Last night a cool, calm, and collected Joe Baker, aptly named pastry consultant at John Tesar's Spoon and instructor at Le Cordon Bleu Dallas (Twitter hounds know him as @Joe_theBaker), appeared on Food Network's Sweet Genius to compete for $10,000 and bragging rights. Baker and three other competitors had an array of ingredients thrown at them—from Fruity Pebbles and strawberry milk to banana peppers and cocktail bitters—in three rounds of timed pastry preparations while being lorded over by eccentric host/couture cake master Ron Ben-Israel.
At one point Ben-Israel shouted out to Baker, "Chef Joseph! You're so serious!" Baker, unfazed and unsmiling, kept his head down and continued to bust out his desserts, saying, "I am a very serious person. I'm very stoic. I have a military background and it gives me a very level head."
Despite Baker's excellent macaron technique and a pretty fantastic-looking Mexican wedding cookie cake, he was knocked out in the last round, falling just short of victory. (Thankfully, he outlasted an obnoxious pig-tailed blonde woman who used catchphrases like "yummers".) A very gracious loser, Baker stated, "I totally agree with Chef Ron. No hard feelings. [His competitor] totally deserves it."
Eater caught up with Baker to ask him a few questions about the Sweet Genius experience. Here's what he had to say:
Is Ron-Ben Israel as intimidating as he appears on the show? Seems like he's a pretty fierce judge.
I think the reason he comes across that way is because he takes desserts very seriously. Our craft, and our art as a whole is very serious at the level of the cooks he brings in. Honestly, I love him—I think he makes incredible points. I think he makes it a lot of fun for all the competitors and doing a TV show is much harder than it looks. So he isn't intimidating to me; everything he says is absolutely valid. He actually gives a lot of constructive feedback that sometimes doesn't make it into the edit, but he's really, really promotional and motivating as a judge on the show.
So the show is only about 42 minutes long, but how long did it take to shoot the episode?
I was there for about 15 or 16 hours that day, and then there was 2 or 3 hours the day prior for the promo piece.
Any disasters or bloopers, so to speak, that didn't make it into the episode?
Every folly I had definitely made it in there, for better or worse. I think we all saw the first round did not go my way, and then too much mousse in the end cost me so that's just the way it went.
This was your first foray into reality TV—is it something you'd do again?
Honestly yeah, I loved it. I thought it was a lot of fun, it really pushed me professionally and as embarrassing as it is to watch yourself on TV, it was still pretty cool at the end of the day to see it. It brings out some of the best competitors. Earlier in the season they have had chefs on the show that are friends of mine and chefs that I really respect, and I was really impressed with the caliber of cooks that came out for it.
If you were hosting the show, what ingredients would you throw at the competitors to challenge them?
I would throw things that seem simple but are actually very complicated... like bubble gum. When it's in its natural state you think, oh that's easy, but it's actually pretty difficult to work with. Or really exotic fruits, like Buddha's hand or rambutan that aren't commercially available to most people. Or something totally random like lentils that are super starchy. That would separate the true professionals and craftsman from the people who just cook because they love it, you know what I mean?
Who's a tougher judge of your desserts: John Tesar or Ron Ben-Israel?
I probably have to go with Ron Ben-Israel. John is really supportive of the work I do, obviously he's the executive chef so he's made some tweaks as he needs to, especially in my absence, which is fine, it's the daily process. But Ron-Ben Israel is a foundation of our industry, so he's a much tougher, much more experienced pastry judge than John Tesar.