When I was a kid I used to sit in my favorite hiding place and pretend to be on TV; possibly being interviewed by a newscaster or acting out a scene from a made-up drama. I would take my mother’s makeup and draw all over my face; painting elaborate designs or just making myself up into character. Later in my teens, I was a part of the Drama club and improv was my favorite. I think it was always a childhood fantasy to be on TV .
When I was asked to be on Food Network’s Sweet Genius by a casting agency, I initially said “no”. As I thought about it and talked to the producers, I realized that the inventiveness and creativity of Sweet Genius was intriguing. This was about enjoying the moment; trying something new and going out of my comfort zone… on national TV…in front of hundreds of thousands of people.
Being on Sweet Genius was fun, exciting, exhausting and inventive. Many people never get the chance to go behind the scenes and see what it is like to film a show for TV. Firstly, you do not know what the categories for the competition will be. We were given 10 possible categories, from breads to ice-cream. Some of which I do not have much experience with. A few hours before filming I was told the categories; chocolate, candy and cake. Candy? I guessed I’d wing it; have fun and play.
The first day we filmed the start of the show where they introduce everyone. The producers knew exactly how they planned on filming me. I had a sketchbook in hand and cakes all around, like being in Wonderland. I was directed to do every smile, glance or hand movement. It was a lot of fun. They wanted to show sketches flying all over the set while a big fan blew my hair around. I felt like I was one of the Charlie’s Angels, from back in the day. Okay, I thought, I’m being portrayed as either the glamour girl or the diva…but it’s all in good fun.
The next day we arrived at 6am to a large buffet breakfast in the lobby. (I never forget the food) We were asked to hand over our phones and recipes. Recipes had to be memorized. After all the contestants met, we were escorted to the set. When I walked in, I felt like I walked into Candy land or Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. It made the contestants feel special and intrigued. The set had all kinds of equipment I’ve never seen and everything was organized in a pretty rainbow array of colors. The producers showed us around for about 10 minutes.
Next we started filming the intro. I was told to look at the camera serious , then happy, then do something funny. I started to dance. After some instruction about this and that Chef Ron came on set. They asked us to stare at him for what seemed like 10 minutes- with a camera in each of our faces. Can you image working on a competition with a camera in your face the whole time? What happen to personal space? What happened to reality TV? Well, I quickly started to see that reality TV is not really reality when it comes to TV. I just kept telling myself, “I’m here to have fun, to challenge myself”.
The first challenge was chocolate. We were given Vermicelli Noodles with Lightning as our inspiration. We were given about 5 minutes to sketch out our ideas before the clock started. I was inspired by lightning rods and the heat of the lighting when it hits a tree for the design. But for the taste? My grandmother’s Easter spaghetti custard. I grew up hating it but eventually learned to like it over time. I knew it was easy and quick. This dessert had to be chocolate so I mixed in some chocolate to custard. The cameras no longer bothered me.
Next, the secret ingredient was tamarind candy. I tasted the spicy sweet candy and found a seed inside. “This is awesome”, I thought. Tamarind is an Indian fruit. My Indian mother-in-law cooks with it so I’m familiar with how to accent it’s flavor. I cook with Indian spices almost daily. This is Food Network Baby! So in goes some passion fruit concentrate, which is a great compliment to chocolate, along with crushed peppercorns, for heat ,and my favorite: fresh ginger! Out of my nervousness, I only make one custard and forgot to make another to taste.
Next while watching the clock, I take the dried noodles and dip them in chocolate to look like lighting bolts, charred, crispy and a little scary. I made my dish look asymmetrical to show that the lightning bolt was moving. I finished with a minute or two to spare. We presented our desserts all together. This was a good round for me. Although it was cut on TV, with a big smile Chef Ron complimented my dessert and the clean design of my plate, and named it “the eye of the storm”. He said it reminds him of Kugel from Israel. I told him how I combined the influence of my Italian family, specifically my grandmother, with my husband’s Indian culture. It was a good representation of me as chef. Chef Ron told me that my grandmother would be very proud to taste this dessert. I was bummed that the producers cut out everything about my family because I wanted my grandmother and family to see that she was my inspiration when the show aired. That made me so happy to have such a successful dish inspired by my family recipe.
