The Challenge itself wasn't that bad, but it was the hardest day of my life, simply because on top of building a 3 foot tall cake in under 8 hours I had other issues that I had to deal with at the same time and I was freaked out. Consider that I had just found out my Mom had lost control of her finances and were a big mess I had to fix. My stepson was in the hospital with kidney failure. I just had put down my beloved cat. I hadn't done a sculpted cake in more than 5 years, and was feeling a bit rusty. And Christmas.....Christmas was coming. All this in my head going into an event where I had to be 100 percent focused on the task at hand, was extremely difficult.
Now, my mom's finances are under control, because I control them. My stepson recovered after 2 days in the hospital and a strong antibiotic IV and fluids. My cat is still dead of course, but my grief is a little more manageable as time goes by. And Stressmas is over, thank deity. But that day, December 18th, I had that swirling quagmire of crap writhing inside my head, and I had to think "cake" "win" and "Spongebob" instead. Focus focus focus.
I wasn't the main competitor of course, I was just the assistant, but nevertheless, assistant or not, you take on just as much as the competitor does when it comes to win or lose. You have to work as a team, and get the job done. I assisted the amazingly talented Rick Reichart of cakelava in Hawaii. We knew each other back in the day when I was his boss at the now defunct Great Cakes and Edible Monuments in Redmond Washington. I left some sort of impression on him, because that's why he asked me to assist him in the Challenge. When we parted more than 7 years ago, he was off to L.A. to work in cakes down there, then later moved to Hawaii with his wife Sasha to start his own shop. In those years, he bloomed and perfected his skills and is now one of the top cake designers in the U.S. Me, I stayed at Great Cakes til they shut down, then moved to Port Townsend Washington and got married. There's no business in Port Townsend for the kind of cakes I was accustomed to doing, so I just got a couple jobs in local bakeries making things like cookies, brownies, high end french pastry, pies, etc. I did some cakes but nothing really to write home about. Just your standard bakery cakes. When it comes to cake decorating, if you don't keep your skills up, you find yourself left in the dust. And that's how I felt going into the Challenge. I felt left in the dust. I doubted my own skills.
A crisis of self confidence if you will.
As you can probably guess, our theme for the challenge was characters from the popular kid's cartoon, "Spongebob Squarepants". Everybody got assigned a character, and we were pleased with our character assignment, for sure.
Rick drew up a awesome design and we had a timeline in place (it was required), with the tasks I would be doing and the tasks Rick would be doing to finish the piece.
The Challenges take place in Denver, Colorado where there is an awesome new set in a group of industrial buildings that just look like, well, industrial buildings. You'd drive past and never think that they were taping TV shows in there.
The Challenges are grueling. Rick had to be there the day before for pre-show interviews, and the day after for post-show interviews. I didn't have to participate in those. The day of the Challenge is long......you have to be there at 6 am and you generally don't get to leave the set til you have all your stuff back in boxes and headed out the door, which in our case was 9:30 pm. Talk about tired. The next day my body ached from being on my feet that long and from the tension that I was feeling.
Did you know that all that is provided for you in the Challenge is the separate kitchens with refrigerators, countertops, cooktop, microwave and a KitchenAid mixer? Everything else, like bowls, spatulas, knives, scissors, parchment paper, hand tools, rolling pins, the baked cakes, the buttercream, the fondant, etc., have to be shipped to Denver by the competitor. Shipping that stuff is NOT cheap either. It's heavy and Rick shipped six boxes from Hawaii to Denver which cost him a small fortune, and is not covered by the production co. It's all at the competitor's expense. Not to mention lost work from having to block out time to actually participate in the Challenge. The $10,000 prize to the first place winner mostly goes for covering expenses and lost time......I would say you would just barely come out slightly ahead if you won. You can actually win more money by participating in "Wheel of Fortune".
Why would people do it then? Advertising. Credibility. Getting your name out there. The goal really, is to get more business and respect in the cake decorating community. It's sort of a big deal.
So the day of the Challenge I got up at 4:30 am to meet Rick in the hotel lobby by 5:30 am. Actually I didn't get up at 4:30, I just got out of bed. I spent most of the night NOT sleeping......too nervous. We drove to the studio complex and there was a nice breakfast buffet waiting for us. I didn't eat though. I had been unable to eat for quite a few days before the Challenge.....too nervous. Didn't feel hungry either. It was the strangest thing. We got our official "Food Network" chef jackets and Rick had to go on set to do "hero shots". I looked around for coffee, but there was no coffee. I really could have used some coffee. So there was a lot of standing around waiting until we could go on-set and do our "mise en place" which means getting your stuff set out and ready. We were allowed to mix buttercream, knead and color fondant, set our tools out, unwrap cakes, etc, but we couldn't start putting anything together til we were officially "on the competition clock". After "mise en place" there was more standing around and waiting for the camera and lighting people to do whatever they do, and at that point, I noticed that it was kinda foggy in there. I wondered if my glasses were dirty or what, but no, they "smoke the set" for effect. I was wondering what was in that smoke because my eyes were on fire, and my nose was starting to run like crazy. I was told it was a water based solution, but whatever it was was just killing me. It affected me throughout the whole competition, as I was wiping my eyes and blowing my nose constantly. It looked like I was crying but I wasn't. I had become the mucous monster, a superpower that I wasn't aware I had.
