The anticipation that comes with a TV cooking competition finale can be overwhelming for those viewers who have invested weeks into the show. Who is going to win? Will their favorite contestant emerge victorious?
But whatever emotions the audience may be feeling is nothing compared to those actually on the show, where a team of judges determines their fate as well as thousands in prize winnings.
Julie Conrad knows this all too well. In fact, she’s experienced it twice.
The Aromas cake decorator and former longtime Morgan Hill resident was a member of the winning team in Holiday Gingerbread Showdown, which aired on the Food Network in December.
“Words can’t describe the feeling when your team name is called as the winners,” she said. “Being recognized as the best of the best when competing against incredibly talented cake artists is very humbling.”
Now, Conrad is doing it all over again, and this time, her focus has shifted from festive to spooky. She joined her husband Mike and friend Mandy Popejoy to form Team Sweet Chaos, which is battling against other hopeful cake artists for $10,000 on The Big Bake: Halloween.
The show was filmed in Toronto, Canada in June. Since it is currently airing on Food Network Canada, Conrad can’t reveal who won the competition.
The Conrads run A Slice of Heaven Cakes, which creates and delivers custom cakes for various events in the region, from weddings, birthdays and other special occasions.
As part of the winning team on Holiday Gingerbread Showdown, led by Beatriz Muller, Julie Conrad helped create a 42-inch Christmas tree out of gingerbread, which wowed the judges and sent them to the top of the competition.
Fresh off that win, Conrad received an invitation from Food Network to apply for another show.
“A friend of mine said, ‘Live with no regrets, why don’t you apply?’” she said. “And I did.”
Conrad said that although she is now a veteran of TV cooking competitions, being in front of a camera on a major network still gives her nerves.
“Sure, I’m nervous,” she said. “I was doing it for the experience, and it was a lot of fun.”
Mike Conrad said besides working in an unfamiliar kitchen and bumping into a cameraperson every so often, it was easy to forget they would be watched by hundreds of thousands of people due to the amount of concentration involved.
“Once you get started and they say ‘go,’ outside of a few camera people being in your way once in a while, you almost forget what’s going on because you’re so focused on your cake,” he said.
Julie Conrad grew up in Morgan Hill and graduated from Live Oak High School. Julie and Mike met and married in the city as well, and both served as paid call firefighters. Mike Conrad retired in December 2016 as a division chief with the Aptos/La Selva Fire Protection District.
Julie, who has always had a love for cooking and baking, taught her children how to bake while they were members of 4-H. After the children went off to college, Julie’s friends began asking her to bake them cakes for special events.
Sensing an opportunity, Julie decided to start a custom cake business, and about 12 years ago, A Slice of Heaven Cakes came out of the oven.
Julie said her quest to become the best cake baker and artist she can be has led her across the country, taking classes and meeting other like-minded bakers from around the world. She has also assisted with the construction of an eight-foot-tall cake at the International Cake Exploration Societé’s convention in Mobile, Ala.
Like many people, Mike Conrad said he loves eating baked goods. But to actually bake the goods himself was once a daunting prospect.
Noting that he had “zero artistic talent,” Mike now helps Julie with the larger aspects of cake-making, such as its structure and special effects, and also delivers cakes to customers.
“Once I got started, I realized, ‘wow, this is kind of fun,’” he said. “I love it. It’s something I never dreamed I would be into.”
He credited his wife for teaching him the craft, and added that he is more than happy to help her out.
“When you have a wife who’s been really supportive during your 38-year career in the fire service, it’s payback time,” he said.
Still, for someone who has spent his career in life-or-death situations, the cake business comes with its fair share of pressure, Mike said, citing a time when he had to carry a wedding cake precariously across a bocce ball court.
“I find that delivering a wedding cake is more stressful than crawling through a burning building,” he said.
Julie said she selected each member of her team for The Big Bake: Halloween based on their individual talent and skills.
“My husband can bake, stack and decorate, but his special skill is cake structure, electrical and other special effects which are essential when competing in these over-the-top cake challenges,” she said. “Mandy is an incredible decorator and can turn sugar into the most realistic-looking things.
“So with the three of us, I think we can handle anything they throw our way.”
For information, visit asliceofheavencakes.com or foodnetwork.ca/shows/the-big-bake.