People are constantly asking me about my experiences on The Food Network’s hit show “Cupcake Wars.” It seems that they want to hear about stories behind the scenes, but they also want to know how I managed to win 3 times baking gluten-free confections against “traditional” bakers. And just about every entrepreneur wants to know what I’ve learned from my experiences. So, I spent a little time thinking about the top 5 lessons learned from my 5 stints on the show, and extrapolated the larger lesson from each.
I’d love to hear what you think of these lessons. Do you agree? Or am I missing something?
1. Have a plan, then work it out. You have heard it before, but it’s critical—take your time to think things through. We knew from watching all the previous episodes that “Cupcake Wars” required competing bakers to use “secret ingredients.” Before each of my wins, my assistant Jackie and I would put together a palette of compatible flavors. No matter what secret ingredient might appear on the inspiration table in the first round, we knew through analysis there should always be something fruity, something spicy, and something chocolatey on our second round plate.
So we would challenge ourselves by devising trials to see how quickly we could think on our feet. We would have friends bring brown bag ingredients and see what we could make with them. Once we were given jalapeño peppers, and created a jalapeño-studded basil-flecked cake, filled with a spicy-sweet strawberry mango jalapeño salsa, topped with strawberry jalapeño buttercream. Oddly enough, it was pretty good, and thinking outside the box during practice runs certainly gave us an advantage during each show—as well as the confidence that, no matter what might come up, we could improvise.
And it’s much better to be overprepared than be blindsided. Many times, we were given more mundane inspiration ingredients, such as Coffee and Doughnuts (“The Closer 100th Episode”). Here, our plan of fruity-spicy-chocolate-y was a hit in round two when the judges raved about our Apple Fritter (both fruity and spicy) and our Boston Cream Pie and Ding Dong-inspired cupcakes (chocolate-y). Having this formula has guided each of our episodes and taken us to the final round every time. No matter your business, figure out your own formula. Your plan will keep you from spinning your wheels and give you a place to get started for minimum stress and maximum efficiency.
2. Now that you’ve created your plan, be willing to abandon it. No matter how thoroughly you think you’ve planned, don’t assume the best case scenario will always occur. Be versatile and able to think on your feet. When something doesn’t work out—because, guaranteed, some things will likely not work out—you have to be able to come up with a backup plan, a way to troubleshoot.
On the “Madagascar 3 Premiere” episode of “Cupcake Champions,” we tried experimenting with tamarind—a new ingredient that I had no previous experience using. It was one of the more exotic inspiration ingredients, alongside coffee, coconut, rice, cloves, lentils, and yams. I figured the coconut, coffee, and cloves would be easy to work with and wanted to select a more challenging ingredient to showcase our skill. However, once we got the tamarind paste in the pot with water and sugar, the smell of it gagged me, and it became clear fairly quickly that I couldn’t put this in a cupcake. So with precious minutes ticking away, we switched our plan to include yams with our coffee and cloves to create a clove-laced yam cake (using rice flour), filled with coffee pastry cream and topped with clove mascarpone whipped cream and a clove-sugared yam chip on top. And we managed to finish with just enough time to pull it together successfully.
Being adaptable and flexible on the go means that you don’t get stuck in one way of thinking. Of course, you’ve got to be able and willing to monitor how results are turning out along the way. But after all your preparation, you’re likely to be most successful if you stay flexible and allow inspiration and creativity drive your actions than trying to force something that just isn’t working.
3. Presentation is half the battle. On “Cupcake Wars,” this doesn’t just mean the decoration on top of the cupcakes; it also encompasses how you introduce the cupcakes to the judges. Round 1 on each episode of Cupcake Wars is judged purely on taste and how well the baker incorporates the inspiration ingredients; however, Round 2 is judged partly on flavor and partly on presentation. When you’re competing with the best of the best, the judges expect the winning competitors to have beautiful, edible, theme-related decorations topping each delicious cupcake. What they don’t tell you, but what you must figure out if you are indeed going to win, is the way you speak of your cupcake flavors, and why you’ve selected your ingredients and flavors makes a real difference.
