Competing on the Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship” isn’t all sugar and spice.
Just ask Dan Raymond, owner of Zachary’s Pastry Shoppe, adjunct professor in SUNY Schenectady County Community College’s culinary program and a contestant on the show this season.
“You have to be quick on your feet. You’ve gotta move or you’re going to get burned,” Raymond said.
The show is hosted by Jesse Palmer and judged by Nancy Fuller, Lorraine Pascale and Duff Goldman. Over seven episodes, nine bakers from across the country compete for a top prize of $25,000 and the title of holiday baking champion.
“[I’m] in awe, realizing that of all the people in the country I was one of the nine they chose. That in itself is an amazing accomplishment as far as I’m concerned,” Raymond said.
The tattooed baker, whose sons describe him as a “derd” or “dad nerd,” has been baking since he was a kid. Raymond is an alumnus of SUNY Schenectady’s culinary program, where he now teaches. He also owns Zachary’s Pastry Shoppe in East Greenbush, where he's always baking something. So in a sense, he’s been preparing for the championship most of his life.
Not that he ever planned to compete.
“Quite honestly [it] was a fluke,” Raymond said. “I just filled out an online application, never thinking that they would call me.”
That was in 2015. Much to his surprise, the network called him, and he made his way onto the fifth season of the show.
Though he’s used to working under pressure and in kitchens both familiar and unfamiliar, Raymond said working on set took some getting used to.
“The reality of it is it’s daunting. There’s cameras everywhere and there’s people running around, and Jesse is up there with that big Cheshire cat smile,” Raymond said.
The first challenge of last Monday’s episode, making something with pumpkin spice, sounded easy -- deceptively so.
“I think everybody was like, ‘Oh cool, pumpkin spice. We all know what that is,’” Raymond said.
He decided to make a classic pumpkin cheesecake, which he’s made dozens and dozens of times.
“[I was like] it’s a no-brainer. Well, you saw how that turned out,” Raymond said. Things didn’t go according to plan when he tried to marry a pumpkin pie and a cheesecake in one dessert. Luckily, it wasn’t an elimination round, so Raymond didn’t dwell on it, and instead focused on redeeming himself with the second challenge: combining a yule log with a chocolate cheesecake, adding in brandy as a not-so-secret ingredient. He had to complete the dish within 90 minutes.
“That 90 minutes goes really fast,” Raymond said.
With a reinforced resolve, he broke his “cheesecake curse,” baking a yule log with tempered chocolate that impressed the judges, one calling it “absolutely fabulous.”
On many baking and cooking shows judges are known for being harsh, sometimes unnecessarily so. But on "Holiday Baking Championship," Raymond didn’t feel that was the case. If anything, he said, the judges gave him helpful advice.
“The judges are very fair with their constructive criticism. They’re not out to make us look like we don’t know what we’re doing. They’re very nice people and I took all their criticism as constructive. I was there to have a good time,” Raymond said.
His fellow contestants were also exceedingly friendly -- and not overly competitive.
“The group of people that I competed with, we really, really liked each other. We’re actually still in constant contact, all nine of us,” Raymond said, “There was never any one person we were out to get.”
Although Raymond didn’t finish on top during the first episode of the season, he wasn’t eliminated and will be competing on Monday night’s episode. While he couldn’t divulge any details about the episode, according to Food Network viewers can expect to see some teamwork: Bakers will have to work in teams to make four different kinds of pies on the same sheet pan. Then they'll have to make stuffed cakes featuring key holiday ingredients.
For information about “Holiday Baking Championship,” visit foodnetwork.com.