The Gluten-Free Explorer: Victoria Wolf Spotlight
For anyone with a passion, striving to be better is a part of playing the game. Immersing yourself in everything you can, continually looking for new outlets to learn more, be better, reach higher. When culinary arts student Victoria Wolf happened upon Escoffier Online Culinary Academy, she had exhausted all available routes for growing her skills. From Food Network shows to Youtube videos to cookbooks, her appetite for learning was still craving something else. So, she enrolled in the Culinary Arts Fundamentals program along with her husband and together they embarked on their education with one main mission: grow their skills in order to grow their business, The Gluten Free Explorer. Now with products in stores across the Denver metropolitan area and a first place trophy for best gluten-free pizza at the International Pizza Expo, she’s more than confident she made the right choice.
We caught up with Victoria to talk about her time in the program, her future business plans and how her culinary education helped grow her business.
Escoffier Online Culinary Academy: Why did you want to do Escoffier Online’s Culinary program?
Victoria Wolf: I have been cooking since I was 9 and wanted to learn the classic skills so I could hone my cooking skills and start cooking for others. I was a vegetarian for 16 years and did not cook all too much. Once I had to go gluten-free, I realized I needed to cook nearly everything I ate. I watched the Food Network, Top Chef and every cooking show I could find for years. I got better, but I wanted to know more! I met my now-husband Rich in 2013 and he loved cooking too. He helped me realize my passion for food and together we started the culinary program.
EO: What were some of the most helpful techniques and skills you learned from your time in it?
VW: Knife skills and classic sauces and techniques were what I was really wanted to learn, and I did! I love making sauces and now I have the knowledge to make just about any sauce I can imagine. My knife skills were okay before I started the course (I watched many YouTube videos before my training) but after learning from professionals, my knife skills were taken to a new level.
EO: How did it help you with your business, The Gluten Free Explorer?
VW: The gluten-free baking skills I have are self-taught but the culinary skills I learned from Escoffier have given me the confidence and knowledge to create the new ready-to-bake line of pizzas I am launching next month. If not for my culinary skills, I could have never created the dairy free sauce and the rest of pizza that won at the International Pizza Challenge.
EO: Your business focuses on pre-made gluten-free baked goods and is sold in many different grocery stores and restaurants in the Denver area. Can you tell us a little bit about how you first got into make gluten-free goods and what starting your business was
VW: Well, when I went gluten-free in 2007, I swore I would never bake. There were too many ingredients and I was not a baker! I was adamant about it and for 5 years, I did not bake at all. I never really baked before I was gluten-free. I love pizza and bought every gluten-free pizza crust I could find. None tasted very good so I then tried a couple mixes and made my own. Those were not too good either. I met Rich in 2013 and he was completely in support of my gluten and dairy-free life but said he really needed to enjoy gluten-free pizza. I showed him the options and he was not impressed. We decided to try to make our own crust. After months of working on it, we had a few pizza parties with our non-gluten free friends and they loved the pizza crust. We knew we had something and started the company.
Rich and I both have over 20 years of business experience, me in marketing and him in food sales and distribution, so we were fairly confident we could make this business work. We taught ourselves the baking and production and went from there. I have always been an entrepreneur and know the ups and downs of business. Owning your own business is always a challenge but the rewards are immense, especially when you are creating something you are passionate about. We want to expand our business and be a national brand in the next 3 years. That will take considerable time and effort and we look forward to every minute of it!
EO: You recently won a cooking competition for your gluten-free, cheese-free pizza. Tell me about that!
VW: Since we are baking and selling pizza crusts, we thought it would be good to attend the
International Pizza Expo to learn more about the business of pizza. When Rich was registering us online, a window popped up and asked if we would like to enter the International Pizza Challenge. He turned to me and asked, “hey, you want to compete in the gluten free division?” I thought about it for a second or two and said, “why not? yes!”
We had about six weeks to prepare and early on, we knew which pizza I had to enter. A month or so before we entered the competition we had a pizza tasting party with our non-gluten-free friends to determine which pizzas we would make for our ready-to-bake line. The overwhelming favorite was the bacon, chicken, broccoli ranch pizza. The ranch dressing was dairy-free and there was no cheese on the pizza and it was still the favorite.
I did not want to present a pizza to the judges which I could not eat so I knew I had to enter that one. Serving a cheeseless pizza at that competition was like bringing a knife to gunfight it was something I had to do to be true to my own culinary view. To my surprise and thrill, my dairy-free, gluten-free pizza won! It is still unbelievable every time I relive it in my mind. I am so honored to have won.
EO: What advice do you have for people trying to run a successful food business?
VW: The most important aspect is to have an amazing product that fills a need in the marketplace. We believe our products are the next generation of gluten-free and the need we fill is gluten-free products that taste, look and feel like the conventional pizza and breads you remember eating before you went gluten-free. The need in the marketplace has to be real, not perceived. And your product really has to stand out. Maybe it tastes unlike any other similar product, is a product not available now or a product that incorporate ingredients in a new and tasty way.
EO: What’s the one ingredient you can’t bake without?
VW: I am going to answer salt and that might sound strange for baking. Since I am a savory baker (not for long though, I just created a gluten-free and dairy-free pound cake for a local restaurant), salt is critical to our pizza crusts and breads. As with all cooking, salt brings out the natural flavors and enhances any dish.
EO: What’s the one food your most famous for?
VW: Well, my favorite food of all time is mayonnaise, so I am going to say my ranch dressing, which is mayo based. I have plans to start bottling it soon too!
EO: Where do you hope to see your career in 5 years?
VW: I want The Gluten Free Explorer to be a national brand. I want people around the country enjoying our products with smiles on their faces. For me personally, I want to be writing cookbooks, teaching and educating the world about gluten and dairy free cooking and continuing my role as the CEO of the company.