By Virginia Monaco
ICE Pastry & Baking Arts Chef-Instructor Vicki Wells brings an enormous amount of experience with her into the kitchen. She has worked in some of the country’s finest kitchens, including Sarabeth’s, Hotel Plaza Athenée, Maxim’s, Montrachet, Le Bernardin and Trattoria Dell’Arte. In 2000, she took over the pastry department at two of Bobby Flay’s restaurants—Mesa Grill and Bolo—and later, Bar Americain. Vicki also served as Bobby Flay’s sous chef for all five of his victories on Iron Chef America. After working with Bobby, Vicki held the title of Executive Pastry Chef at Buddakan before eventually joining ICE as a Chef-Instructor.
When Vicki was first starting out in the industry, pastries were French by default. It wasn’t until she had gained some professional experience and started traveling that she became interested in the sweets of other cultures. Being ethnically Italian, Vicki was particularly interested in studying the flavor profiles and techniques used in Italian sweets. Unlike French pastries, Italian desserts tend to be strongly flavored with espresso or gianduja (chocolate-hazelnut paste) and are much more free-form and organic. Her culinary trips to Italy with fellow ICE Chef-Instructor Gerri Sarnataro inspired Vicki to become co-owner and Executive Pastry Chef of L’Arte Della Pasticceria, an Italian-inspired pastry shop in Ramsey, New Jersey.
The transition, however was far from a “cakewalk”. Chef Vicki experienced a steep learning curve as she went from plating elegant restaurant desserts to filling the display cases at a pastry shop. She quickly learned that success in a walk-in style setting such as L’Arte Della Pasticceria requires a much different strategy than at a sit-down restaurant. First, most pastries need to be sold the day they are made or they will quickly lose quality. This means you often need to get inventive and repurpose unsold treats. For example, Chef Vicki often crumbles mocha cookies to form the crust of a cheesecake, a delicious way to use left-over cookies that are starting to harden.
Secondly, Chef Vicki discussed the importance of changing up your pastry display case frequently. She says she is constantly designing new and interesting ways to present her pastries in the display window to entice customers to buy. Lastly, Chef Vicki pointed out that all pastries and food sold at a shop like L’Arte Della Pasticceria must be made available to-go. Consequently, she reworks traditional recipes so that they can either be held in-hand or fit beautifully in small to-go cups.
After her talk, Chef Vicki treated the audience to a flight of small Italian sweets, including torta caprese al limone, chocolate ricciarellis and gianduja cheesecake. All three were both delicious and distinctly flavored. Although these desserts were made using universal pastry techniques, their classic Italian flavors and more rustic presentation made their Mediterranean origins clear.
Chefs Vicki Wells’ path to specializing in Italian pastries is proof that education and innovation never stop in the pastry and baking industry, even for the most skilled veterans. It was a true treat to hear Chef Vicki’s insights and taste her inspired sweets. Without a doubt, she will be wowing our taste buds for years to come!