A metallic Emerald City made of cake towered above three other iconic skylines in Food Network’s Big City Cake Challenge.
John Auburn of JW Desserts in Clinton won $10,000 in the TV culinary square-off. The show aired Sunday night, and audiences followed along as four of the country’s best cake makers created cake-and-sugar replicas of Seattle, New York City, Chicago and Pittsburgh.
“Once they announced the winner, I was relieved it was over,” Auburn recalled.
The award ceremony was the culmination of a full day of non-stop work during which there were a few times that Auburn’s chances of winning seemed to be slipping.
Auburn, who created his native Seattle, beat out three others including a prior grand-prize winner and contest veterans.
The challenge tapped not only the artists’ talents in the aspects of pastry design and technique, but also structural sculpturing, and it became clear early on that this was a tough feat.
All competitors had major trouble from the get-go. One competitor had not stacked his cakes in advance and lost valuable time. Another competitor had lost her cakes on the way to the show and had to buy supermarket cakes that were too soft to sculpt.
Auburn and his assistant Bonnie Lyons looked confident, but then they too hit a brick wall. The rules of the competition demand that each cake feeds 150 people, but they don’t specify how the cake has to be used.
Auburn had made the bones of his three tallest buildings, including the Space Needle, from cardboard – a choice that didn’t sit well with the judges.
“Right now the judges are giving him kind of the stink eye,” said host Keegan Gerhard, who is considered one of the nation’s top pastry chefs.
The three judges wanted to see tall structures made from cake and they didn’t hold back voicing their discontent.
Meanwhile, the other competitors struggled with the drawbacks associated with making tall buildings from cake only.
The facades of New York City started to sag and Chicago and Pittsburgh rose only very slowly, barely resembling its realistic counterparts.
“The standard of work here is absolutely atrocious,” said judge Kerry Vincent, who is known to be the tough judge on the program.
“Nobody is worthy of getting the $10,000 check and the gold medal,” another judge commented halfway through the contest.
But the struggle with the judges was not yet over for Auburn. He had glued the cap of the Space Needle on with a hot glue gun. The judges objected and Auburn had to shift gears, take the saucer apart and reassemble it with chocolate as adhesive.
After a grueling eight hours of work, the judges announced their decision, praising Auburn’s execution and quality of work.
As Auburn’s name was called, he continued to stand motionless looking into the camera until one of his competitors gave him a nudge.
He said the competition was mentally and physically demanding and he praised everybody’s efforts.
Auburn said it was tough and very stressful and not one of his most favorite experiences in his career.
“I like to win. I like to be successful,” Auburn said after the show. “But I don’t like the spotlight on me.”
With the $10,000, Auburn bought a new, more fuel-efficient car for his business. His old SUV that he used to make deliveries between Bellingham and Tacoma had become a gas-guzzling problem.
Those who get hungry by watching one of the reruns of the show on the Food Network can stop by JW Desserts new retail space at Ken’s Korner. There, Auburn sells an assortment of cakes, tortes, sweet and savory cheesecakes and much more.