Chef Thomas Vaccaro’s award-winning career has spanned over 35 years and seen his influence touch a variety of dining and hospitality establishments throughout the country. His highly innovative and collaborative approach to culinary arts are on full display in his role as Executive Pastry Chef for Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.
As a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Chef Vaccaro began his career in Florida, working as an apprentice cook at Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress and a pastry cook for Marriott’s World Center in Orlando. He then made his way to Atlantic City, opening two properties (Showboat Hotel and Casino in 1987 and Tropicana Hotel and Casino in 1990), where he produced and managed pastry and desserts across all dining and catering outlets. After a 2-year stint as Executive Pastry Chef for New York’s Waldorf Astoria, Chef Vaccaro returned to AC as Corporate Pastry Chef for Trump International Resorts, developing and overseeing operations for 36 restaurants across three hotel properties.
Named 2004 National Pastry Chef of the Year by ACF, Chef Vaccaro’s culinary prowess led him back to his alma mater in 2005, where he became Dean for Baking and Pastry Arts Education at The Culinary Institute of America. Over almost 15 years with CIA, Vaccaro managed the debuts of multiple award-winning kitchens, facilities, bakeries and restaurants, including the renown French eatery, Bocuse Restaurant. Vaccaro also has vast consulting experience; working with Ivy League schools Yale and Columbia University, collaborating with the Royal Family at the Dubai Hospitality World Championship, and developing desserts and specialty beverages for Hershey’s Chocolate World in Time Square, New York.
We sat down with Chef Tom to talk about some of his favorite Borgata desserts, and he shared some tips for home bakers that will ensure they create one-of-a-kind pastries at home.
You have such a wide range of experience—from working at some of the country’s most renowned resorts, to being a Dean at the Culinary Institute of America. What’s your favorite part about joining the team at Borgata? I was looking for a new position as an executive pastry chef to use my skills in training and giving back to people. I spent 15 years as a dean, and my primary role was to mentor and train. I thought this was a great way to give back to the industry. Borgata was a great spot because they were very willing to promote training.
What are some of your favorite new creations that you’ve developed for Borgata guests? One of the first tasks here was for me was to look at Borgata Baking Company, and we developed some really cool new ideas. One of the things we do is a refreshing lemon curd mousse, with a chocolate brownie on the bottom, so it’s this really rich lemon taste with the chocolate. Another one that is selling is the Chocolate Obsession: it’s a baked chocolate flourless cake, wrapped with Verona chocolate, which is a French chocolate, and filled with vanilla cream and fresh fruit. We do a very unique Stacked Cookie in different flavors: Macadamia nut, latte, maple pecan, and a chocolate chip. They are these kind of cookies that are real buttery and they sit on top of fluff cream that’s encased with different colored chocolate. You get this crunchy cookie, and then the fluff creme. The feedback we’ve been getting has been so great.
When you’re at home, what’s one of your favorite things to bake? I enjoy baking butter cake, like a lemon butter cake with a glaze. Also, I love a streusel cake, especially the texture combination. It’s nice to have those around when people come over. I also love to do chocolate mousse and strawberry mousse. I do those in elegant glasses, you put the mousse in with fresh fruit, and you have this creamy dessert and the baked item. I also love doing cookies at home. They are great for home—you can make them, freeze them, and pull them out whenever you want.
What’s one of the most memorable events that you’ve created pastry for? There’s a number of things that I’ve been involved with throughout my career. Early in my career, I was lucky enough to be selected for the national team pastry chef representing the United States for the food (Culinary) Olympics. I went to Europe as a young chef and competed against a number of countries, and they’re all there to show their best. Within that, the judges, at their discretion, can award a perfect score. Usually every year, there’s 2 or 3 perfect scores that are noted for going above and beyond. In 1992, I got one. I was a young kid and what did I know? I went there, put all of my stuff out, I laid it out there like it was the best thing. There were maybe 50 judges, and they do this round circle congratulations. It was a major achievement and wonderful—that’s one of the things that sticks with me
What’s your favorite dessert currently on the menu at Borgata? We do a summer strawberry cream cake at Borgata Baking Company and we can’t make enough of them. It’s fresh strawberries that have been puréed with sugar, and then 40% cream with this amazing buttery glaze that goes on the outside, and a clear glaze over the top. We hand-make little handmade chocolate strawberries to on top, so you get this extra while chocolate red strawberry. It’s got 2 things going on: you get the cake and then the white chocolate confection.
What are some of your favorite tips for home chefs who enjoy making pastry and desserts? Baking is a science and baking requires a lot of tools and equipment. Do your homework and gather your equipment: make sure you have the right scales, the right pans, and the right equipment to make sure you can bake something the right way. The weighing of the ingredients is sometimes difficult for people. Try to be very accurate with that because you can end up spoiling a whole day’s work if you put in too much of something. When you come out with a product that you are proud of, you don’t see it until it’s over: you’ve spent the entire day baking, and all of the sudden 8 hours have gone by. The satisfaction comes with the final product, but can’t get there without “mise en place,” or everything in its place. In order to be successful, you need to have everything in place. You have make sure you have the proper preparation.