Wednesday, January 15, 2014

That Time I Worked with Gordon Ramsey and was Almost Famous

A Truly Long Story, (but a long true story, too).

Back when I was at what I will call the zenith of my cake decorator fame, a lovely business acquaintance contacted me to see if I'd be interested in working on a reality TV show with "a very famous celebrity".  She couldn't give details, other than it was someone very famous, with a very famous TV show, and it would involve a wedding.  They were looking for our area's best for wedding vendors, and she wanted me on the team (of course).

 After staring into space for a whole 10 seconds, wisely considering the pros and cons and out-of-pocket expense against any possible benefit, and mentally erasing everything from my calendar for the future, I very calmly said, "OMG YES!! COUNT ME IN!  I AM SO IN!"

I had visions of myself shooting to wedding cake super stardom, working with David Tutera to make My Fair Wedding brides' dreams come true, with my beautiful and stylish bakery being known far and wide because I took this step into worldwide recognition. I couldn't imagine who else could be filming a wedding reality show in our town.  It had to be David, right?  Here was my chance to Get My Name Out There, for real. 


That is the sound Fantasy makes when it crashes into Reality.

Without any idea who I was signing up to work with or what might be required, I signed on and waited on pins and needles for details of my new adventure.  Then she called me and told me Who the celebrity was.  It was NOT David Tutera. 

She was like, "Stef, it's Gordon Ramsey."


Did you say...Gordon Ramsey?  That guy who is one of TV's most famous chefs.  One of the world's harshest food critics.  Gordon who is also best known for cussing out cooks on his shows.  Do you mean THAT Gordon Ramsey?? I never even watched any of his shows, back when we had TV, because just the trailers for his shows were scary and full of him shouting obscenities at quavering kitchen staff.  Shows with names like Hotel Hell, Kitchen Nightmares, Hell's Kitchen, Welcome to Hell in the Kitchen.  I think that last one is made up...

I had an instant panic attack.  Because, hello--I'm a baker.  If it's a reality show about a wedding, and I'm making the wedding cake, is this a set up?  Am I the one who gets chewed out on live TV?  Ohhh dear, what have I signed up for?

She was like, "No really. It'll be fine.  Our job is to come in at the end of the reality show and magically make everything come together with a perfect wedding.". Well, that's a relief.  No pressure. I just need to make a perfect wedding cake for TV's harshest food critic currently alive on the planet.

I was starting to sweat a bit, but I decided that I didn't care WHAT his name was, if they were thinking of pulling any reality TV make-the-baker-cry crap with me, they had another thing coming.  He's just a guy, and I don't take that kind of nonsense from anyone...I don't care HOW famous they are. 

I was told that at any time over the next 2-week period, TV producers *could* show up unannounced and possibly want to film.  At my shop.  I freaked out and started cleaning like a maniac and dressing up to go to work.  Full makeup.  Clean apron every hour.  I made the building managers refresh the front of the building my shop was in...clean walkways, fresh mulch, etc.  I held my breath and tried to carry on like nothing was out of the ordinary, except for constantly wiping every surface spotless while trying to produce wedding cakes. 


Of course, they didn't decide to knock on my door.  Which was kind of a let-down, after all the cleaning, wiping, mirror-checking, and flossing I constantly did for 2 weeks...

So.  The idea was that basically I needed to design a wedding cake for a bride and groom using the theme of the wedding ("bling"), some of the bride's input, but favorite thing...full creative license.  So, that was no problem.  I sketched pages and and pages of cake designs until I settled on the exact cake that I would want to create, which would combine all these things, look great under bright lights, AND be a stunning example of my work in this, my one shot at having one of my cakes shown on worldwide  TV.  I loved the design I came up with, and since only the bottom tier of it needed to be edible cake for them to cut on the episode, the rest could be Styrofoam dummies.  My favorite kind of cake to decorate--easy to work with, easy to transport, and creative license.  Yeah, baby. No problem.

That part accomplished, I was thinking...this will be fine.  Except for the part that I'm making cake for freaking Gordon Ramsey!  He's going to EAT my cake!!!  aieeeeeeeee      Ok, calm DOWN!!

Then the producers sent a small monkey wrench on over.

My coordinator friend emailed, saying that they would actually need not one, but TWO different cakes for this episode.  One would be for the actual wedding (and yes, the couple really did get married, and they were truly the sweetest kids, and thrilled to be getting a dream wedding).  The other cake would be for a quick "reveal" shot that would be filmed earlier in the episode, but it needed to be something else.  Not the actual final cake.  I was like, "...something else like what?

She sent me this:
"They want to know if you can make this."
Ummmm, WHAT?