One thing that surprised Rick and I, and it was something we weren't ready for, was the dryness of the air in Denver. Sure, we knew we were at altitude, but air dryness is not something that occurs to us sea-level people. Our bodies noticed it in that we were drinking copious amounts of water, and even worse it affected our fondant work and gumpaste work. The air dried the surfaces of the fondant and the gumpaste almost immediately after being rolled out. This caused sort of an "elephant skin" look and cracking on the fondant and gumpaste and it's something that set us behind a bit, especially me, because I was working with the gumpaste. What should have taken me half the time to do, took me double and more, and I got a little freaked out because I had gotten really behind.
Kerry Vincent, the judge that is in almost every Food Network Cake Challenge, approached me and asked why I was having trouble doing what I was doing. I explained about the dryness and she suggested that I try doing something else, like mixing my fondant with the gumpaste so I'd have a little more work time. Only problem with that was if I'd done that, what was supposed to be dry in under 8 hours wouldn't have been dry, so I ignored her advice. And I'm glad I did, because even the gumpaste was barely dry enough in time as it was.
Every team of competitors (and there were 4 teams) had their own cameraman and line producer. We were asked to always be explaining to them what we were doing and why, and that was difficult for me, because I'm used to working by myself and quietly. When I work, I'm not a talker. For me it was focus focus focus, and the constant questioning was hard to deal with. Then with the nose blowing and eye wiping it did not make for a good time for this ol' burned out pastry chef.
Apparently, since I'm not good at hiding anything, the producers really picked up on the fact that I was ultra stressed, did not look happy, and the appearance of actually crying made them ask Rick what was wrong with me. He was too busy himself to make any guesses. I'm sure he was just trying to focus himself and he was praying that I was getting my tasks done, which, despite everything, I actually was.
Rick was amazing. He got SO much done in such a short period of time. Working by himself normally, he knows how to keep a pace and get it done. I had my back turned to him for so long, every time I would look his way, something had just appeared. I didn't even get to see how he sculpted our character, which I wanted to see very badly. But I had to get my stuff done.
About midway through the competition I started to feel more confident and less rusty. I was less stressed and I made up for lost time after my struggle with the gumpaste. I was still a Phlegmbot though and people thought I was a complete wreck.......including Kerry Vincent. Was I completely out of my league? Maybe. But looking back on it, I don't think so. I got everything done that I was supposed to. It came out fine. We did fine. No disasters or major drama. Rick showcased his amazing talent. I'd say that what I was up against mentally had a lot to do with my attitude, but I didn't let it stop me from focusing and getting it done. For me, it was a personal triumph. By the time the clock ran out, we felt confident.
After the competition was over, it was a lot of sitting around waiting. We had to go back to the green room and wait for each competitor to face the judges. When Rick got back from facing the judges I asked him how it went. He had a big smile on his face and said it went fine. Better than he expected. I was relieved. After that it was more waiting and it was fun talking to the other competitors in the green room. We all commented on how hard it was to work with the fondant and the dryness in the air. We talked about anything and everything. It was great talking to my cake homies after I'd been out of it for so long.
After a very long wait, we were finally allowed to go back on-set and clean up our messes and pack all our equipment back in the boxes. Problem was, the cleaning crew the night before had thrown ALL our boxes away. We had to wait for a production assistant to run to a pack and send place to pick up boxes, fill paper, and tape. We finally got out of the studio at 9:30 and what do you know, I was starving.
We stopped at a place called Smashburger and ate, even though there was free food at the studio. We discussed the days events and although Rick seemed positive, yet tired, I sensed he wasn't telling me something. Well. It turns out that the judges sensed I was a time sucking, terrified wreck of an assistant and they constantly grilled him about that fact. I'm not sure what he said in reply, but I'm sure he was kind. The judges had the opinion that I didn't really belong in a competition like Challenge. Had they known my personal situation they may have backed off a bit, but I didn't make any excuses to anyone. I tried like crazy to put my personal affairs aside and just focus on the tasks at hand, but I just didn't come across well according to everyone that had an opinion about it.
So I won't be doing another Challenge again.......as a competitor or an assistant. As Rick gently told me, I'm just not right for TV. Or doing giant complicated cakes. I've just kinda lost my cake mojo. I admit it. If you don't use it you lose it.
I'm honored to have been a part of it. There's a lot of cake people that will never get that chance, so I'm grateful for the experience I got. Rick asked me at the hotel if I would ever do a Challenge again and I said yes, because at least I'd know what to expect if there were a next time. And for sure, I wouldn't be struggling with the bad luck my personal life had suffered this time around. For me, this Challenge was bad timing, plain and simple. But pastry chefs aren't allowed to have bad days. At least not on TV. So, there was my chance, and I blew it. Yep.
