Frank and Jessica Vollkommer are the culinary brains
behind Saratoga National Golf Club’s revamped restaurant,
banquet and baking facilities. The husband-and-wife team
share tips for working together at home and on the job.
How did each of you get into the professional pastry and culinary fields?
Frank: I was interested in food from an early age, as my parents, who suffered many inedible meals, will attest. I started working in kitchens as a dishwasher at age 15. I asked numerous questions, practiced the techniques I was shown and gradually took on more food related responsibilities as my skills warranted. And, the cooks were all too happy to give the new kid their menial prep tasks. I made the official transition to “cook” the day the crew called in sick with hangovers; the owner stood in the kitchen door to offer the promotion and an extra fifty cents an hour. I worked in several restaurants and hotels as a chef, sometimes holding a second job as a baker or pastry cook to satisfy my interests in baking and pastry arts. I did not make the transition to pastry until after I graduated from New England Culinary Institute in my mid-twenties.
Jessica: I grew up cooking with my mom at home. We would make dinner or bake cookies together, and eventually I developed an interest in food as a career. In high school, my guidance counselor and I determined the Culinary Institute of America to be a perfect fit for college. Some professional industry experience is required to attend the CIA. My first job was at The Union League Club of Chicago, where I met my mentor and friend, Chef Michael Garbin. Chef Garbin was instrumental in preparing me for school and the industry, although he was somewhat skeptical of my choice to become a pastry chef as opposed to staying on the “hot side.” I attended the CIA's Baking and Pastry program, graduating with a bachelor's degree and was valedictorian of my class.
How did you end up working together at Saratoga National Golf Club (SNGC)?
Jessica: I met Frank as an instructor while attending the CIA. As an apprentice, I worked with him on a number of projects including the Culinary Olympics, Hotelympia, the New York Food Show and too many special school functions to remember. We worked very well together and became friends. After graduation, we spent some time together outside of school and away from the butter, sugar, eggs and flour only to realize that we had much more in common. Our relationship grew, and eventually we married.
Frank: SNGC re-opened this year with entirely revamped restaurant, banquet and baking facilities. The project fit our skill sets as a team, and provided us with an opportunity to work together. Saratoga Springs, N.Y. is my hometown and a great place to live. My family lives very near, and we've been able to spend more time together, which has been wonderful.
Tell me about Prime and SNGC
Frank: SNGC is a top ranked public golf course, and along with great sport must come excellent food. We are multi-faceted here, and our varied experience is important in order to manage the different aspects. There are over forty kitchen staff members on our schedule to operate a fine dining restaurant called Prime, a lounge, a veranda grill and seasonal patio area, a 250-seat ballroom and several rooms for meetings and parties. In season, we are a seven day a week operation with five kitchens running simultaneously.
Do you have any tips for working well together in business and at home?
Jessica: First, we are best friends and respect each other immensely. We have a fantastic relationship, and that is the key to our success. We have a good balance and always help each other. We all know our industry can be stressful, tiring and crazy, and if you share that, there is an unspoken understanding. It is important to us that we listen to each other, get things off our chests, and then go back to work.
Mutual support is crucial in that we would never let each other down when the going gets tough. It isn't uncommon to see me helping the line with dinner service or Frank helping me with cakes or pastries in the bakery. Also, we are sounding boards and creative partners. We brainstorm, write menus and think up our next big ideas together. We play off each other's strengths and end up with winning results. We hardly ever yell or argue; of course, there have been a few “heated debates,” but they don't last very long. We are a true team.
Who are your mentors in your profession?
Jessica: I have two mentors in my career. My early guidance came from my first chef, Michael Garbin at the Union League Club of Chicago. I didn't know it at the time, but I was working for one of the greats! Chef Garbin is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and was happy (though he didn't always show it) to groom me for my future. Micheal put me through the paces, working all the stations in the restaurant and club, and then finally letting me go to the bakeshop. I also have to thank Chef for scaring the number of ounces in a gallon into me. Thanks to him, my liquid measurements are always accurate — 128 ozs. in a gallon, Chef!
My second mentor is my husband. I have always looked up to his skill, diligence, professionalism and finesse. He is outstandingly talented, and I count myself lucky to have him in all respects. He has taught me so much, and I will never be able to repay him for that. He is very patient and giving with his time and knowledge. From pastry cream to elaborate show pieces, he has given me all his secrets and support. Frank is always there for me, and I relish the fact that I have my own personal pastry encyclopedia — if only I could fit him in my pocket.
Frank: I have been positively influenced by so many people in life and professionally that it is hard to choose just one mentor. I was very inspired by Chef Robert Barral of New England Culinary Institute as a student and then again later as an instructor. Chef Robert is one of the kindest people and most consummate professionals I've ever had the pleasure of working with.
I carry a great deal of respect and admiration for the honest, hard working people of our profession. Guys like our friend Biagio Settepani, who is always so generous with his time and knowledge; Robert Ellinger, who would give you the shirt from his back; and Olivier Andreini, CMC, who gives it to you straight, even if it's not what you want to hear. I've always considered myself fortunate to have so many great friends.
What do you do when you're not at the restaurant?
Jessica: We spend time with our family, teaching the kids how to make risotto or ride a dirt bike in Grampy's backyard; sorry about the lawn Dad…
Whenever possible, we try to sneak in a ride on our motorcycles. Frank has a Triumph Daytona 675, and I ride a Ducati Monster 620 Special Matrix Edition. It's a great release from a crazy week.
Do you have any words of advice for young pastry and baking students looking to make a career in the field?
Frank and Jessica: Be a sponge. You can learn so many things from so many people if you pay attention and absorb everything that they are doing and saying. Write it down, because you will forget! Don't just watch, but really take it all in, from how they set their station and work, to the finishing touches. Being a great chef takes skill and lots of hard work, and it does not come overnight. Be patient, learn and grow, be diligent and you will succeed.
Where do you see growth and opportunity in pastry and bakery arts?
Frank: I believe the market trend will bring the industry back to the independent retail bakery or patisseries that were displaced by the convenience bakery and drive-thru donut places. Through media and travel, our consumers have a growing level of awareness when it comes to food and quality. It is not uncommon for customers to know about things like the specific origins of chocolate or types of international cuisine. We believe the industry will continue to move in the direction of high quality products made from ingredients that are healthy and identifiable.