It’s only natural that Bobby Deen would relish his role as host of Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship, premiering Sunday night at 9pm ET/PT.
“Thanksgiving and Christmas are wonderful holidays for my family,” says Paula’s youngest boy of his food-centric clan. “We all gathered in Statesboro, Ga., every year for Thanksgiving at my Uncle Bernie and Aunt Glennis’ house and everyone would bring desserts. There was a 6-foot buffet table in the dining room that was covered from end to end with cakes and pies and gooey bars and any kind of cookie that you could imagine. That’s such a strong memory for me.” And, says Deen, evoking sweet nostalgia — with the occasional dash of wow factor — is what Holiday Baking Championship is all about.
“That’s what the judges and I are asking these people to do is to go back into their own experiences and re-create some of the things that really gave them great memories of their family holidays,” he explains. “It’s a very visually stimulating show — your eyes will trigger your brain where you’ll be smelling the cinnamon, you’ll be smelling the spices and the gingerbread and the peppermint!”
At the start of the six-episode competition, eight bakers — ranging from talented home cooks to a baking instructor at Atlanta’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts — will face off in a variety of challenges featuring traditional holiday tastes and treats, and presided over by celebrity judges Duff Goldman (Ace of Cakes), Nancy Fuller (Farmhouse Rules) and Lorraine Pascale (Lorraine’s Fast, Fresh and Easy Food). One by one, the competitors will be eliminated until a victor is crowned, earning a $50,000 prize and the coveted title of Food Network’s first Holiday Baking Champion.
“The separation of talent came down to very fine lines — especially as we continued through the show,” Deen says of the intense competition. “As we got closer and closer to figuring out who the champion was going to be, the lines became finer and finer. I’m glad that I wasn’t judging! While the bakers were working, I was able to be on the set, walking around and interviewing them and watching them, so I really liked my point of view on the show. I was in the catbird seat for this show [laughs]!”
Here’s what else Deen told us about Holiday Baking Championship — and his own sweet family holiday traditions, old and new.
Channel Guide Magazine: Pretty much everyone has holiday baking memories and traditions — getting a peek into others’ via this competition, and also getting some great ideas for new traditions, sounds pretty irresistible. Was that part of the appeal for you in hosting this show?
Bobby Deen: That was really appealing to me. And I like a good, old-fashioned competition, too. And finding out about the competitors for the show, I just knew that it was going to be a lot of fun. I want to be careful not to give away too much, because it was just such a fun show to be a part of and just full of surprises — and very, very real. I never knew what was going to happen — and I was driving the show! So it’s going to be a lot of fun for the viewers!
We see a lot of cooking competitions on TV, but baking is another matter entirely and a much more exact science. Does that lend an extra edge to Holiday Baking Championship?
I come from a family of really good cooks. And with cooking, you can have fun and play around and do whatever you’d like. With baking, it’s really exact. But the fact that it is an exact science almost makes it less intimidating than just trying to cook, because you have very specific instructions and ingredient amounts, and as long as you’re paying close attention — I think most bakers are very precise and probably control freaks [laughs]. That’s the part that was difficult for them because the thing that’s outside of their control was knowing what they were going to be asked to bake. Plus there were time constraints — we ask them to perform tasks on the fly with very little chance for them to put a lot of thought into it. And the baking time itself, you have to factor that in as well. And your prep time. That, for all the competitors I think, was the mies en place — the gettin’ ready to get bakin’!
Tell me as much as you can about the competitors. Sounds like quite an eclectic mix!
We had bakers of every stripe, from all parts of the country. Some are people who aspire to own their own bakeries. Some are just everyday people who enjoy baking at home and wanted to put their skills to the test and see how good they are on a national platform. And then we had a gentlemen there who was a baking instructor from the Cordon Bleu in Atlanta. So you had all levels of skill — and you also had just completely different personalities. It was just an amazing show to be a part of.
I’m trying to decide if a Le Cordon Bleu instructor would be more intimidated by, say, a no-nonsense cookie-baking grandma or the other way around…
[Laughs] I don’t know. But I will tell you this. He was a gentleman — and he was a very cool customer. So if he was intimidated at all, it was difficult to tell!
… because I would hold my mom making my grandma’s sugar cookie recipe up against just about anyone …
But you may not be asked to make your grandmother’s sugar cookie recipe! [Laughs]
I can’t bake to save my life — it would have to be my mom. I’d just snuggle in between Duff and Nancy and judge this thing!
