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Whidbey’s ace of cake competes on the Food Network

John Auburn created this Emerald City showpiece for the Food Network.  The wooden stand was built by local furniture maker David Gray.  - Photo courtesy of John Auburn
John Auburn created this Emerald City showpiece for the Food Network. The wooden stand was built by local furniture maker David Gray.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of John Auburn

CLINTON — Rome wasn’t built in a day. But Seattle was.

Whidbey’s John Auburn competed with the country’s best cake artists to build an American city skyline out of cake in just eight hours.

“What was so stressful was knowing that I had to get this done in eight hours,” Auburn recalled. “The embarrassment would have been terrible.”

Along with three other chefs, he squared off on the Food Network Challenge earlier this year. As the clock ticked on, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh and Seattle arose from cake, sugar and chocolate in a studio in Centennial, Colo.

Auburn runs his cake business, JW Desserts, out of Ken’s Korner Mall in Clinton. To learn how he did in the contest, viewers have to watch the Food Network at

8 p.m. Sunday night. The winner took home $10,000 and a gold medal.

Auburn proudly represented the Pacific Northwest and created a hybrid of the Emerald City on Puget Sound and the one from the Wizard of Oz, complete with Seattle’s premier landmarks and Dorothy’s yellow brick road. All were made of cake and modeling chocolate.

“At the end I sprayed it with green metallic dust,” Auburn said.

There were the Space Needle, Pike Place Market, Smith Tower, Queen Anne, Beacon and Capitol hills, the waterfront with waves cast from sugar — all shimmered in a metallic green hue, with orange flowers “growing” on some of the landmarks.

Auburn was invited to compete on the Food Network Challenge after one of his clients alerted network producers to his talents.

“A customer of mine e-mailed them and said, ‘Hey, look at this guy’s Web site,’” he said.

The producers invited him for the Big City Skylines cake challenge.

The work started several weeks before the competition right here on Whidbey Island. Auburn came up with a sketch that was initially received with some skepticism by the network, but it signed off on the design.

Along with fellow cake artist Bonnie Lyons of New Renaissance Cakes in Seattle, he began to experiment with the structural aspects of the skyline. Lyons would be his assistant on the show.

The rules of the contest say that 50 percent of the cake must be completed during the show, but the other 50 percent — mostly baking of the cakes and some structural work — could be done in advance.

However, that didn’t mean it made the day any easier or shorter.

Auburn got up on the day of the show at 5 a.m. and started prepping for the taping. At 9 a.m., cameras began to roll.

For eight straight hours he and Lyons worked non-stop on the cake creation.

“Usually a cake like this takes at least a week. In work hours, that’s seven times 16. It was easily a 100-hour plus project,” Auburn said.

But they did it in eight.

The cake sculptors had mapped out a timeline. In 15-minute increments they had planned what had to be done to make it to the finish.

The plan of attack was to pack as much work into the first four hours as possible and then use the rest of the time to refine.

But the team quickly learned that that was not going to happen.

“At the four-hour mark, we were two hours behind,” Auburn recalled. “It just made us work faster.”

Adding to the mad rush were the side effects of working in front of a camera. There were lights, cameras and producers in addition to an audience.

“The annoying one was the producer,” Auburn said. “She would say, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Tell me why are you doing this?’”

Auburn was prepared. He had studied each building.

“I was kind of giving a history lesson,” he said. “I’m proud of the Northwest.

I love Seattle.”

The producer also tried to spice up the competition for the sake of good reality TV, encouraging Auburn to check out the competition and comment on their work. But Auburn said he was “in the zone,” not really taking in what the contestants who worked just a few feet away in the neighboring kitchens were doing.

“At the six-hour mark,

I noticed, ‘Uhmm, we can do this,’” he added.

The plan had to be altered only slightly. They decided against adding ferries to the cake, and they forgot to add the cap on the Washington Mutual tower — something they realized during cleanup.

In the last hour they focused on refining the cake and adding details.

“Making sure it’s clean,” he said. “It was very stressful.”

Execution and technique make up a big portion of the score.

But Auburn had the eye on the prize. The $10,000 prize to be exact. That kept him on track, he said.

“I just looked at this as a $10,000 cake,” he said.

“I think I was more confident than they thought.”

Once the eight hours were up, each contestant had to carry his or her creation to the judging table. Not an easy feat after a long day of work, and the Emerald City cake weighed more than

100 pounds.

“It was heavier than

I thought,” he said.

Auburn recalled that he was not sure how the transfer would go.

“I work out, but Bonnie doesn’t. I just didn’t know,” he said.

Then the cakes were scrutinized by the three judges. The panel was made up of two pastry experts and an architect. One of the judges was an old acquaintance.

Kerry Vincent, known to be the tough judge on the show, had competed in another competition against Auburn 12 years ago.

Auburn won. Vincent walked away empty-handed, he recalled.

The judging was discouraging, Auburn said.

“All I could hear them say was negative, negative, negative,” he said.

They were especially skeptical about the Oz/Seattle theme.

“They didn’t like the ‘hideous orange flowers,’” Auburn recalled.

The architect complained that the buildings had no windows.

“What I thought was that there would be more constructive criticism,” he said. “But it was really a slap in the face.”

Auburn got high praise, however, from his competitors.

Two contestants were previous competitors on the show and one of them was a former grand-prize winner.

“They said, ‘We kind of think of you as the grandfather of cake sculpting,’” he said with a laugh, adding that he has been in the business since 1992, but it has exploded as a popular art form in the past few years.

Then it was finally time to learn who had won. The crowning of the champ was drawn out in true TV fashion, but Auburn was too tired to play along.

“At the end of the show, you’ll see I have no emotion,” he said. “I am not happy. I am not sad. I am just — dead.”

The contest rules prohibit Auburn from telling who walked away as the victor. To learn how he placed, tune in this Sunday.

So, would he do it again?

No, he said.

“But I told Bonnie, I’d be her assistant,” Auburn added.

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