiced 12 times, and my show piece broke seven out of twelve. The first seven times I made it, it never made it to the table, and this was a five-foot sugar sculpture. We would move it, and as soon as I’d land, it would implode on my head. It was so discouraging! “I don’t know what I’m doing! I’m not an engineer! I can’t figure this out!”
But my student, who was very interested in what I was doing, and she came to ever practice that I had. She kept me so organized. Thank you, Maripat Meer . She and her husband, David Meer would film us. They would film every practice that we did from start to finish. Every one, and they would give us CDs of us. He filmed us moving the show piece. He realized, with slow motion analysis, where our weak spots are. “Just put a little padding on that spot. That’s where it keeps breaking.” He was an engineer.
So that’s what we did. We listened to him. We put some putty and glue right there. It never broke again after that. I just thought, “You’re just one little putty nugget away from figuring this out.”
Kirk Bachmann: To be filming, it’s like athletes. They’re constantly filming their style so they can improve.
How do you believe competition can impact a chef’s career, pastry or cuisine?
Tracy Dewitt: Well, it opens up a network of people that you didn’t know last month. Suddenly, you’re in an arena with them. You’re with the best of the best.
I remember working at Le Cordon Bleu, every summer during the World Pastry Forum when all the teams that represented the various nations in this world would come together and compete. They would use our kitchens at school to practice. I watched them and learned how to set myself up. I looked at their mise en place. I looked how they prepared for the competition. It was all about speed.
Every time we practice. We have eight hours to do the competition. First time we practice, it might take us 35 hours to do it. That doesn’t include all the planning. First raw run. Let’s try it. Can you do it in eight hours? Nope! Still here at 23 hours later, still working on it.
Then the next time we did it, we get it down to 28 hours. 23 hours. 23 hours. 18 hours. 15 hours. Each time we practice, we can get it a little tighter, and therefore we could do everything we set out to do, because we put a lot on our plate – no pun intended – compete hard. Compete to win.
We figured out, “I got the judge’s vote.” The Carnival Cruise judge, she was like, “Oh, you had me at ship!” when I made her a big giant cruise ship. I didn’t make the Hershey judge happy, so I realized I needed to make the Carnival Cruise judge happier. That’s how I would win.
I think competitions are less about getting your technical skills down and more about meeting people. It’s about networking and meeting people. That’s what it’s about for me.
Kirk Bachmann: With so much experience. I can recall Jacquy Pfeiffer’s. There was a documentary when he was working on getting his MOF. What people don’t realize is they just see the finished product. There you are in the kitchen or the hall, whatever it is, going to work. What they don’t realize is driving to Denver, swerving to miss a deer, getting on the plane. All this other stuff.
If you could create your own competition, what would that look like?
Tracy Dewitt: It goes back to inclusivity and wanting everybody who can’t afford to compete to be able to compete. I would want to make it so everybody could have access to the same equipment, the same food, the same supplies, and the same space to practice. Maybe even a set number of times. Okay, it’s an even playing field.
Often, when I would go to some of my competitions at the Food Network, I found myself way more prepared than most people there. “Wow, this is our first time trying it!”
“What!? This is your first time trying this show piece? On television!”
“Wow! I don’t have that kind of confidence.” I can’t do that. I would be so scared to put myself out there and not be prepared. I guess my parents must have instilled this incredible work ethic in me, to find that level of preparedness. My culinary schooling did that as well.
Kirk Bachmann: To level the playing field, as you said, some people have the opportunity and some don’t. You had the good fortune of being a chef instructor with access to a kitchen and such. Some don’t have that.
Perfect time to segue to the fact that it’s pretty clear to our viewers that you’re very passionate about educating period, but specifically the next generation of culinary professionals. You have this electric personality that the Food Network saw. Even the cute little action of throwing some sugar on the ground because you were like, “Look at me. Look at me.”
Tracy Dewitt: But I’m the youngest child of three. I was always looking for that attention.
Kirk Bachmann: Pay attention to me. Pay attention to Tracy. I love that. Your motto, coming back to the intro of creating this inclusive space where everyone’s voice can be heard. It’s pretty clear that it’s indicative of the type of person you are. Not just educator, but the type of person you are.
