Picture of Victor standing in a bread kitchen.

Alumni Spotlight: Victor Chen, Culinary ’11

Since graduating from ICC’s Professional Culinary Arts program in 2011, Victor has developed a multi-faceted career in the food industry by working for Michelin Star fine-dining restaurants, causal fare gastropubs, corporate catering companies, and farm to table dining. Today, he is working at a bakery in Mountain View, CA called the Midwife and the Baker where he and his team create artisanal breads and pastries for wholesale and their stands at local farmer markets.

“I love my career, the crafts I’ve dedicated my life to, and the training and support that I’ve received from ICC in the various pivotal moments in my career as a chef and baker.”

 

What did your life look like before going to culinary school? 

My life before taking the Culinary Arts program at ICC involved being an accountant, sitting in an office waiting to get out of work to enjoy my one great passion in life: going out with friends to eat. Even though I had a passion of eating delicious meals, I had no idea how to cook or bake and was completely lost in the kitchen. I knew that going into class I would be a complete blank state and actually had a bit of fear even handling the knives we were provided.

What inspired you to enroll at ICC?

The pivotal moment was coming to an open house and observing a class in person. After seeing how each of the students worked on dishes and gained personal feedback in their training, I knew that I had to enroll.

Can you describe what your experience was like as a student and some of your fondest memories?

Having hands-on experience with professional equipment, responsive feedback from the instructors and learning how to work in teams were the best preparation for my career in the culinary industry. There are so many aspects about cooking that you just can’t learn from reading in books or from watching videos online. The best training is when you’re actively in the environment using all your senses to focus on mastering your craft. Will this bread take exactly 10 minutes to bake? Will this sauce only need 10 grams of salt just because it is written in a recipe half a lifetime ago? Learning to deviate from recipes, to save a sauce that is off- balanced in flavor or rescuing a dish that wasn’t coming together were some of the many lessons that I learned in the classroom and kitchen environment at ICC.

My fondest memories were listening to stories that the instructors shared about their own experiences working in the industry and how demanding workloads or inspiring moments helped shaped their career development. The stories really helped to bring a humanizing perspective to being in this rewarding career and to know that even the best trained chefs in the world have made mistakes too.

As a career changer, did you ever have any doubts about leaving accounting and pursuing a career in the food and beverage industry? Where did you find the reassurance to persevere?

Yes. About halfway through my classes, I was still unsure if I really wanted to take my training further and work inside restaurants. The culinary world appeared so mysterious to me and I didn’t know if I would thrive in a professional kitchen. It was through the guidance of my classmates and also of the ICC career services office that helped encourage me to interview at local restaurants. After participating in an internship at a French Brasserie, I was hooked. The training in class was instrumental in helping me feel confident in the restaurant when my chef would ask me to make an emulsified sauce, scale a recipe, or try plating the night’s special—I knew this was where I wanted to be.

What advice do you have for students new to the kitchen?

My advice to new students is to have patience for your craft. Don’t get frustrated when you don’t quite get a technique, if you make mistakes, or if it just seems like you aren’t making leaps and bounds and getting any recognition. Mastering a craft takes a lot of discipline and a lot of time. It may take much longer than you expect but as long as you keep making small improvements every day, work a little cleaner, faster, and tastier, you’ll make progress and reach your goals. If you keep learning, keep improving and avoid making the same mistake twice, you’ll be on the right track.

How have you used your education in the your culinary career?

The training and support that I have received from ICC were crucial to helping to prepare me for my time working as a cook in restaurants as well as my eventual transition to becoming a baker. Technical training in class such as having knife skills, moving quickly, working in a clean fashion, and having enthusiasm for our craft were all elements that were valuable in all of the kitchen environments I would later join. Even as I transitioned from being a savory line cook to becoming a bread baker, those lessons that I learned from ICC were carried forward in providing me an advantageous perspective to learning new techniques, working as a valuable teammate, and honing my expertise in my new-found craft.  Now whenever I go out to eat, or enjoy a delicious pastry, I can look between the lines and analyze all the tender care and techniques used to create complex sauces, intricate lamination between dough’s, and the time and work that went into the craft. Whenever people see an amazing dish and ask if I can recreate it, I know with eagerness that even if I couldn’t right at that moment, I have the training needed to learn. By taking the training I received from ICC and pursuing a career in both the restaurant and bakery worlds, I knew it was one of the best decisions I could have made.

You started out as a cook. How did you discover your love of bread and become a baker?