They wanted a croquembouche tower like the one at the left (light blue base), above.  I studied these in horrified awe.  I know what croquembouche are, but I'd never seen one placed on top of a cake.  What the actual heck?  Even if done well...those are not, uh, pretty.  And no on in Idaho is going to order one...ever.

Without blinking an eye, I immediately answered breezily that yes, I could totally make that, and how big did they want it?  Like I do these all the time.  (I'd never even made cream puffs, let alone a tower of them held together on top of a cake, wrapped in perfect strands of spun sugar!).  Yep--no problem-o.  Inside...more sweating and hyperventilating.
Omg.  omg, omg Omg OMG OMG OMG OMGOMG.

Crap.  What have I got myself into??

I'd already said yes, and there was no way I was going to do this and fail, on TV, in front of Gordon Ramsey, so I took a deep breath and started researching croquembouche online.  I trawled Food Network's website, Master Chef's website,,, and blogs devoted to nothing but croquembouche.  I visited websites in Europe that specialize in this European dessert. 

The instructions I read were not encouraging, to put it mildly. 
1.  First and foremost--Do NOT attempt to make croquembouche when it's humid.  The caramel will soften and not hold the tower together, and it will collapse.   (Check.  Collapses if raining.)
2.  Do NOT store croquembouche at room temp.  The cream filling is perishable and MUST be refrigerated.  (Check.  Keeping it on the counter will kill people, possibly Gordon Ramsey).
3.  Do NOT refrigerate croquembouche after assembled, as the humidity in the fridge will ruin the caramel spun sugar, and it will collapse.  (Check, keeping it in the fridge will ruin it.  Wait--what?)
4.  Croquembouche should be assembled on site, as close to serving time as possible.  (Check. So,  I need to build this thing, for the first time, in front of Gordon-freaking-Ramsey.  Possibly on live TV.  What could possibly be stressful about THIS?)

I sent a quick email over to the coordinator, asking her, were they SURE that they want croquembouche, and if so...were they planning to serve it? Or could it be a mock-up made of basically empty cream puffs held together with Gorilla Glue?  That, I could handle.  She wrote back and said that yes, the producers wanted it to be real, filled with pastry cream, and that yes, they would be eating it.  I read that as "Gordon Ramsey will be personally eating these cream puffs, so they better be the best cream puffs ever made anywhere on the planet."     Yay, more STRESS.
I wrote back, "No problem" and sat down and tried not to have a stroke.  It was February in northern Idaho, and it was raining almost nonstop.  Hello--humidity 100%!?

I calmly gathered my facts:

1.  I have to learn to make perfect French cream puffs and vanilla pastry cream filling, assemble them, wrap them in spun sugar, transport this tower to the film location, IN THE RAIN, and have it hold together.  For Gordon Ramsey. 
2.  I can NOT assemble this in front of Gordon Ramsey and a camera crew or I will pass out.
3.  I can NOT make it ahead and keep it in the fridge.
4.  OMG I'm making cream puffs for Gordon Ramseeeeeheeheeheeeheee---wheeeeeze
Then:  Oh no.  Maybe this is the point of the show!  Maybe it's about watching a baker try to do the impossible and then have Gordon cuss me out when it collapses, which it MUST.  On TV. 

One of my strengths is that I work well under pressure, so I set about learning how to make perfect cream puffs.  I made batch after batch of them, every day, for about a week.  I made fresh vanilla bean pastry cream filling for every one of them and filled them.  I made sure they were perfectly filled, perfectly formed, and perfectly delicious.  My family was heartily sick of cream puffs.  I was giving them away at our school, giving them to anyone who would take them.  I even donated some to our school auction.

Then, I focused on learning to assemble a croquembouche, which is a tower of about 75-100 cream puffs, stacked and held together with 240-degree caramel syrup, with no support from inside the tower, and then wrapped in a wispy veil of delicate, infinitesimally small, breakable strands of spun sugar.  I would have to drive this thing, assembled, for about 10 minutes in the rain from my shop to the film location, so I made a small practice tower of unfilled puffs.  Here it is, the practice croque:
I carried this around in a box in my car for about 5 days.  I hit bumps.  I hit railroad tracks.  I took corners too fast.  It snowed.  It rained.  I checked the box, and that thing was FINE.  I'm golden.

With a HUGE sigh of relief, I had convinced myself that, yes, this can be transported in the rain, and it will not collapse.  In front of Gordon Ramsey.