I don't know how the show will turn out after it's edited. In fact, my little phlegmy drama might just end up on the cutting room floor. In fact, I would be grateful if it did. I hope that all the positive things that happened are focused on and not the struggles. But this is TV. You know there'll be drama of some kind. Makes it interesting.
I don't know if I will watch and relive that day or not. But if you want to watch, it will be airing Sunday, April 4th at 8pm Eastern time.
Life is now sailing along.......back to "normal". I'm still caring for Mom 4 days a week and managing EVERYTHING in her household. That is now my "job". Caregiving is not nearly as fun as cake decorating, but sometimes life just deals you a bad hand and you have to play it. In the future I'll just look back on this time I had with Mom as something that I should be grateful for, and I am, but it's still hard to see your parents slowly just kind of deteriorate. It also makes you consider your own mortality and think "Gawd, am *I* going to end up like that too?".
I hope to get back to the pastry world at some point. It's what I was meant to do and what I enjoy. But when that will happen, who knows. In the meantime, make sure you check out these great cake people:
Wow, jeez... really interesting to hear the inside scoop on this show. Even as a viewer, I can tell it's a really stressful environment. Seems kinda ridiculous to make the contestants pay for all that shipping though. Well I hop you are ultimately proud of your accomplishment of doing the show amidst all you're dealing with. Don't forget to take care of yourself, too.
Posted by: HapaLove | 02/01/2010 at 09:59 AM
Bless You Annie....YOU DID IT...not only the Challenge....but the everyday
Posted by: Donna | 02/01/2010 at 12:30 PM
[c’est top] Great post Anna! I believe you are good in what you do. I've seen photos of the cakes you have done and they are great! It's just a bad day & bad timing for the Challenge...and not everyone is comfortable with having cameras shoved up their faces when they are working, at least not me! :) Like you, i too like to work quietly on my own..:)
Posted by: faithy | 02/01/2010 at 08:06 PM
[this is good] Annie I wish I could reach through this screen and hug you! I get it, I feel your feelings. You know that this was just one day in your life. A life with tons of skill and knowledge.
In no way does this define you! Don't you dare let your defenses down and accept peoples judgment of you, based on one very un-typical day in your life.
Posted by: Wendy DeBord | 02/02/2010 at 08:59 AM
Thanks Wendy! It was definitely, if anything, a learning experience and I did manage to have a little fun too! I know I have what is important: experience and skill and knowledge......it all helps in getting jobs, which is really the bottom line!
Hope you are doing well!
Posted by: Annie | 02/02/2010 at 09:33 AM
Colleen Apte and Steve Klc (from Eg) did a chocolate fashion contest on food network, years ago. They had a so-so experience too. The rules changed multiple times from when the show was first pitched until the day of the challenge. Some rules were too vague.. and lead them to interpret them differently then the judges. I don't think they knew there would be a face to face with the judges (during judging) ahead of time, so that threw them for a loop.
Bronwen Weber hasn't been showing well in the last Challenges I've seen her in. There's some sort of conflict she has with Cake Girls that makes her come off looking like the bad guy.
Posted by: Wendy DeBord | 02/03/2010 at 01:34 PM
I've seen people get jobs based on tastings, who can't cook anything else decent but the couple items they did in their tasting.
People are a lot more complicated then books...........when you judge someone quickly you might get it very wrong.
Besides skills and knowledge you have people who have known you for years in the food industry, that can testify to others that you do indeed know your stuff!
P.S. I'm doing well, but struggling too.
Posted by: Wendy DeBord | 02/03/2010 at 01:43 PM
I'd have a terrible terrible time doing something like that with all the cameras and odd situations. I think its great you did it!
Posted by: Katiebell | 04/05/2010 at 03:13 PM
The cake looks amazing and I applaud you for going!! I watch those challenges and I already know that I don't have what it takes because I don't do we'll under pressure and my desire to rip Kerry Vincent's headband from her ugly head would be too overwhelming! I'm sorry for the stresses you endured but again, the work looked amazing! Good choice not to mix gun paste and fondant...it probably would still be flimsy 3 years later had you done that:-)
Posted by: Alicia Allen | 03/02/2013 at 10:29 AM
Thanks Alicia! Wow, when I did that in 2009 (seems like forever ago), I was under so much stress in my personal life, that I think it reflected on my performance.....not to mention the fact that I hadn't decorated in a long time previous to that. To say I was nervous was an understatement! In fact, that was the last cake I've decorated since then. Taking care of my Mom has taken all my time. Thanks for friending me on FB too! And regarding Kerry Vincent's hair accessory.....my god, it's stupid. :) Oh yeah, and I guess they've replaced Food Network Challenge with a show called Sugar Dome.....a harder and more ridiculous cake show. I really can't believe anyone would agree to do it. Ugh!
Posted by: Val Anne Welch | 03/02/2013 at 03:03 PM