I enjoyed my place in the show because being a judge, I didn’t envy it. It was about creativity and it was about presentation and taste — those were the criteria for the bakers. And obviously bakers are creative people and they’re very precise in their presentation, for the most part. And if you know what you’re doing, the taste is going to be there. So the judging came down to really fine lines for a lot of the different baked goods. I didn’t envy them for having to make the selections!
You do have a great mix of backgrounds and personalities on the judging panel. What do each — Duff, Lorraine and Nancy — bring to the table? Seems to me there’s room for bit of sugar and spice in their interactions with each other — and with the contestants.
There definitely was. They’re all professionals and TV personalities, as well, so they’re not reserved. Duff, for instance, is very much a professional cake decorator, and Lorraine is a very sophisticated and well-educated baker. Of course, Nancy is a very good cook in her own right. Their personalities are all very different — but they’re three strong personalities. And they’re three people with very much their own opinions.
So there was some back and forth between the judges that was — I think you described it accurately. There was definitely some sugar and some spice there — and also between them and the contestants, because the contestants were all very eclectic personalities, as well! And people who take a lot of pride in their skills don’t take criticism very well [chuckles]. But if Duff Goldman is giving you instruction or criticism on how you’ve iced a cake or how you’ve baked something, you have to respect that and listen to it.
Reading the episode descriptions, it sounds like you want them to be creative but not too outlandish in their finished products. Is that so viewers can possibly incorporate some of what they see in the competition into their own kitchens/recipes?
Most definitely. But there is a nice mix, because, after all, there was a $50,000 grand prize on the line — and also the title that goes with being the Holiday Baking Champion on the Food Network, for cryin’ out loud! So, the viewer will see things that they can do at home and then they’re going to see some things that are definitely like, ‘Oh my gosh, I could never do that!’
But sometimes less is more. And sometimes the simple things are the best. That definitely applied during this show. I think that the judges really just wanted them to put their best foot forward. It was really easy to pull for all of these people — and by that I mean to hope for and want them to do well. The judges wanted them to succeed. And we set them up for success. But it was a very challenging event!
What is your own earliest holiday food memory?
I remember as a small child, we would make cookies for Santa Claus. My mom and my dad and my brother and I would all get in the kitchen early on Christmas Eve Day and we would bake cookies and my brother and I would excitedly leave them out for Santa Claus with a glass milk. We would wake up Christmas morning and Santa had inevitably some cookies with bites out of them and a little bit of milk left in the glass and that’s a wonderful memory for me! If I do — God willing — have children in my life, that’s something I will definitely pass on to them.
You’re also fairly newly wed. What sort of holiday traditions are you building together and what have you each brought from your own families?
Well, I’m new at it, so we’re still trying to figure that out [laughs]. But my wife is from Venezuela, so some of our traditions, obviously, are different. They do celebrate Christmas and it is an important time of year for her. But something that was fun for me — and I don’t think this is just a Southern thing, I think this is just a very American thing — but we do stockings at Christmastime, where not only do children get gifts from Santa under the tree, but there’s also a stocking on the mantle. And, growing up, for us the stocking was almost the better part of Christmas, because there were all kinds of small goodies tucked away in there, and little gifts of different kinds. My mother and father were very creative with the stocking s for my brother and me. So that’s something that I have always remembered and cherished as a child And my wife had no clue that there was such a thing as a Christmas stocking!
So what I did was I made stockings, one with her name on it, and one with my name on it and hung them on the mantle. She was like ‘Oh this is very pretty. This is a very pretty decoration for Christmas!’ And as soon as December hit, I began to put small items inside of her stocking leading up to Christmas Day. She was not allowed to look into it — she could only feel it. And she loved it! So that is a tradition that we’ll do every year for sure. To give her the joy of a Christmas stocking and also the anticipation of it growing and bulging more and more every day was a lot of fun.
I’m fortunate that all of my family is alive and well, and my mother and my father and brother all just adore my wife. She’s a beautiful person. And she comes from a beautiful family. She knows how important the holidays are to me and my family and she’s getting to enjoy it with me and my family. And being that her parents and her brother don’t live in the United States — her parents live in Panama City, Panama, and her brother lives in Columbia — so another tradition we’ve started is that we share Christmas with my family and then we go be with her family for the first week of the new year.
In the end, family is the only thing that matters!
Holiday Baking Championship airs Sunday nights at 9/8CT on Food Network.
Fans can also access all-new recipes, see behind-the-scenes photos and join judge Duff Goldman each week at FoodNetwork.com/BakingChampionship for a special web-exclusive video series featuring fantasy creations based on each episode’s theme.
Photos courtesy of Food Network