Exclusive Interview with the Season 3 Holiday Baking Champion
Seven weeks ago, nine bakers entered the Holiday Baking Championship with the hopes of leaving with the coveted title and the $50,000 grand prize. With every passing week, the challenges got harder and harder, and the competition got cut down one by one, until just three bakers remained to compete in the finale: Shawne, Cheryl and Jason. A holiday-themed cake Main Heat determined who would be crowned the winner. Find out which baker's life was changed forever and read the exclusive interview.
Home baker and cafeteria manager Jason Smith brought his Southern charm, his take on his family recipes and his best baking game to the competition. He's the first home baker to win Holiday Baking Championship. That speaks to his self-taught ability and his creativity in the kitchen — you'll remember some of his unique baking shortcuts, like using sauerkraut in a cake batter. FN Dish recently caught up with the winner to chat about his journey on the show, the final big bake, and everything that's going to change in his life from now on.
Eddy Chen, © 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.
You mentioned in the finale that you wanted to be on the show since Season 1. When you got the news that you were going to be on Season 3, what was your reaction?
Jason Smith: I was actually standing at Walmart in the checkout line and I looked down at my phone and I saw the number and I thought, "OK, this is either good or bad." So, I looked at the woman, I handed her my money clip and I said, "OK, I have to take this call. It's an emergency. You check me out, pay for it, put the money in your pocket. I'll be right back, I've got to take this call." So, I left my money clip and everything with the woman and I went out to my car and then when I took the call and he said we're 99 percent sure that you're one of the contestants, I was totally absolutely speechless. I was like, "OK, am I dreaming? Is this for real?" And I kept saying, "Are you sure? Are you positive?" and he kept saying, "Yeah, yeah. I'm for sure. Yeah. They want you," and I said, "OK." He said, "Are you for sure you want to do it?" And I said, "Yeah, I don't know why I wouldn't." And then when I got off the phone with him, I actually had forgot all about being in Walmart, that I had stuff in there, I actually started my car and started to drive out of the parking lot and I thought, "Now wait just a minute, you've got stuff in Walmart and your money clip's in her pocket." So, I had to go back in and then when I came back out I had to go to the grocery store and I cried like a little girl from Walmart all the way to the grocery store because it was just — it was so overwhelming to think that just a country boy like myself from Kentucky is fixing to be on national television. … I was totally speechless, and that's very hard for me because I have something to say just about for everything. But I was just very overwhelmed, I was very appreciative, I was very humbled.
You came in as a home baker. What were some of the hurdles going up against professionals? What was Day 1 like?
JS: They put us all in the holding room together and we all kind of really clicked right off the bat and we were just going around the room talking, introducing ourselves and where we were from and kind of like what our background was and all that. … I'm thinking "Oh dear God, I'm going to get chewed up and spit out by these professionals." … When it got to my turn to introduce myself and stuff and I was, like, "Yeah, I'm a home baker," and they were all like "Well, don't be disappointed about that, you got to start somewhere. Just because we're professionals doesn't mean that you're not any good just because you're a home baker. Don't look down upon yourself just because of that." And I'm like, "Oh no, I'm not looking down upon myself, I'm just thinking "OK, what have I got to do to beat you professionals," … and then they just all died laughing and then they kind of learned my personality, that I'm just a big joker and I like to make everything fun and try to make everybody feel comfortable and I just don't like all that back-biting … . I kind of got over that fear of what are these professionals going to do that I need to try to do better. I kind of got over that real quick seeing that just because I was a home baker didn't mean that I wasn't any as good as they were.
Was there anyone in particular that you felt was your biggest competition?
JS: There were two. Probably the one though that I was really, "OK, this is the one that I might have a little problem with," you know I may have a problem beating this person or trying to get over the hurdle was Cheryl. I love Cheryl to death. Me and her, still to this day we still text and talk to each other, well actually we all do, but Cheryl was one of those, she kind of intimidated me a little bit when we first started, because Cheryl's really good and I thought, "OK, right there is my biggest competition, it's going to be Cheryl." And then Matt, I kind of felt the same way about Matt and then he was a little bit intimidating as well… .
