Polo Grill and Bar pastry chef Tracy Cundiff whips up delectable desserts with creative flair
Tracy Cundiff doesn’t eat pastry. She rarely orders delectable dessert.
And if someone were to offer her a sultry sweet or a piece of chocolate, Tracy would take the chocolate in a heartbeat.
That may not seem all that out of the ordinary except for the fact that Tracy is tasked with making breads, cakes, tarts, cookies, cronuts and more on a daily basis as the Polo Grill and Bar’s pastry chef.
“I have all of these contradictions against me,” Tracy says with a laugh.
Having spent years winning on the road as a cyclist, Tracy, who used to race road bikes, has turned her attention to winning in the kitchen despite not preferring sweets, breaking the mold of a traditional pastry chef.
Tracy prepares countless desserts designed to tantalize your taste buds on a daily basis.
With an extensive skill set and knowledge of how ingredients look, feel and react, Tracy can simply look at something and know how its going to turn out.
“I know what tastes good and what it’s supposed to look like,” Tracy says.
For more than a year, the Lakewood Ranch resident has been using her creative expertise to bring fun, imaginative and flavorful desserts and pastries to Polo Grill and Bar, a Lakewood Ranch-based restaurant serving American cuisine with a global soul.
“Tracy’s creativity, passion and ability to pack a ton of flavor into everything she makes consistently blows us away,” says renowned restaurateur Tommy Klauber, who owns the Polo Grill and Bar with his wife, Jaymie Klauber. “Our guests love our daily baked breads and desserts.”
Pastry provides a unique challenge that fits Tracy’s mathematical mind and affords her the opportunity to use intuition and instinct.
“You have to be really in tune with your products and how they react,” Tracy says. “I feel that pastry has always been in that realm. You just have to have an intuitive mind. A lot of people don’t go into pastry because they are scared of it. A lot of culinary chefs don't touch it because they don’t understand it.”
Tracy makes all of her breads and desserts fresh on a daily basis. She even started a bread program for the restaurant, creating a yeast culture, dubbed Lucille, that she feeds and uses daily to make sourdough bread and in her brioche dough.
Often times it may take several days to make one menu item. It’s a process to make a lot of the things Tracy makes, but the whole process is what makes it all worthwhile.
As the pastry chef, Tracy is in charge of the dessert menus for both the restaurant as well as the catering side of the business. While both aspects offer their own unique challenges, the restaurant side allows her to further explore her creative side, which at times, can be both exciting and hindering.
“I like to challenge myself a lot,” says Tracy. “I’m probably my own worst enemy. I like to change the menu once a month.”
Changing the menu regularly helps keep Tracy engaged while also allowing her to work with seasonal ingredients. Tracy wants Polo Grill and Bar’s patrons to experience different things every time they come in, which is why there’s only one dessert menu item that doesn’t change — a salted caramel tart.
“It’s an honor that Jaymie likes it so much that she wants it on the menu all of the time,” Tracy says. “It makes me happy that she enjoys it so much. Tommy and Jaymie are very nurturing and open-minded. It’s really awesome to have the position that I have and be basically given total freedom to make what I want. It’s definitely a really comforting atmosphere.”
A native of Sarasota, Tracy joined the Polo Grill and Bar staff in July 2016. Tracy had recently moved back to Sarasota from Washington D.C. after having spent several years working for Whole Foods, Earth Fare and most recently as a fresh foods manager for Harris Teeter.
Looking to get back to the artistry of pastry, Tracy reached out to Tommy to see if he had any openings. Polo Grill and Bar hadn’t had a pastry chef in a while, and after a meeting and tasting, Tracy was named the restaurant’s new pastry chef.
“I wasn’t doing anything creative any more and that really bothered me,” Tracy says. “I really enjoy the creative aspect of pastry. It’s a form of artistry.”
Tracy was 10 years old when she decided she wanted to be a chef. The then fifth-grader was browsing through the books at her elementary school book fair trying to find something to capture her attention.
Tracy was prepared to walk away empty handed when she spotted a children’s cookbook. She bought the book and ended up cooking every recipe. From that point on, Tracy’s mind was made up. She was going to attend culinary school and become a chef.
“It’s something I have a true passion about,” says Tracy says. “It’s interesting because a lot of people get out of high school, and they have no idea what they want to do.”
It’s not all that surprising that Tracy was drawn toward a career centered on creativity and artistry.
Her parents, Travis Cundiff and Katie Dobson Cundiff, both attended Ringling College of Art and Design where her mother is still an instructor. Her sister, Brooks Cundiff Anderson, is in graphic design, and her brother, Clay Cundiff, is a user interface designer for Ford Motor Company.
Although for Tracy, her artistic expertise lies in the kitchen.
“I can’t draw or paint to save my life,” Tracy says. “I didn’t inherit that gene. Instead I inherited the culinary gene that no one else has.”
Tracy attended Sarasota County Technical Institute during her last two years of high school where she earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts.
Upon graduating from Cardinal Mooney High School in 1996, Tracy attended The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. where she earned an associate’s degree in baking and pastry and a bachelor’s degree in hotel restaurant management in 2000.
With her degrees in hand, Tracy set off for Paris where she spent six months cycling clockwise around France, stopping at different bed and breakfasts along the way. During her tour, Tracy stopped in Bordeaux where she discovered canneles, which have since become her favorite thing to bae.
The little cakes caught Tracy’s attention because they are baked in a special copper mold. The loose batter, similar to vanilla sauce, is lined with beeswax. The cakes are then baked at a high temperature for nearly two hours. The end result is a cake whose inside has texture similar to custard.
“They’re so simple and complex at the same time,” says Tracy.
When she’s not busy working, Tracy, who used to race road bikes, enjoys cycling, running, going to the gym, yoga and paddle boarding.