Meet Baker Andy Chlebana, Competing in Spring Baking Championship

Get to know Andy Chlebana, one of the eight bakers competing in Spring Baking Championship on Food Network.

Photo by: Emile Wamsteker ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Emile Wamsteker, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Eight bakers have entered the Spring Baking Championship for a chance to win the title and earn $50,000 in prize money. Each one brings a unique talent to the competition. Some are professional pastry chefs, while others are culinary arts instructors, competitive bakers or self-trained bakers. This new series gives them the opportunity to show their skills on national television.

Before tuning in for the premiere on Sunday, April 26 at 9|8c, get to know the bakers. Every day leading up to the first episode we'll be revealing a Q&A with one of the eight.

Andy Chlebana (Plainfield, Ill.) attended the Culinary Institute of America before working at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago and The Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island, Fla., and in Washington, D.C. This competitive baker was named the American Culinary Federation's National Pastry Chef of the Year (2008) and one of Dessert Professional's Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America (2013). He is a culinary arts professor at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Ill.

What's your first memory involving baking?

I remember my mom always baking. It could have been a Darth Vader birthday cake or as simple as chocolate chip cookies. She always made a ton of cookies around Christmas, and that was the only time she would make certain types, so you had to eat as many as you could or you missed out for a year. Today she still makes the best cutter cookies; she even makes them for all the kids' birthdays. They all get an "A" and the number of their birthday for the party.

What's the first thing you learned to bake really well? Do you still make it today?

The first thing I remember baking was chocolate chip cookies. I remember mixing them in the bowl with a fork. It seemed like it took forever to make them. When we were done there never were a lot of cookies, because we ate most of the dough! Today I still make chocolate chip cookies; the only difference is that I make them faster and I eat them after they are baked.

What would you say is your signature baked item, one that everyone knows you for?

Cheesecake. It is so simple: cream cheese, sugar, eggs and vanilla. If your recipe has simple ingredients, it really comes down to execution. You need to make it right for it to be good.

If you could bake only one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Bread. I love bread! It is alive; you have to feed it, fold it, gently shape it, score it and bake it. Such a long process, and each step impacts the next. Any small change will impact the final product.

What's your favorite ingredient or item to use in your baking?

Nuts. I love nuts. They give flavor and texture to baked items. As a kid I only liked peanut butter, but now I would put hazelnuts in everything if I could.

What's your favorite holiday to bake for? What do you typically make?

Christmastime is my favorite holiday to bake for. Right before we go on break, we make stollen. It's a yeast bread that has raisins, orange zest and almonds, all soaked in rum. There are spices in the bread, almond paste and a ton of butter. It is so good; to make it any other time of year just isn't the same.

Who is (or was) your baking mentor? What's the No. 1 thing that person taught you?

My first instructor at the Culinary Institute of America is my baking mentor, Noble Masi. He taught my first classes at the CIA. He truly loved what he did and loved baking. He taught us the basics and to do them correctly. Baking is based on basics; master these and you can do anything. He recently passed away, and this made me thankful for the time I had in his class and what he taught me.

When it comes to baking, how would you describe your style, your mentality?

I like to use familiar flavors and give them a little twist. I once made a dessert and called in peanut butter and jelly. This was a long time ago in my career; I thought it would be fun. It was good. It was a cake that had a raspberry gelee with chocolate mousse and peanut butter ice cream — YUM! When I made it I was thinking for adults, to remind them of their childhood. Turns out kids were ordering it, and they were not happy. For an adult, it worked.

If you could bake a cake for anyone (alive or dead), who would it be and what would you make?

My dad; he passed away 12 years ago, [when] I was really getting started in the industry. I would like to bake him a linzertorte. It was his favorite; I always made one for his birthday. I wish I could talk to him and share my experiences with him and see his reaction.

What's the biggest baking fail you've ever had that you're willing to admit to? Were you able to rescue it, or did you have to start from scratch?

Where do I start! Without mistakes, you cannot learn. One of my favorite mistakes happened in culinary school. I was the oven master, all day on the oven baking everything, no other duty that day. I was prepping the pans for an orange chiffon. The sad thing is I did not need to prep the pans — you don't do anything to them. The batter goes into an ungreased pan. When the cakes came out of the oven, I flipped them to cool and they all fell out. At least I greased them correctly! Everyone's cake was ruined and they had to remake them. That day I learned to pay attention so I do not waste product or time.

In your opinion, what's the No. 1 mistake that most home bakers make?

Not reading the recipe before they start. You need to read the ingredients to make sure you have everything you need. Read the equipment so you have everything you need or find an alternate. Read the method so you can preheat the oven and have an idea of what steps you will need to do and what order. This will help to prevent errors.

What are five tips or words of advice you'd give to beginner bakers to improve on their baking?

1. Follow the recipe.

2. Test recipes before you need them. If you need a souffle for a Saturday night party, make it before to be sure it will work.

3. Use good ingredients; little changes can make a better final product.

4. If you are not sure how to do something, look it up online. Chances are good someone who knows what they are doing made a video.

5. Don't give up. People that are good at baking did not just magically start doing it. They tried and failed, and tried again.

Baking Quickfire (name your favorite for each)

Cake/cupcake: Devil's food cake with fudge frosting

Pie/tart: Raspberry pistachio tart
Cookie: My mom's cutter cookies
Quick bread: Banana bread
Yeast bread: Sourdough
Pastry: Croissant
Muffin: Blueberry lemon
Savory baked item: Cheese souffle

Keep coming back to FN Dish for more on the bakers, and visit the Spring Baking Championship page for more on the new series, including behind-the-scenes galleries, episode recaps, video highlights and baking tips.

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