5 Minutes With: Tracy and Vicki Nickl

Tracy and Vicki Nickl with their two sons. All four wear chefs whites and are smiling at the camera. There is a black background

Tracy and Vicki Nickl have long been stalwarts of the baking industry.

For almost 29 years the duo have run the much-loved Gumnut Patisserie, in the New South Wales Southern Highlands. However, beyond the numerous awards they’ve won over the years for their outstanding products, Tracy and Vicki are also passionate about training up the next generation of bakers and pastry chefs.

Baking Business magazine sat down with the Nickl’s to learn how it all began, and where their drive for education comes from.

How did you first get into baking?

Tracy: I worked in a patisserie while I was at school. At the time I had no interest at all in being a pastry chef, but I continued to work there right through school years. Believe it or not, I always had my mind set to go off to university and become a scientist. Towards the end of school I went on a school excursion was to WorldSkills, (which used to be Works Skills back in the old days). I went along and watched the pastry chefs compete and I thought “I want to be a part of that”.

So where did you go from there?

Tracy: I completed my apprenticeship where I’d worked as a kitchen hand before and after school, which was purely for pocket money. I had no liking for it, and I always thought it was the craziest job. Why do these people work like this and work so hard? All the negatives that come with being a pastry chef.

I ended up staying there for eight years while I was at school and completing my apprenticeship. I left there because I qualified for National WorldSkills and I knew I needed to broaden my knowledge.  So I went to the Sheridan in Sydney, and worked under their amazing pastry chef, Robert Martin. He was brilliant and he opened my eyes to so many things that are possible.

I worked there for just under three years, and in that time, I met Vicki. She was also working there, and I decided to ask her out. I was a tradesman and she was an apprentice and it wasn’t the done thing. so I quit my job and we started going out that night.

I then went to work at the Ritz Carlton and within five months Vicki and I were engaged and six months later we got married.

A baking cabinet at Gumnut Patisserie is loaded with colourful cakes and tarts

Some of Gumnut Patisserie’s products. Image courtesy Gumnut Patisserie.

Would you say your love for pastry came from watching the WorldSkills Competition?

Tracy: The WorldSkills International was in Sydney in 1988 for the first time ever. It’s the only time it’s been in Australia. The apprentice where I was working was the Australian competitor, and I watched that and was blown away. It was just incredible.

Gumnut Patisserie and both of you are well-known for placing a very high focus on training apprentices. Why did you decide to incorporate this into the patisserie to the level that you have? And what does it really look like on a day-to-day basis?

Vicki: Doing that is a no brainer for us, as constant training is the key to good apprentices.

Tracy: We started Gumnut with some other friends of ours while working at the hotel. They moved on after a few years and we stayed. We tried to employ tradesmen but this proved difficult as there wasn’t really many out there. Not only that, but most were also quite under skilled. So, we decided at that point, over 23 years ago, that we’d employ apprentices and train them how we thought it should be done. Since then, we have never looked back. We take one to two every year and have done so for more 23 years.

Tracy Nickl in chefs white is pouring icing from a saucepan.

Tracy Nickl. Image courtesy Gumnut Patisserie

I imagine it’s quite competitive to get one of those two positions.

Tracy: This year we’ve got two exceptional candidates. One is actually relocating from Western Australia.

Vicki: We have a lot of people that relocate to come work for us. For some, they have either finished their apprenticeship or their employers sign them out early, but they feel there is so much more to learn. So, they come here, and we train them.  I don’t want somebody with that much passion leaving the industry.

Tracy: For the first 15 years or so we only took in-house trained apprentices. Since then, we’ve taken people who have done their apprenticeship somewhere else, or maybe started and then re-enrolled with us. We don’t start over, but certainly go back to basics to ensure they can create and meet our standards.

Vicki: We’re very much process driven. Just follow the process and it will work. I often say to the younger ones, “Here’s the back story. This is why you do this, so when you’re looking at your training and you can’t remember what I said, remember the story, and then you’ll remember how to do the task”.

Is that quite a unique approach to training?

Vicki: It’s sort of parenting. That’s how we raise our children and it worked for them. It’s the same thing here, we’re just teaching them how to be pastry cooks but ensuring they have the passion behind them.

It’s also no secret that Gumnut has won so many awards over the years. Can you share a little bit about your recipe for success when it comes to awards?

Tracy: Consistency. We enter what we make every day, and we’re very comfortable with. If our apprentices are going in competitions, we find out what they are required to make and we make it a regular product, so the apprentice has to make it over and over. By the time we get to competition they’re quite comfortable with it.

Vicki: We had some apprentices competing in January. One first year, a second year and a third year all competing together and against each other. They were practicing for three months leading up to the competition.

Just practicing an item, one after the other. I often say to them, it doesn’t matter what your timeframe is, just get a time so you know when you’re putting it into your work schedule how long it’s going to take. If that product takes half-an-hour, it’s going to take you half-an-hour to start with and then knock time off it each time you do it.

Tracy: Usually, competitions are about who’s trained the most, and who has put the effort in.

The master I trained under all those years ago was very focused and driven. We had very strict processes and you didn’t deviate from it. So, when I went to a competition as an apprentice, it was easier than a standard workday. Not that my boss was terrible, but we were always under pressure with high expectations. I always found competition easier than being at work. We try to do that here. We get them so comfortable with it, that when they go to the competition it just flows.


 What advice would you give to an aspiring pastry chef?

Tracy: Learn as much as you can, listen and practice, practice, practice.

Vicki: Ninety per cent of the things we teach, like recipes, it’s all about the process. And if you follow the process it works.

Tracy: Pastry is very much about following a science. If you understand the science and you follow the process, it will always work.

What’s your favourite thing to cook and to eat?

Tracy: I have two favourite things. One I make every day – a Mille Feuille. We’re quite famous for ours at Gumnut Patisserie and I have a piece pretty much every morning right as it’s been made and long before it gets to a fridge. When it’s still warm is the best time to eat it. My other favourite thing to make is Apple Tatin, it’s classic and it’s simple and a must if we have guests at home.

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    26 March

    Gumnut supplied all the cakes to my son’s wedding. In October last year Any one of those items could have won a prize in a competition.

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