Chatting with the Season 2 Winner of Spring Baking Championship

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Six weeks ago, eight bakers entered the Spring Baking Championship to prove their skills for a chance to win $50,000 and the title of champion. This season the bakers saw their fair share of ups and downs: In the premiere Susana cut herself so badly that she didn’t come back to the competition until the Main Heat. And Audrey’s Main Heat cake was such a disaster that it appeared she’d be going home, but her flavors saved her. Then in Episode 5, Kenny finally won his first challenge after having come close many times before, but in that same episode he was eliminated. But all the while, another baker was gradually rising to the top with win after win.

Jane kept racking up points with her treats. Although the judges may have found some of her baked goods to be lacking in presentation, her flavors always came out on top. Altogether she won three Pre Heats and three Main Heats, the last of which included the destination-wedding-themed challenge in the finale. Not all the judges agreed that her cake screamed “Hawaii,” but they all agreed it tasted phenomenal. Jane was declared the Spring Baking Champion and the winner of $50,000.

FN Dish recently caught up with Jane to chat about her time in the competition, the challenges she faced in the finale, her winning moment and her goals for the future.

You’re not a professionally trained baker, but you’re the pastry chef of the Eveleigh restaurant. Coming into the competition, where did you see yourself fitting into the group of bakers?

Jane Soudah: Having watched previous episodes of Baking Championships, I assumed that there would be a mix of both home bakers and restaurant chefs. I knew that my baking skills were strong and that my flavors are unique and delicious. I think being a self-taught pastry chef who is currently working in a restaurant gave me a unique advantage in the sense that I am used to working with seasonal ingredients, thinking quickly and working well in high-pressure situations.

Who did you see as your main competition?

JS: I would say that I saw both Kenny and Susana as my main competition from the beginning. The entire group was incredibly talented, but the two of them played with flavor combinations similarly to myself. They have both worked in restaurants and bakeries, and have such a high skill level and culinary knowledge that I knew they would be creating some amazing desserts.

At one point, in Episode 4, Bobby asked if you think you’re the best baker in the United States, and you replied affirmatively but with a little hesitation in your voice. Were you second-guessing yourself?

JS: There was definitely some hesitation in my voice, not because I was second-guessing myself, but because I know that there are other amazing pastry chefs and bakers in this country that are producing amazing products and doing really interesting things. I definitely learn from watching, reading and following the pastry community. I also hold the other competitors in high regard, and I think there is a difference between being confident and self-assured and being disrespectful, which I didn’t want to come across as being.

It looked like your self-confidence grew a lot during the competition. You had a little winning streak — and you were never in the bottom. Did your wins empower you? Do you think you were competing differently after having those double wins in Episode 3 under your belt?

JS: My confidence and comfort at being in the competition definitely grew as the competition progressed. I would say that the turning point for me was after being in the top two of the barbecue impostor challenge in Episode 2.

I am not a cake decorator, and I have always maintained that flavor and creativity should trump putting something highly decorative but inedible on the plate. When the challenge was over and I looked around at the other plates that looked beautiful, I was really concerned that the judges wouldn’t understand my plate of lamb chops and vegetable kebabs because it wasn’t covered in fondant or modeling chocolate. I was really concerned that I was going home after that challenge, although I knew my brownies were amazing! So when Bobby called my name as being in the top, I was truly shocked, but also knew that the judges understood my food point of view.

This was reinforced with my double wins in Episode 3. In the rainbow challenge, I refused to use a lot of food coloring in my food and chose to go with the subtle, real-food colors, and the judges once again rewarded me for focusing on flavors. I don’t think I was competing differently after the double win, but was competing with confidence that my food style was understood by the judges and also was different from the other competitors’. Before [I headed] into the competition, my head chef, friend and mentor, Jared Levy, told me to make sure I cooked true to myself. I kept reminding myself of what he said, throughout the competition, and I think remembering that was a large part of my success.

A number of times, the judges called some of your dessert “plain Jane.” Did that hurt to hear? Do you think the quality and flavor of those goods trumped looks?

