Local cake artist vies for prize on TLC channel

Whidbey J.W. Desserts owner John Auburn (center) will lead the “green team” to its destiny in the “Ultimate Cake Off” on the TLC channel at 10 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15. - Photo courtesy of TLC
Whidbey J.W. Desserts owner John Auburn (center) will lead the “green team” to its destiny in the “Ultimate Cake Off” on the TLC channel at 10 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of TLC

His cake is dough in the heated world of baking competitions.

You might say cake-maker extraordinaire John Auburn of Whidbey’s J.W. Desserts at Ken’s Korner Mall in Clinton is the ultimate technician when it comes to making cakes. If you tune into the third episode of this season’s “Ultimate Cake Off” on the TLC channel at 10 p.m. local time Monday, Feb. 15, you can see for yourself what makes Auburn’s sweet concoctions a little slice of perfection.

Auburn has been in the cake business for more than 20 years, and the kudos are rising.

In 2008, Auburn competed in the Food Network Challenge and took home a $10,000 first prize for building an Emerald City cake.

Auburn and three other bakers were challenged to build an American city skyline out of cake in eight hours. His cake represented the Pacific Northwest in a hybrid creation of the Emerald City on Puget Sound combined with the city of Oz, complete with Seattle’s premier landmarks and Dorothy’s yellow brick road.

This time around, Auburn headed up a team of four bakers pegged “the green team” and competed against two other teams for a cake to feed 3,000 people.

The competition and shoot took place shortly before Christmas at a studio in Glendale, Calif. for a client who requested a “Nutcracker”-themed cake.

“The level of my team had about 35 years of combined experience between the four of us,” Auburn said.

But even with the crack team he captained, Auburn said it was no easy bake.

“It was a nine-hour competition with non-stop adrenaline and just a go, go, go, attitude,” he said.

His team included bakers between the ages of 35 and 50 from Florida, Ohio and California. As the leader of the green team, Auburn was called on to create the concept and initial templates for the cake. He then drew up a timeline of tasks for his teammates which included rolling out modeling chocolate, creating chocolate panels and sculpting the figures of the Nutcracker Prince and Clara which would be featured on the cake.

“Everyone was helping each other out, and it was my job to be the motivator, the manager and to see that the cake was executed per my idea,” Auburn said.

With such heady competition in the studio under the intimidating lens of the camera, dramas are bound to be played out.

“One of the teams kicked out their leader because she was giving too many directions. You need focus most of all at these events. You’ve got clients, judges, camera people all watching, but you just need to keep doing what you need to do,” Auburn said.

His strategy is to stay clear, focused and to never freak out or panic.

“There’s a certain type of person who is right for competition. You have to be a multi-tasker,” he added.

At J.W. Desserts, Auburn produces everything from wedding cakes and sculptures to tortes, cheesecakes, tarts and gourmet brownies. He even devises his own recipes, and his flourless chocolate espresso cake has become something of a legend on the island.

“Any good dessert, I’ll make,” he said.

Having settled on Whidbey 10 years ago, Auburn said he’s been under the radar from the high-profile stuff he used to do predominantly when he worked in California for the celebrity set. But now, the networks have taken notice of his exceptional precision, and the calls have started ramping up from other parts of the country for his services.

“I love it. I absolutely love what I do,” he said. “People who come in to buy a cake are in good moods. It’s fun to create something eye-worthy and good to eat, too.”

Find out if Auburn and the team bake their way to victory Monday night on TLC.

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