Two years ago while working the pasta station, I was asked by my chef to fill-in for our pastry chef who was taking time off. After being instructed on how to create these delicious loaves of bread, I felt the need to learn more. Using the resources available to me at the ICC student library, I read about bread baking and researched the craft. It was soon after I decided to make an official pivot in my career and become a bread baker. I was able to make a successful transition from a cook to bread baking because I made use of ICC’s alumni resources: I contacted ICC career services office to seek advice in how to best make the career change and also for contacts in a new city. The amazing team responded with incredible kindness and direction to help get me transition into a new role in a new city. I felt so incredibly supported throughout the process and couldn’t thank the career services office enough.

Tell us about The Midwife and the Baker and what your role is in the bakery.

I am currently working as an artisanal bread baker in a local bakery called The Midwife and the Baker located in Mountain View, California. My role as a bread baker varies day to day but includes responsibilities such as scaling recipes, mixing and developing doughs, shaping, baking bread, organizing distribution, and selling breads to customers at the bakery and at local farmer markets. The job is physically demanding as there are long hours on your feet, constant heavy lifting, and being blasted by the heat of a hot oven, but the rewards of a hard morning’s work to create sensational breads and mastering a craft outweigh all of the physical pains. My favorite part of the day is examining the breads and seeing how any small variation I have made in my technique has on improving the quality of the bread, whether it be shaping the dough tighter or looser, adding more or less water to the dough, or just letting the bread bake a little longer. My mind races to run all of the computations on how all of these little small variations result in the final product, to record them in a mental log of all my experiences and to produce an even better product tomorrow.

What is next for you?

My goal is to tie together all of the past elements of my life experiences: business, savory, and bread baking, and to open my own bakery and café. I believe that with the instructions I have received from ICC and the guidance and practice I have experienced in my time working at restaurants and bakeries will be instrumental in preparing me for success in the near future. Can’t wait to make my dream come true!

Review: Ask The Alumni Event with Tracy Obolsky

Written by Olivia Hamilton
Culinary Arts Student, Level 3

Tracy Obolsky is chef and owner of Rockaway Beach Bakery, as well as a graduate of the Pastry Arts program here at ICC. Prior to attending the French Culinary Institute over 10 years ago and realizing her passion for the food industry, Tracy attended the Pratt Institute. Before embarking on the adventure to open her own bakery, Tracy has had a variety of experience working in restaurants such as Esca, North End Grill, Burrow Food and Drink, and more.  She even helped chef and restaurateur Nick Morgenstern to open a few of his venues.

As Executive Pastry Chef at Esca at the age of 26, Obolsky was challenged to revolve her dishes around Italian cuisine. As a self-proclaimed American influenced chef, she knew that Esca would not be home for long. Eventually landing the same position at Danny Meyers’ North End Grill, Tracy was granted more creative freedom in her recipe development. One of her most prized dishes while at North End Grill was creating a chai-spiced funnel cake.

While she loved working in the city and enjoyed the fast-paced lifestyle, she was commuting to and from Rockaway Beach (Queens) every day for 10 years and it eventually began to take a toll on her. She knew it was time to make the transition to leave the Manhattan restaurant scene and pursue her dream of opening up a bakery.

When Chef Obolsky started to make her dream a reality, she quickly realized she wasn’t as business savvy as she originally had thought. Though she had worked at many great places, there were a lot of things (especially permits) needed that came as a surprise to her. Once she decided on her shop in Riis Park, she said it was, “”literally bricks and a toilet”. When budgeting for the costs of opening her bakery, the biggest shocker was the plumbing costs. She admitted to the audience that while originally estimating a $2,000 budget for plumbing, it wound up costing over $16,000! Investing her life into this project with her husband by her side, the duo also acquired an Angel Investor to help speed up the timing of renovations prior to the grand opening.

Though the chef was finally living her dream, she missed the collaboration that goes on in a restaurant kitchen. That’s when she got the idea for the croissant project. The croissant project is chef Obolsky’s way of continuing to collaborate with local Chefs. Currently, they are working with Breezy’s BBQ to make burnt ends croissant with maple and sea salt.

She expressed to students that working in a seasonal beach town can be tricky, but she is always thinking of ways to keep the customers coming in. At first, they didn’t understand the limited quantity and selection of items, but Chef Obolsky likes to think of it as a boutique bakery where everything is special since she personally fresh bakes items every day. The operation is currently only a 3-man team, one of the employees being her younger brother. He didn’t have any prior experience but has learned very quickly and has a natural talent for knife skills. His pies are so good now that Chef Tracy is unable to tell the difference between ones baked by him or her own.

One of the biggest boots she received in business was when a journalist from the New York Times came into the bakery to review the venue. After the article came out, business doubled! To check out the full NY Times review, click here.