I told Chef Ron that I only made one custard, so he asked me to try it. He said, that if I was to open a restaurant that my “eye of the storm” dessert should be on the menu, for sure. We discussed our similar backgrounds in the arts, him as a dancer and me as an artist/designer. He was very hospitable.
During the other contestants critiques, he asked one of the chefs to step out of the box and present something unexpected that would excite him, so I kept that statement to heart for the next round. Chef Samantha was eliminated in the first round. In between rounds, the producers interviewed us in separate rooms to go over our thoughts and size up the competition.
Next round; Candy! Chocolate could not be used as the primary dish, we were told. I was excited. This is all about the ‘experiment’ and ‘seizing the day’ because I know little about making hard candies. What to do? Have fun. First comes our mandatory ingredient, Pomelos, which is like a bitter grapefruit. Next, our inspiration; Origami, the Japanese art of paper folding.I really felt so happy because it harks back to my childhood. I know how to make a number of origami designs by heart. This was my favorite past-time in 5th grade. I wanted to make a hard candy folded sugar crane of sorts. I thought to make it out of sugar paste, my expertise, but thought this would be a cop out because sugar paste is pre-made and Chef Ron may accuse me of not challenging myself. Instead, I started to make a honey candy to balance out the bitterness of the pomelos. I decide to juice the fruit but the juicer was not working. As I open the juicer to fix the issue, I see that this brand new juicer had the plastic and cardboard inside! This was not shown on TV.
I add the juice into the candy which caused it to burn! But before I would remake it, I decide to pour out the burnt candy and try folding it to see if my idea works. It works but then breaks as it cools. I realize time is running out and my candy is burnt! So I need to make something that tastes interesting for Chef Ron quickly. The next secret ingredient is Honeycomb. I think Thai Basil and Honeycomb has a Japanese influence so I decide to make a basil gelee. I had read in John Iuzzini’s (Top Chef: Just Desserts’ judge and former executive pastry chef for Daniel and Jean-Georges) cookbook that Basil gelee makes a unique fresh Asian dessert. I had tested his recipe previously and liked it. Basil is a very polarizing herb. You either love it or hate it.
When the second round was finished, I present my broken burnt sugar crane with a stream of basil gelee to show the flight path. Unfortunately, Chef Ron was not a fan of Basil Gelee. I was “no sweet genius” after all. I left the studio at 7:30pm that night, exhausting from talking to the producers for hours, rehashing my every move and thought on file.
On April 5th the show aired. My kids were so disappointed that I did not win Sweet Genius. I explained that I WAS a winner. I got to live my childhood fantasy of being on TV in a dramatic show. On Food Network. Wow.
All in all it was wonderful experience. Viewers should realize reality TV is edited for drama and with the entertainment of the viewer in mind. Each competitor in that room was special and inventive in their own way. I especially took a liking to The Hard Rock Cafe’s Chef Alon, whom was very warm and a real gentleman. I knew he won before he even completed the cake round. He has over 20 years experience as an executive pastry chef, a national pastry competition award winner, in the Guinness Book of Records for the tallest wedding cake, and had a large repetoire of knowledge of every kind of pastry and sugar technique. I was honored to compete against him on Food Network.
Before I left the stage, Chef Ron said that he hoped one day to taste my cake and that he would want me to taste his. I knew that day would be sooner than he would expect. The next week, we were both presenters at the Martha Stewart Wedding Party. I saw him in the hall way and told him to stop by my table when he gets a minute to taste my cake. I tasted his cake while his assistant was setting up his table. Later, he found me at my table and asked me to “feed him” my cake. Chef Ron is dramatic, like you would expect. But that’s what makes him fun. He commented on how much he enjoyed the cake and tasted all 3 flavors while he eyed the Dreamcakes’ cake designs. He pointed at my sugar flowers and commented on the beauty. He was very sweet and friendly.
I was proud to be a part of the second season of Sweet Genius. It was a very entertaining, creative and exciting show.