You were in the bottom two only once. What do you think that says about your baking?
JS: I was in the bottom two one time with that stupid chocolate box, and it was just one of those things — you know, I've done chocolate boxes I don't know how many times and that day it just did not, was not, clicking in my mind, but we all had problems with it. It wasn't just me, it was everybody that was left. … Even though my box looked like a coffin, it still made me feel proud that even though I'm a home baker, you know, I'm hanging in here with these professionals. You know, I am showing myself and the other people that, "Yes, a home baker has what it takes to hang in with the big dogs."
During the course of the competition, you featured recipes from your grandma and aunt, like the sauerkraut cake and the bean pie. What did that mean for you to show off your family recipes?
JS: It meant a lot to me. My baking style is very diverse. I like to take old, heritage recipes and put a new spin on them and bring them into the new age and I'm one of those people that just about every recipe that my aunts and my grandmothers passed down to me I still use quite a bit. I've pretty much got them memorized — I don't have to look at the recipe anymore. … I wanted to showcase exactly what my aunts and grandmothers would have done years and years ago … because they didn't have the money back then to buy pecans … so they used leftover soup beans … . And, the sauerkraut in the cake, my grandmother always told me that her grandmother always did that because it left the cake moist because they just didn't have the money to buy the different ingredients that you would use in a normal cake … . It meant showing even though I don't have my grandmother any longer with me, it kind of made me showcase her memory of what it was to me to get to do her recipes on national TV for everybody to see.
How did you get started in baking? What were you first forays into baking like?
JS: Well, it started when I was about six years old and we were raised on a huge farm, it was a tobacco farm, and mostly growing up the kids would go help in the fields and the tobacco and the hoeing and the setting of the tobacco and working it and all that stuff and that just never, I always had to do it, but it never did interest me and I'm thinking, you know, I could be at the house helping granny cook lunch or cook supper or whatever instead of standing out here in this field with all these blisters on my hands from hoeing tobacco and so one day I said to her, I said "Can I stay with you today and help you instead of going to work in tobacco?" And she said, "Yeah, that'd be fine" and she said "Well, if you're going to stay with me you're going to have to help cook" and I said, "That's fine." … But that's how it all began. I didn't want to be out in the field working, I wanted to be in the house cooking because I thought, you know, I could see that when my grandmother cooked, she got to taste while she was cooking and she got to create things with her hands that was nourishment for us and kept us going everyday of our lives and I wanted to be like that. … So, it was one of those things that I wanted to carry on her legacy, how that she always took care of us through food and I wanted to be in her shoes when I got older of taking care of everybody else the same way.
How do you develop or maintain your baking technique? Do you experiment at home? Are you able to bake at the school where you work?
JS: I'm a cafeteria manager at Isonville Elementary, and no, we don't do it at work. That would never be a good thing. I do it at home. I pretty much come home from school every evening, I get off at 1 o'clock and I go home and I go straight into the kitchen and start baking, start cooking, something every day. There's very few days that I don't actually do something in the kitchen. … When I first started baking … I just did kind of like what the recipe was, you know just to kind of get the basics under my belt and stuff, and then once I got the basics under my belt, then I felt like I could start experimenting more. … I like to still bake the heritage recipes the way that they're written, but I just like to jump outside that box. I want to always create something new or try something different that maybe I've not tried before and try to get it to perfection because I'm OCD about that. … I like to try new things, put things together that you would never think about putting together and coming up with stuff. … I'm kind of edgy when it comes to my baking.
In the finale, when you found out that you'd be baking a themed holiday cake, what was going through your mind? How did you develop the idea?
JS: When Shawne won the Pre Heat for the advantage, I thought, "OK, please dear God don't let him give me anything that I'm going to have trouble with…" He didn't want to give me snowmen because he had heard me talk about I like snowmen and … he gave me the elves in the workshop, and I'm thinking "OK, this is perfect because he doesn't realize that elves are actually my favorite." So, he won the advantage, but really I won the advantage because it was exactly the theme I would have picked for myself … . So I'm thinking … there is a candy shop that the elves work in and they run and there's one for the toys and there might be one where they receive everything and a shipping one. You know they're all different separate identities at the North Pole. … It's going to be Santa's elves working late night at the candy workshop. So that was kind of where I went with that and it came to me pretty quickly … .
