JOLIET – Andy Chlebana, pastry chef and culinary instructor at Joliet Junior College, stood behind the door with the other competitors straining to hear something, anything to offer a clue as to what was happening on the other side.
Then the doors opened and they walked onto the set of Food Network’s latest series, “Spring Baking Championship,” and their first challenge. The show premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday and runs six weeks.
Unlike Chlebana’s past experience with competitions – and even “Sugar Fashion,” the televised Foot Network challenge Chlebana participated in back in 2011 – he would not be allowed an assistant. He was on his own.
Chlebana has won numerous awards and had subsequently sworn off further competitions. But he agreed to do this show for two reasons.
First, Chlebana wanted his children – Abigail and Annabel, 12; Andy, 10; and Adler, 7 – as well as his wife Heather to see him in action.
But Chlebana also wanted his JJC students to see him working under intense pressure – pressure so great that Chlebana said he was tempted to quit. Then he remembered his desire to be a good role model for his students.
“There was this whirlwind of ‘Go, go, go.’ This isn’t teaching, which I’ve done for the last nine years,” Chlebana said. “The first couple of days I was sore; God I was sore. And then I started thinking, ‘I can do this. I’ve done this before.’ ”
Chlebana’s attitude, said Chef Michael McGreal, chair of JJC’s culinary arts department, is the mark of a dedicated teacher who continually pushes and improves his skills so he can bring those experiences back to the classroom.
McGreal said he is proud that, out of the numerous chefs and celebrities the Food Network could have selected for the new show, the producers chose Chlebana as a competitor.
“We tell our students that to get ahead in this industry they will need to work hard,” McGreal said, “but hard work will lead to success.”
Recalling the process from “Sugar Fashion” – where he had won the $10,000 grand prize – Chlebana assumed that, because the show had reached out to him, he would not have to enter a video audition.
He was wrong.
“It’s my least-favorite part of the process,” Chlebana said of video auditions. “It’s hard to be myself then, when I’m rambling. I think it comes off as corny and fake.”
Chlebana recorded his video during a class, with his students asking questions while they worked. One mandatory question stumped Chlebana: “What’s your favorite spring dessert?”
“I’m like, I don’t have a spring dessert. To me, when I think of spring, I think of fresh fruit. Nothing else,” Chlebana said. “My grandmother used to make a lamb cake, but I don’t think that’s what they were looking for.”
Demonstrating for a Skype video also felt awkward to Chlebana. Chlebana said he made a fruit tart and held it up to the monitor, hoping he wouldn’t drop it on the keyboard. After discussing the features of his tart, Chlebana said the producer wanted to see the inside.
“It was kind of weird to run out and get a knife from the office,” Chlebana said.
Once accepted, Chlebana faced other challenges. One was the show’s requirement that every creation be baked. “Pastry chef” is not synonymous with “baker,” Chlebana said.
“It was quite a challenge to put on the baker’s hat,” Chlebana said.
Other challenges included limited amounts of equipment and finding out that both the equipment and basic ingredients were not stored in the same place every day, Chlebana said, making it difficult to remember their location.
“It was like the pantry was alive,” Chlebana said.
Chlebana said he also paced how and when he used his tools to prevent wasting precious minutes on washing dishes. For instance, Chlebana said he received a large whisk and a small whisk. Requests for additional whisks were met with, “Nope, sorry, that’s all we’ve got.”
With a chuckle, Chlebana said that, in the heat of preparation, he certainly couldn’t call out to the producers, “Can you bring me five more whisks?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Chlebana said.
According to information from the Food Network, competitors on each of the six hour-long “Spring Baking Championship” episodes – hosted by Bobby Deen – will test their abilities and attempt to win over the judges with various spring baking challenges.
The grand prize is $50,000 and the title of Spring Baking Champion.
Learn more about the contestants, and view special photo galleries, on FoodNetwork.com/BakingChampionship. Join the baking banter on Twitter using #BakingChampionship.