JS: I think them using the term “plain Jane” was somewhat inevitable, because my style of baking is not overly decorated or finicky. It didn’t hurt to hear, because I knew that the flavor and quality of my desserts spoke for themselves. My style of baking is very rustic, and I wasn’t going to change that because the other competitors were using a lot of decorative elements that may have detracted from the flavor of the food.

In the finale you mentioned you don’t like decorating cakes. What did you think when you found out you’d be making a wedding cake in the Main Heat?

JS: I had a feeling that we would have to make an elaborate cake in the Main Heat of the finale, from watching previous Baking Championships, so I think I had mentally prepared myself that I would need to do that. Just making it to the finale was such a wonderful feeling that I reminded myself again to stay true to my baking style, to make sure the flavors were amazing and to make a cake that I would be proud of. I knew that it would be different to the cakes that Susana and Dan were making, since they are both professional cake decorators, but I knew that the judges appreciated my perspective since I’d made it to the final three!

You didn’t use parchment paper in your cake pans, and ended up having nearly every single layer stick to the pans. What was going through your mind then? Did you see your chance of winning the $50,000 slipping away?

JS: I sprayed the heck out of the pans with nonstick spray, so [I] was completely dismayed when none of the cakes came out of the pans. I was in complete panic mode and was freaking out when I looked up and saw all the cameras focused on me. All sorts of things were going through my head: “Did I have time to make all-new cakes?” “Can I piece these together?” “Do I just give up?” And a lot of expletives! I did see my chance at winning slipping away, but then I took a deep breath and stood back from the cakes for a minute and gave myself a pep talk.

I told myself I could make this work and thought about how I could get the cakes out of the pans in somewhat one piece. That’s when I thought about using a flexible spatula to get under the cakes in the pans and loosen them. When I finally got the cakes out of the pans and they weren’t too badly mangled, I knew that the rest of the cake decorating process couldn’t possibly be as stressful as that. In a sense, having that crisis at the beginning allowed me to relax and just enjoy the process and the final challenge.

When it came to presenting your destination wedding cake, once again looks came into question. Lorraine and Duff didn’t think it screamed “Hawaii.” Did you feel then and there you could have done something more with the decorations?

JS: I was somewhat frustrated when they said that the cake didn’t scream “Hawaii,” because having spent many vacations in Hawaii, I thought it did. … One of the activities that I do with my kids when we are in Hawaii is to make flower leis. At the lei classes they put huge piles of orchids, gardenia, and plumeria on the table and we use those to make the leis. The decorations on my cake were meant to emulate a pile of those flowers, which in my opinion it did. I so wished I had my phone with me during judging so I could have shown the judges photos of the flowers that I had taken in Hawaii!

When Bobby announced you had won, your first reaction was, “No.” What was going through your mind?

JS: I was in complete shock, because both Dan’s and Susana’s cakes were also beautiful. I had won five challenges up to that point, so had confidence that the judges liked my baking. I knew my cake tasted delicious and was true to my baking style, but never wanted to assume that I would win the Baking Championship. I think by yelling “no” it was more a statement of shock than of doubt.

What has it meant to win this competition, to walk away with the title of champion and $50,000?

JS: As cliche as it sounds, being a part of the competition and meeting the other competitors has been an amazing experience. I enjoyed getting to know everyone and we really became a tight-knit group of friends — we shared ideas, techniques, etc. throughout the competition. We still keep in touch and continue to learn from each other. Winning has instilled a new sense of confidence in me. I’ve always known I am a great baker, but to win the competition has validated that for me. I also think that competing has reinvigorated my love of baking, helped me to develop new flavor combinations and given me confidence to make more wedding cakes!

What do you plan to do with the money? What’s in the future for your career?

JS: I plan to save some of the money for my children’s college funds and then use the remainder to grow my business. I will continue to work at the Eveleigh and hopefully open up my own bakery at some point. I’m really excited to continue to bake, feed people and see what opportunities come up!