What is it, Chef, that you love – truly love – about teaching?
Tracy Dewitt: Changing lives. Offering hope that your dreams can come true as long as you stay the course. Don’t quit. Stay the course. Don’t quit. It’s hard.
Kirk Bachmann: The course is tough.
Tracy Dewitt: Yeah, the course is tough. All courses are tough. It’s a gauntlet, no matter what course you’re on. It’s a gauntlet of, “Whoa! What’s coming! That’s a lot to take in.”
Kirk Bachmann: But one goal, changing lives. That says a lot. When it comes to your years of experience teaching at the institutions where you taught, and now we’re so fortunate to have you at Escoffier – this is a tricky questions – what have you learned from your students that makes you the educator that you are today?
Tracy Dewitt: My students have taught me that I’m enough. I don’t have to be perfect. I can come in fourth place at a gingerbread competition and still be okay with. I don’t go and compete because I want to win. I actually go there because I want to push myself, and I want to make myself better. It’s hard on the body. It’s a rough haul, doing those kinds of competitions, but I was able to bring all that knowledge back to my students. And say, “Again, I’m going to tell you all, it’s not as much about the technique.” Though we all are, “Technique, technique, technique, technique!” But it’s also about allowing yourself. Break some sugar every once and a while.
When the competitions were over, I asked my students, “Hey, would you guys clean up the mess if I took a baseball bat to my show pieces right now?” They’d been lined up in the hallway. One, two. You saw them. You were there.
They were like, “Yes, Chef! We’ll do it!”
“Great!” So we got the baseball bat out. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! It felt so good! I don’t know why. All that hard work. I conquered it. I conquered it. I conquered it. I was scared to death through the whole thing.
Kirk Bachmann: The journey is a big piece of it. It’s kind of cool to get the W. It’s okay to get the win. Do you remember when you got the first gold and how you felt?
Tracy Dewitt: I thought we were destined for fourth place at that moment. They announced the third place, and then they announced second place. I thought, “Second place was winning! I thought they were going to win!” So then I’m like, “Wait a minute. This feels very familiar, like the gingerbread competition.” It’s either first or fourth. There’s five people here. You can do the math.
My husband said he knew right away because all the cameras came and shifted and locked in on him and me, too, but I wasn’t paying attention. He noticed that all the cameras just sort of turned towards us for a minute. He knew before they announced it. I was blindsided. I had no idea we were going to win that one.
I remember talking to one of my judges on day two. I said, “Chef, I’m so sorry! I left the rubber spatula in the bowl in the freezer.” He’s like, “Yeah, I saw it.” I was like, “Oh, God! He saw it! What else did he see?” I’m always freaking out.
At the end of the competition and it was all over and we’d won, he’s like, “If you could have seen some of those other kitchens!” He was laughing at me because …
Kirk Bachmann: You had a spatula.
Tracy Dewitt: Did I prepare for my meeting today, Kirk? Did I do right? Did I get enough? I’m always trying to over prepare and cover my bases.
Kirk Bachmann: What did you tell your students after you got the first place?
Tracy Dewitt: I’m still sort of in shock. Once you get a gold medal at a national title, then you’re eligible to compete at other national competitions. That opened up all kinds of people calling me. “Can you compete for us?” I recently got a call from Disney+ asking me to do a competition. I was like, “Oh! You’re killing me. You’re killing me, Smalls!” I don’t know if I can do that right now because of life circumstances.
Life has shifted for me into a different phase of life.
Kirk Bachmann: You’re giving back constantly. You have been for a long time. Is there one thing, or are there some things, that you see with your students today that maybe you didn’t get advice on? Man, I wish someone would have told me that, because it would have saved some time? Or as you look back, you know, I’m good! I’m good. My journey was fine.
Tracy Dewitt: As I grow older and realize the repercussions of this kind of a career on your feet all day, squeezing the piping bag, frosting the cakes. You get a little tendinitis in the shoulder. You’ve got arthritis in the wrist. Carpal tunnel sets in. I just can’t do as many of the physical things as I used to be able to do.