Did you expect to win it all in the end? When Bobby made the announcement, you look truly surprised, overwhelmed and very grateful. What was going through your mind then?
JS: It was totally knee-buckling. I probably would have wished that dear sweet Jesus that Shawne would have kept a hold of me and kept me from falling to the floor on national television, but I mean my knees — I had never felt anything like that before in my life. I felt like somebody had just taken a baseball bat and taken my knees right out from under me. I thought, you know, it feels just like old Santa Claus' deer have got away from him and they have run me slap dab over and I cannot stand up. … I actually thought I was going to pass out and I thought "Oh, Lord please don't pass out please don't pass out. You're already laying on the floor, just don't pass out." … In the back of my mind, I thought "OK, I really think that I've won this," but I kind of got a glance at the other cakes when we got done, I'm thinking "They are so clean, they really fit their themes well, they look great." … I don't know how they taste, but I'm really, you know I'm thinking, you know, I really may have this. I really, I feel about 90 percent sure I may have won this, but then again you never know, so I'm kind of like "Yeah, OK, maybe I could have done this or maybe I could have done that to make it better than what I did or maybe I shouldn't have put those trees on it or maybe I should have — ." You know, you always have shoulda, coulda, woulda. And then after I'm like no, no I wouldn't have had it any other way, it's exactly the way I want it, it is to my standard the perfect cake, it is to my standard the perfect decorations. I don't know of anything else I could have done anymore to make it any different.
What does it mean for you to win the competition, especially as the first home baker ever to do so?
JS: I am tickled to death to be the first home baker to win Holiday Baking Championship and just to show other home bakers, you know, if you have a dream, don't just sit at home and dream it. You need to chase that dream. You need to show people that you know I have this, I can do this. Be confident about it and that was my whole goal was not only to show myself that I had the skills to win the competition, but to show everybody else, hey look I'm a home baker. I went up against eight professionals and I've won this. … I cry just about every time that I say it to myself, because it is such a dream that I have [gone] as far as I have in this competition and then won it. … When [Bobby] said my name that was all she wrote. There I laid out on the floor like a big dead possum and I thought, I just, I had no idea. I mean, it's just — there's words I know to describe it, but I don't have words to describe how I feel about it. I am just totally overwhelmed, humbled and grateful. Very grateful.
What are your plans for the winnings? What's next for you?
JS: So, I kind of would like to use a portion of the money to start a program in our area for children. We live in a very kind of poverty stricken area that children, they don't have a lot of lofty goals in life. They have dreams, they have goals, but they think, "OK, from where I'm at, I'm never going to see those come true," and there is a lot of food that the kids around here never see, as far as different types of fruit, and I can remember one child, about six years ago, we had fresh pineapple for the first time in the school, and this child had no idea what a fresh pineapple even looked like. … I want to start a little program, and it's called Taste The World, and I want to bring in different … fruits and different foods and stuff from all over the world and have kids come in once a month and show them this comes from so and so place and this is how it grows and you can eat it raw or you can cook with it, you know, and kind of showcase those so that they can experience the things that I have taken for granted in my life just like the pineapple. … And then I want to take some of the money and I'd like to take some classes to kind of refine my skills in, like, say pulled sugar art, chocolate work … .
After this win, you're going to be somewhat of a celebrity in town.
JS: Well, I can't even go into Walmart now. I think I took four or five selfie pictures with people and I've signed autographs, and I'm like "Are you sure you want my autograph? I'm just a little old country boy from Kentucky" and they're like, "No you're on television, I want your autograph. You're our favorite. We hope you win. We want you to do more. We love you. What are we going to do after Sunday night?" And I'm thinking in my head, "Well, you're going to watch the special after that," but, you know, I can't say anything about it, so I'm thinking "I don't know what I'm going to do after Sunday night." I'm going to miss it too. I'm like "Do I need a bodyguard yet?"