New South Wales’ Gumnut Patisserie owner, Tracy Nickl drives his apprentices to be the best.
Gumnut Patisserie owner, Tracy Nickl will feel like a “prize bull” on the first Tuesday following Easter. Having previously competed in the Sydney Royal Fine Food Show, he knows what it will be like to collect the 44 awards he earned earlier this year.
“The first year I thought, ‘What the hell is going on?’,” Tracy says.
“But it’s a really great day, they really do make a really great deal about it. All the championship winners get a really big deal made about them.”
The 39-year-old pastry chef can’t take all the credit for his award-winning cakes and pastries. The final results for the Fine Food apprentice class competition reads like a Gumnut Patisserie weekday roster: apprentices Jason Hanger, Kylie Masters, Emillia Preston and Zayne Vidler all earned awards for competing.
In February, Gumnut Patissere was named champion patisserie at the Baking Industry Association of New South Wales’ Newcastle competition, receiving a gold in every category entered. Again, Tracy’s apprentices featured heavily in the win.
“We encourage (our apprentices) to enter and each year we get them to send something new and it forces them to develop new skills. That’s the main thing we get out of that contest,” he says.
Tracy’s focus on apprentice development emerged from the lack of trained bakers available. Opening the first of his three Gumnut Patisseries in Mittagong in 1995, Tracy discovered how difficult it is to find qualified bakers.
“It’s difficult in the capital cities, but in a regional area you’ve got ‘buckleys’. So we worked that out pretty quickly and we just started employing apprentices so we have them in first-year stage, spending a lot of one-on-one time with them.”
Tracy understands many of the issues apprentices can go through, having rejected an apprenticeship as a young kitchen-hand.
“I thought ‘Who the hell would want to do this everyday?’. And I said no and went off to years 11 and 12. I was going to go off to uni and year 12 and started to think, ‘(This) actually is a really good job, I do really like it’, and so I stayed there and did my apprenticeship with him,” he says.
“I was actually lucky to do it in a very old-school environment. In many ways it was very hard but in many ways I realise the benefits I got from doing that.”
Moving to work at a hotel where he eventually became executive pastry chef, Tracy met fellow pastry chef and future wife, Vicki. Starting up Gumnut Patisserie together, they learnt the importance of being flexible and offering an enticing career path for young people.
“I think hospitality in general, we are desperate for people, especially in pastry and baking. The whole industry is desperate for staff. It’s a really great trade and most people have no idea what’s involved. So once they are exposed and work out it’s not only a great trade, it’s relatively easy and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist.”
Gumnut Patissiere apprentices are provided a tailored training system, depending on their individual skill level and interests.
“We’ve got everything from training at TAFE one day a week to in-house training and they go down for test-out. It all depends. And we’ve never found a set thing for every apprentice. So we’re very, very flexible. Some kids are wasting their time going to TAFE. Others actually need to sit there, they haven’t matured enough to be focused on their endeavours. And they really benefit from being in that environment,” he says.
Tracy says 17-year-old Gumnut Patisserie apprentice, Emillia Preston is a particularly gifted pastry chef.
“(She’s) one of those kids that could have done anything, but we were lucky enough to have her in our trade. Her rate of advancement, she’s just turned second year and to me is she is more like third or fourth year, she’s really nailed the hand skills side of things quickly,” he says.
While Emillia has been quick to learn, Tracy admits that some apprentices take years to hit their stride. One of the best apprentices Tracy has ever trained, John Ralley, was recently named to Team Pastry Australia. Now working as an executive pastry chef in Sydney, he returns to Gumnut Patisserie once a week in order to prepare for overseas competition.
“He took three-and-a-half years of pain and suffering to get to what I would consider a good skill level, and then it’s like ‘flicking a switch’, and the kid is now probably the most talented kid we have ever put through,” Tracy says.
“He just turned into this really good young person who probably realised himself, this is his future and he’s actually really good at it from day one. He got through all the difficulties and that’s something that employers need to realise – the young people are going to go (through) these things and honestly we all went through a time, which was difficult.”
Tracy believes the next generation of pastry chefs can be just as driven as he has been, as long as they are given the chance. “We don’t hide from what most people consider difficult skills. We try and get them exposed really early on to things that make the place more exciting for us.”