In business and in baking, people are simultaneously affected by many senses. “Explaining” and positioning your baking in Round 2 can help win over the judges. When we were on the “Holiday Tree Lighting” episode, our Round 1 cupcake was a Cranberry Apple Cider cake, topped with apple cider spiced buttercream and a cranberry coulis drizzle. I told the judges, “Every good holiday meal begins with a toast, and today you’re toasting with a cranberry apple cider cupcake.” Then, we carried the traditional drink theme into Round 2 with our Peppermint Hot Chocolate, Eggnog, and Chai Spice cupcakes, and reminded the judges that holidays are the time for traditions and memories; that these flavors all elicited specific memories of Christmas parties, and caroling and going downtown to see the massive fir tree being lit for the first time. The judges ate up my story—and my cupcakes. A compelling story sells your idea. Think of what your story is. How will you tell it if you only have a few minutes to entice those who are key to your success?
4. Never point out your mistakes if others don’t catch on. But if they do catch on, admit it right away and make amends.
When I was on “The Closer” episode, I was very disappointed in my chocolate Italian meringue buttercream that topped the Boston Cream Pie cupcake because I thought it was under whipped and way too soft. I did not mention this to the judges, and much to my surprise, they commended me for the light, silky. texture! They didn’t even notice what I was so worried about! On the other hand, during Round 2 of the “Holiday Tree Lighting,” I got sidetracked and forgot about my sugar syrup for the Italian meringue that was boiling away on the stove. As a result, I let the mixture get too hot and by the time I poured it into the whipping egg whites, it scrambled the eggs and I had to throw out the meringue. On my second attempt, the sugar crystallized and left a grainy meringue, instead of one that was smooth and creamy, like I intended. I began a third attempt to get it right, but ran out of time, so in the effort to get something on the plate, I went with the grainy, crystallized meringue. I didn’t want to call attention to my mistakes, but judge Florian Bellanger asked me about my overcooked sugar and commented, “I think it is not quite right.” I grinned and sheepishly agreed that I had had some problems with it…and that was that. Had I argued with him and tried to pretend I didn’t know what he was talking about, he very easily might have lost respect for my skill as a pastry chef and I would not have made it to Round 3. Remember that even skilled people make mistakes; owning up to your failings earns respect, and most people like to make allowances for people they respect.
5. Be committed. If something is worth doing, then it’s worth doing well. But it’s better to do it poorly than to not do it at all.
The very first time I went on Cupcake Wars, I was terrified that the judges would taste my cupcakes and say, with a look of disgust on their faces, “These are gluten-free cupcakes…and I can tell.” I hoped and prayed that my cakes were as good as everyone kept telling me, and that the judges would agree that these specialty cupcakes would beat “traditional” cupcakes on flavor and texture. But mostly, I thought about backing out. Afterall, I don’t enjoy the stress of competitions and I feared that if I didn’t win, I would be disgraced in front of the nation, and my business would be in complete ruins.
To make things even worse, the day before I was to fly down to my first Cupcake Wars, I landed in the hospital with food poisoning. I missed my flight, and then I missed my backup flight. After 3 days in the hospital, pumped full of steroids, I was released and immediately caught a flight to compete on Cupcake Wars – much later than the other three competitors. I hadn’t eaten solid food in five days, but still decided to go on the show and see what would happen.
At that point, I was less concerned about winning and more focused on just doing the best I could. I figured at that point, just showing up and staying on my feet was a win. In the end, I was the runner up (the winning baker, Brenda, had an amazingly sleek and elegant display), but the judges raved about my cupcake flavors and texture the whole time. And because I was baking gluten-free, I had the underdog appeal which boosted my online-only business and gave me the support I needed to finally open my brick and mortar bake shop location.
Don’t let fear of failure stall you, or prevent you from trying. Unless you put yourself out there, you have no idea what you can really accomplish. I did it and you can too.