Next I baked and decorated the bottom support cake that would hold my croquembouche.  This also had to be "real", because (so I heard), they would also be eating this one too.  (Yay, more stress!)
The finished base cake, 10" of purple velvet deliciousness

My next task was to figure out how to assemble a whole perfect croquembouche, as close to the 7 a.m. delivery time on the filming date as possible, but NOT have to put it in the fridge.  My only option was to make about 150 cream puffs and all the pastry cream filling the night before, and then get up really really early and go to the shop and assemble a perfect croquembouche for Gordon Ramsey, complete with spun sugar, box it up, and be ready to leave with it at 7 a.m.  I allowed all the time I would need to fill each puff, boil the caramel to the right temperature, burn myself several times, assemble the tower, and wrap it in spun sugar.  I realized I needed to get up at about 2:15 a.m. to make it work.  So I set my alarm, ironed my chef's coats--and made it work. 
The final tower

 Unfortunately, I can't show you a picture of the final tower assembled on the cake above, on set.  Due to the highly secretive nature of reality TV security and all, we had the super-strictest orders that if we so much as showed up on set with a phone anywhere on our body, even for emergencies, even if it's in your pocket and it's turned off, they would throw us off the set and possibly close down the production and move out of town and sue us for eleventy million dollars.  Got it.  No phones. 

So I would have to wait til months afterwards, after the show aired, to see my creation.  But even on the disc of a zillion photos that I did score from the Fox TV producers, not one of the photos included the finished croquembouche.  So we'll have to just imagine it, I guess, based on this lovely sketch I sent them when we were negotiating the fact that there would even BE a croque:

 Imagine this.  Only real, and with Gordon Ramsey nearby and/or eating it.
Meanwhile, I had also simultaneously baked a 12" bottom round cake for what became the 4-tiered wedding cake for the real wedding part of the episode.  It was nearly finished when I left that morning with the croquembouche, and I raced back between takes to finish touching it up with lots of iridescent powder, so it would sparkle under the cameras.  I loved how it turned out.
 Some close-ups of the bling-y details, courtesy of Fox TV photographers:

 The final cake that was on TV in September 2012

On the day of filming, I arrived with the croquembouche for the 7:30 setup of the "reveal" shot for the episode.  Basically the vendors involved had to come in and set up the entire reception for a quick sneak peak on film.  Then we had to come back in at like 11 a.m. and remove all of it, down to the last flower petal, and set up a complete wedding ceremony in the same room.  Inside of a 45-minute time window.  THEN, we had to come back in at like 3:30 and flip the whole thing back into (tah-dah) the reception again.  The whole time, we were literally tripping on camera crews and photographers, so we're all dressed in our logo-showing best, fully prepared to see ourselves on TV someday.  

Oh my gosh, this is my Big Break, riiiight?  Not exactly.  Because, hello--editing.  They got like 9 hours of footage for a 1-hour show, so naturally, we didn't end up with any actual camera time.  Surprise.

When I came in after the "reveal" shot had been filmed, to remove whatever might be left of the cream puff tower and the cake under it, I found...the whole entire thing, still sitting there.  Untouched.  Gordon Ramsey had not, in fact, eaten my cream puffs.  In fact, no one had.  The cake wasn't touched, either, so now I was standing there holding 50 servings of purple velvet cake and about 80 cream puffs in the rain, wondering what the heck am I supposed to do with this? and simultaneously...Whaaattt? Are you kidding me right now?  Do you have any idea what I went through to make this?!?

But since questions silently asked receive only silence for answers, I made an executive decision.  I boxed the perfect, untouched base cake back up and handed it to the couple who were on site as the DJ team for the reception, who had 5 kids, who I knew would appreciate a delicious sugar rush.  Then I walked into the set crew's tent, where they were all shivering around a space heater in the solid drizzling 37-degree weather, and set the perfect croquembouche on the folding table in front of them.

"Here. This is for you."

They were afraid to touch it.  "What? It's too pretty.  I couldn't.  I don't want to ruin it."  So I sort of violently ripped off the top cream puff and bit an angry bite out of it, then tore off another one and handed it to him.  "EAT IT."  Intimidated by my chef's coat, no doubt, and the fact that he might be talking to the next Big Thing in cake decorators, and you need to "keep the talent happy", the guy took a bite.  They were heavenly, by the way. missed out, baby.  By the end of the night, most of it was gone.  I can only hope that maybe he stopped in and actually ate one, since I spent weeks agonizing over making them for him.

