How sweet it is! La Jolla baker wins Food Network show

La Jolla chef and baker Maeve Rochford of Sugar and Scribe Bakery on Fay Avenue won this season’s Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship and the $50,000 prize that comes with it. For the Dec. 20 show finale, Rochford held a viewing party at her bakery/restaurant for family and friends.

The nationally televised culinary competition started with 10 bakers and each week gave them holiday-themed challenges, eliminating one baker per week until the finale.

Watching the finale episode live (and occasionally cringing at moments that Food Network decided to air), Rochford relived the final challenge, in which the last three bakers had to bake and design an elaborate cake based on a holiday tradition. Rochford said she selected “sleigh rides” because the theme reminded her of a ride through New York’s Central Park she took with her would-be husband years ago.

Of her winning design, judges lauded the melted sugar sleigh Rochford hand-piped (at a scalding temperature of more than 300 degrees wearing gloves) to top her creation, and said it belonged “on the cover of a magazine.”

The moment Rochford was announced as the winner — to the surprise of no one in attendance at the party — the room erupted in applause. “That was the hardest secret ever to keep!” she joked. “Every time someone asked me for something, I wanted to answer ‘I’m the winner!’ but I couldn’t. But now I can!”

With her winnings, she said she would pay back her mother, whose initial investment helped launch Sugar and Scribe; give her employees a holiday bonus; and donate to Helen Woodward Animal Center.

With the finale aired, Rochford sat down with La Jolla Light to discuss her experience with the show.

Rochford was selected for the Holiday Baking Championship after a Food Network casting director saw her on a local morning show. “When the Food Network offers you something like this, you say yes,” she said. “Plus, I don’t have children, this bakery is my baby. So any opportunity I have to talk about my baby, help my baby or show off my baby, I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”

The Irish baker said she is is naturally competitive and would engage in “competitive finger painting” should such a contest exist, so being in a baking competition was a perfect “topping” for her. Further, Rochford said she proudly considers herself “50 percent sweet and 50 percent savory,” and a show like Holiday Baking Championship afforded her an opportunity to make both sweet and savory creations.

Sugar and Scribe serves baked dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with desserts. “It’s all about baking for me. Some people are into farm-to-table, some people are GMO-free, I’m all about the oven,” she said.

Despite her excitement, filming the show presented a series of unexpected challenges. “In my head, I thought it would be just like working in a kitchen, which I thought would be a breeze. It’s not … at all,” she said. “It is literally the opposite because in a professional kitchen, things are in the same place and you do things the same way ... and there is a bible (the recipe and how it’s prepared) and you stay with the bible. There is no bible on this show, so you’re just freewheeling; all the while the cameras are going so you have to be interesting. You are so out of your element.”

By being so different from a professional kitchen, she opined, the home bakers have an advantage at first. “If you watch the first few episodes, the home bakers do better because the set-up is more like a large home kitchen.” She noted in particular the small mixing bowls and measuring equipment, designed for individuals rather than mass production, and the fact they are made of glass. “Professional kitchens would never have glass!” she said. Case in point: Another contestant actually broke his mixing bowl because he wasn’t accustomed to working with glass.

Comparing the Food Network kitchen environment to a casino — with distractions including lights, noises, cameras and people all around — she said the time flies. “After 30 minutes, you’re literally asking yourself ‘where did it go?’ Which is great for TV and great for drama, but it’s not great for professionals,” she said, noting home bakers are used to children running around and other distractions.

However, the pros have the advantage of being used to curveballs and having a sense of accountability. “Every professional is acutely aware that the people who come to your bakery are watching this, so are you being nice and likeable?” she said. “If I make something that’s a disaster, I have to come back here and answer for that and how I behave, so it’s a totally different mindset.”

Another potential advantage professional chefs have is endurance, Rochford said, which was required for the increasingly long days. “When a challenge is 90 minutes, it’s really 90 minutes, that part is true. But what America doesn’t see is the time before the 90 minutes when we are in hair, makeup and wardrobe, and I’m a mental wreck trying to figure out what we’re about to walk into because we don’t know. When you see the judges explain the challenge to us, we just found out, that’s all true.

“After the challenge, we all go into a room together and try to figure who did what and gauge how people think they did. Then we go into judging and you see where they judge. Then we leave and wait. During that time, a million thoughts are going through my mind. Then we go back in and they tell you. After the judges tell us whether we win, lose or draw, we go into a room by ourselves with a producer and relive the episode. So the 90-minute challenge is a 10-hour day. Home bakers aren’t used to 12- and 13-hour shifts.”

With the stress, Rochford had to curb the self-proclaimed “snarkiness” her chefs at Sugar and Scribe are used to for television. “Some people think it’s funny, some people think I’m mean. I’m actually not mean, I just am really passionate about what I do,” she said.

In watching the show post-production, Rochford said she was surprised at how much of her emotions show up on her face. “I was just surprised at how expressive I am. I know I’m a terrible liar, I just didn’t know it was all over my face,” she said. “There are episodes when I think someone is saying something annoying, and I look annoyed. When I like someone and the judges don’t like them, I look mad. Watching it now on TV, I would see myself and say ‘whoa I can’t believe I made that face!’ ” She compared the experience to hearing your own voice on an answering machine.

Acknowledging the way she is perceived on the show directly relates to her business, she said she hopes people who watch the show — whether they like her or not — will come into her 7660 Fay Ave. bakery. “I just hope people will see how much work and effort we put in this place,” she said. “I want to make this community proud and give them what they deserve.”