Kirk Bachmann: Because blah, blah, blah.
Tracy Dewitt: Because it’s been a while, yeah. It’s been blah, blah, blah years of squeezing the piping bag. I would always try to coach my students into proper: sit up straight. Hold your bag up. Don’t hunch at the shoulders. I was trying to give them good posture, try to help their physique a little bit to maintain this kind of industry.
Kirk Bachmann: Helps the longevity.
Tracy Dewitt: I told you, I have names for all the bone spurs on my feet. After each competition, I developed little bone spurs.
Kirk Bachmann: And you’ve named them.
Tracy Dewitt: I’ve named them. Yes. This is the perfect job for me now.
Kirk Bachmann: I don’t know where the time goes, both today and in general. It’s been amazing staying in touch with you over the years. The name of the podcast is the Ultimate Dish, so before I let you go, I need to hear it. What is the ultimate dish?
Tracy Dewitt: Wow! I think, going off the eclair idea, I’m a big fan of ice cream. I love the craft of making a simple ice cream. That’s the one thing you teach a student. That’s it. It’s just the milk, the sugar, and the egg yolks? Yeah, and then you’ve got to churn it.
I love making ice cream, because you can be so creative with that, and I love pairing it with the perfect brownie or crunchy bar of some sort. An apple streusel crumble bar with ice cream on it. Nothing better than that. Warm apple pie, vanilla ice cream. I’m settling in on that one.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it! I did not. I thought we’re going sugar. I thought we’re in some neighborhood in Paris. I absolutely love it.
Tracy Dewitt: What planet do you live in that that’s not an amazing dish, apple pie with ice cream? I think they make a Tarte Tatin and all the other pomme tarts from France, but honestly, you can keep your frangipane. Just give me a brownie.
Kirk Bachmann: First place. Don’t worry. You’ve got it. I believe you. I’m with you.
It’s funny you said milk, sugar, egg yolks, it reminded me. When you were at CIA, I’m sure Ferdinand Metz was there.
Tracy Dewitt: Yes, he was.
Kirk Bachmann: He did some stuff with us at Cordon Bleu in later years. I can remember him always engaging around students. That was one of his go-tos. He’d have 20 students around him and everyone was nervous. “Who is this guy?” He’d say, “If I gave you milk, sugar, and egg yolks, what would you make?” Oftentimes, people were so nervous they just didn’t spit it out.
Tracy Dewitt: They couldn’t think of it.
Kirk Bachmann: Ice cream!
Tracy Dewitt: Ice cream. Creme anglaise, creme brulee. Flan. Chiboust cream. Diplomat cream. Bavarian cream. I can keep going.
Kirk Bachmann: So simple that it’s almost silly.
Tracy Dewitt: How come we have 20 creams with the same ingredients. Why don’t we just call it the cream. La crème.
Kirk Bachmann: I love the apple pie and ice cream. First guest to prepare like you did, and the first guest to come with apple pie and ice cream.
Tracy Dewitt: Yes, I’m a simpleton. I love, love simple desserts. Don’t give me more than three flavors. That’s all I want. Chocolate, vanilla. No, two flavors. I want chocolate and vanilla.
Kirk Bachmann: I am so grateful for you. So happy that you’re with us, that we get to communicate here and there. You look astonishing. You seem so happy. It’s great to see you. Thank you for joining us for a few minutes today. I really, really appreciate it. I adore you.
Tracy Dewitt: Thank you, Kirk. I adore you as well. I want to thank you for helping me. You don’t even know that you helped me with my career. You were the reason that my life took off in that direction. It changed my life forever, and I will always be grateful to you, Kirk. So thank you.
Kirk Bachmann: You were always throwing sugar on the floor, so I had to do something.
Tracy Dewitt: I was throwing it at you. “You better put me on TV, Kirk!”
I thank you. I thank you so much. I really appreciate you and I know that your heart is in the right place. You just want to bring people together to learn.
Kirk Bachmann: Indeed. Thanks again, Tracy.
Tracy Dewitt: I just want to come together and teach with everybody. I appreciate you taking the time with me today. Thank you.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely.
And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.