The whole rest of that day was a blur of standing in the cold, in the rain, and in the dark.  At one point, I did actually see The Man himself...from across a parking lot, getting out of his trailer.  But I was too far away to casually yell "Hi, Gordon!" so I just stood there and hoped that my glaring white chef's coat might give me away as the creative genius behind the reception centerpiece, etc etc.  He must have been super busy, because he did not pop over to shake my hand or take any selfies.  I had vainly imagined having a framed photo of me and Gordon on the wall of my bakery--you know--arm around my shoulder, grinning and making a "thumbs up" sign at the camera, me in my chef's coat, looking professional and glad not to get cussed at...  That so did not happen.  No glossy 8 x 10 for you.

What did happen is we all showed up at 11 p.m. to clean up the reception room after the filming was over.  I dressed up again in a sparkling white chef's coat with my logo on it, full hair and makeup.  Just in case, you know, maybe he's going to POP IN after we all spent 2 weeks of our lives, countless dollars of our own money, put our families completely on hold, went without our phones for a whole day, and maybe, just maybe he will come in and give us a thumbs up, like, "Hey, you guys are awesome! Thanks for a great job."  We waited in vain, and I found out later that he'd been on a plane out of Spokane at like 8 p.m.

Can you say...anticlimax?  Well, at least I didn't fail and get cursed at on TV.

Looking back, I can't say it was truly fun, because at the time it was all so stressful (and costly, and completely uncompensated, except for a CD full of photos, none of which included ANYone famous.  Thanks, FoxTV).  Our episode airing date was rescheduled from April to May to September, but it was a blast to watch, and I got to see my cake right there on actual TV, for a whole 30 seconds.  

Basically none of the lovely, talented, hard-working wedding vendors who gave 110% for that production were given any mention or footage (even in the credits, though we were listed on the website). 

As for my long-awaited croquembouche scene--the camera panned the room once, and the croque was hidden behind a floral arrangement and wasn't visible, so honestly that whole cream puff adventure HADN'T MATTERED AT ALL.  I could have saved myself going through all that stress. 

I can honestly say that I had to agree with my husband afterwards.  Signing up for a reality show featuring one of my cakes, which could be my Big Break...was about the most costly, time-consuming, stressful, and least effective method advertising that I ever did in 12 years.  He's always right.  But I will always remember that day in the rain with that great group of dedicated wedding vendors.  We all deserve a huge shout out for the effort we put into making that day come off perfectly. 

Oh wait...we DID get permission to use this on our websites: 
Well.  It's something, right?

There is one great thing I learned (aside from the fact that I will never be famous).  I know how to make truly fantastic cream puffs.

P.S.  To Gordon's credit, all the vendors who did get to interact with him, said he was delightful to work with, super professional and polite, and very sweet, off camera.  

Has anyone else ever been surprised by something that was soooo not your Big Break?  Ever spend agonizing amounts of uncompensated time on something that turned out to be *not* worth it? 


  1. Oh wow. Just wow.

    First of all...what an amazing talent! I am completely envious. And I'm sorry you were so stressed out over what was a non-event. But you know, the fact that you were even considered is pretty amazing in itself!

    No..I can't say that I've ever found myself in a similar situation. I don't know if that disappoints me or not.

    1. Thanks Michelle...I loved my cake decorating work for a lot of years--everything about it. And it was amazing and flattering to be the one they wanted for that taping. I guess the compensation for all of us who signed on (instead of receiving a single dime) was supposed to be the fact that we had "a chance to see our work on TV", key word being "chance". And of course, being humans, we all jumped at that.

      But many of the vendors' contributions were edited out and completely not shown in the episode, so it still made me feel like---seriously? We all did this for free? I was thankful that my cake showed at the end, but when we all got together and viewed the episode, it was sort of heartbreaking to see how many vendors put in the same amount of time and energy as I did, and they sat there staring at the screen like "WTH?--where's my *whatever they donated*??!" So they got--literally--nothing...and he made, what...38 million last year? ouch.

      Live and learn, I guess. It was quite an experience, and I always say I wouldn't do it again, but human nature tells me that oh yes, I would--greedy, proud human that I am. lol

  2. What a crazy story! This absolutely stressed me out but I loooooove that cake (even if I'm not into bling) You are VERY talented! Want to make my wedding cake for my theoretical future wedding? It will probably be a "life fail" theme.

  3. Aussa, this whole event wlas fun in a weird, stressful way; if that makes sense... And of course I totally would make you a cake my dear! :D

    I haven't got a cake website anymore, so this is my vicarious way of vainly showing off what I *used* to be quasi-famous for, heh heh... Oh, wait-- I guess the cakes I did are all still over on Pinterest, but I'm hardly ever there any more either, because it's like the Black Hole of Where Did My Day Go, lol.

  4. you made my wedding cake before you were famous! I think that is something! Love you Stef!

    1. I remember that one! Love you, too, Rebekah! Miss you guys :)