Molly Matthaei applied to be on the Food Network’s “Spring Baking Championship” on a whim.
“In late May, Amy Madera forwarded me an email she had looking for contestants,” Matthaei said. “I had 5 minutes, so I replied really quickly and answered some questions. I pretty much immediately got a response.”
Madera and Matthaei work in the same realm: Both are culinary instructors, Madera at Central Wyoming College-Jackson, Matthaei at Jackson Hole High School and Summit Innovations School. Matthaei in particular helps students prepare for culinary competitions, but she wasn’t necessarily looking to enter one herself.
After Food Network representatives responded so quickly, Matthaei agreed to be on the show, which features weekly challenges. Starting with 10 bakers, one is eliminated each week until the victor is crowned in the show’s last episode.
Think “Survivor,” but with a lot more powdered sugar and frosting.
Matthaei was unique to the competition, she said, because of her profession. She was the only contestant who wasn’t a full-time pastry chef or baker, but that doesn’t mean she lacked the necessary skills. She trained in cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Oregon, and when she moved here, she took an apprenticeship in the kitchen at Jackson Lake Lodge.
She found she liked the detail work of making pastries, and hopped around to various pastry kitchens in the valley before taking the position of culinary instructor for the high schools. Even though most of her days consist of showing students the basics of cooking, and most of her competitors bake cakes day in and day out, she still has the chops.
“I learned that I can do more than I think I can,” she said. “I may not be making 40 cakes a week or doing dinner service for 200 guests a night, but I can still hang.”
The “Spring Baking Championship” handed contestants a baking challenge without any prior information. Bakers were given ingredients and a time in which to complete their challenge. Each episode features a “preheat” competition, and then a panel of judges decided which baker was sent home based on the episode’s main test.
The News&Guide would have been remiss to not ask about the particulars of the show, what Matthaei was asked to make, how far she made it, etc. But she’s bound to secrecy until the show airs, starting with the first episode at 7 p.m. Monday.
“My husband doesn’t even know,” she said. “My family, my kids, they have no idea how things ended up.”
Even if Matthaei can’t share details, the Food Network delivered some tidbits about the show. Since it is the “Spring Baking Championship,” the challenges have spring themes, like fruit-of-the-season tarts or cakes that depict spring transformations (think caterpillar to butterfly, flowers blooming). A press release from the network also teases outdoor related challenges that include a kayaking dog.
For a small-town chef who spends most of her time teaching kids, the glitz of the Food Network and the intensity of the timed challenges created momentary anxiety.
“Definitely the first 30 seconds your mind races and you forget every recipe you’ve ever made,” she said. “You go blank for a second.”
Being the teacher that she is, Matthaei was able to channel her organizational skills and calm her mind’s chatter.
“It was really important to stay focused and ignore everything around me, ignore my competitors,” she said.
Heading into Monday’s opening episode, burning questions remain: Did she win? What did she make?
Again, she was circumspect, keeping the details of the show to herself.
No matter the outcome, Matthaei returned from the competition with a newfound sense of confidence in her abilities as a baker, a skill set that in some ways remains separate from her identity as a teacher.
“I can push and put myself in an environment that is totally foreign to me and be OK,” she said. “My small-town cooking experience — not running a huge pastry kitchen — it applies outside Jackson Hole.”