Michael Van Fleet has a sweet job. As Xavier’s executive pastry chef, Van Fleet is responsible for all those cakes, cookies and calorie-laden concoctions students snap up daily. But his favorite part of the job is plating fancy desserts for banquets—such as a Kahlua flan with caramel sauce, marinated pineapple slices and toasted coconut garnish.
“That’s what I love the best,” he says. “The creativity of it and the client saying, ‘Wow.’ When I hear a ‘Wow,’ that’s the best fulfillment ever. It’s the wow factor.”
His talents were recognized in March when his four-member team, sponsored by the Cincinnati Retail Bakers Association, took second place in the national Iron Baker competition in Chicago. For their assignment—create a Chicago scene with cake—his team baked the Sears Tower on a city block on the waterfront, with edible blue sugar gelatin for water, a chocolate Tootsie Roll seawall and pulled sugar ribbons for the antennae.
But Van Fleet’s most proud of something a little less showy and far more significant. Last September he received his certificate as an executive pastry chef from the American Culinary Federation. Since 1992, he’s been working toward certification, gathering points for each level of experience, earning his degree and completing a variety of tests. He did this all while working midnight to 9:00 a.m. every day at Xavier and supporting a family at home.
“What holds me together is all this,” he says. “Food is who I am.”
Though he first cooked in his mother’s kitchen and worked in restaurants and grocery store bakeries, it wasn’t until he became an understudy for a Swiss pastry chef at the Omni Netherland Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati that he realized his passion for fine food.
Now a culinary school graduate, Van Fleet treats Xavier banquet guests to delectable gourmet-level concoctions. For former President James Hoff, S.J.’s, retirement party, themed for the Wizard of Oz, his Emerald City cake was a work of art: a tall castle smothered in butter cream, a circling blue moat, a yellow brick road, and shards of broken green sugar candy shimmering like crystals over the whole creation. “Hoff said it was the best cake he ever saw,” Van Fleet says. Wow.