Last year, I had the privilege of conducting my first interview with Kyra Bussanich, pastry chef, owner of Crave Bake Shop, and the first gluten-free winner of Food Network's famous Cupcake Wars. She then won a SECOND time in May, 2012, when she was invited back to compete in Cupcake Champions. Then, in the Champions Finale she took second place out of 16 other champions. All of her competitors used traditional flours. Gluten-free can't be good, right? Right.
Having an auto-immune disease hasn't stopped her one bit, in fact, if fuels her passion to do what she loves - and boy does she do it well! One thing that struck me during our first conversation is how she doesn't settle for pastries unless they meet very high standards. Thank heaven for those standards as they have given us the best brownie on the planet, and it has helped raise the bar for gluten-free bakers everywhere.
Since then, Kyra has been a guest blogger for the Tender Foodie, sharing her delicious Truffle Brownie Recipe (gluten-, dairy-, soy-free) and her fabulous Paleo Brownies for those who are completely grain-free. I asked her if she was ready to chat about her experiences behind the scenes at Cupcake Wars, and lucky for us, she is. We corresponded over email for this interview.
TF: How did “Cupcake Wars” first contact you? And what was that like (how did you feel, what went through your head, etc.)
Kyra: I was sitting on the couch relaxing one evening and watching Cupcake Wars with my husband. I don’t recall what the secret ingredient or the taste challenge was, but I do remember that one of the contestants hid the special ingredient behind 5 or 6 other flavors and I was yelling at the TV at the oversight. Instead of burying the secret ingredients, s/he should have been highlighting it! My husband Jason nudged me and said I should go on the show but I initially declined because I don’t love competitions. They stress me out and make it more likely I’ll get over exerted and run-down.
After goading me for 20 or so minutes, I stomped and said, “FINE! I’ll apply if you leave me alone!” And I sent off a short paragraph about why I thought I would be good on the show, how I was different (baking entirely gluten-free, which they had never had before), and a few photos of myself and press clippings. Then I decided I didn’t actually want to participate, even if they did invite me, and it probably wouldn’t happen since I was still running my bakery as a custom-order business and didn’t even have a storefront yet.
TF: What were all of the steps that you had to go through before you actually appeared on the first show?
Kyra: Within an hour of sending off the application paragraph, the casting director called me. I was still on the couch watching TV! Jessica told me she thought I was “super cute” and wanted to know if I could send her a short (2-minute) application video to show what I was like on-camera. By the following day. GULP! Luckily, my husband went to journalism school, specializing in videography so we put together a short, playful video, which you can view here:
After I sent in the application, it was a few weeks before I heard back from them, during which time I had decided I DEFINITELY did not want to go. What if I choked? Anyone who has baked gluten-free knows that it can be finicky, and I worried that I would be reinforcing the negative connotations of gluten-free desserts if I had a bad baking day, or didn’t correctly judge the ovens and overbaked my cupcakes, or failed to finish in the allotted time.
My assistant Jackie (now my bakery manager) was ecstatic about the possibility of going and her collectedness really steadied my resolve. I did it for her as much as anything else.
TF: Was this a dream of yours? To be the first gluten-free winner of Cupcake Wars? Or a challenge you didn’t expect?
Kyra: I think it’s a little of both: I had always dreamed of appearing on the Food Network, and when I started baking gluten-free, I felt like it was my role to champion delicious-tasting gluten-free pastries. I hadn’t really thought seriously about Cupcake Wars until they invited me to compete.
Get the Recipe for Kyra's New York Cheesecake Cupcakes (pictured above)!
TF: How did you handle the time off from Crave Bake Shop? Did you have to close ? or was your staff able to handle it without you?
Kyra: The first time I went to Cupcake Wars, I didn’t even have a storefront, so I simply closed down the schedule and didn’t take any orders for a short time. By the time my subsequent visits to Cupcake Wars came about, I had a full staff I could rely on to open and close the bakery without me there. That said, it still made me nervous to leave my baby (the bake shop) in someone else’s hands.
TF: Describe your feelings when you first walked onto the set. Who did you meet? Anybody that made you toungue tied? Did you have an out-of-body experience? ?
Kyra: Being on the set of Cupcake Wars was very surreal. The kitchen is a whole lot larger than it appears on TV, and when you’re running cupcake batter to the ovens to get them baking in a short time frame, that means it’s a whole lot farther than you’re actually running. Jackie and I ran drills before going, where we selected odd ingredients for ourselves (like avocado and jalapeno peppers) and practiced getting batches of cupcakes mixed, baked and decorated in less than 45 minutes. Let me tell you, we were a whole lot faster in our home kitchen than on set!
TF: How did the first taping go? Is it like we see it on TV?
Kyra: It’s very much like you see on TV, only there is a lot more standing around and checking microphones and camera angles before everything begins. It’s a long day of taping. I think they picked us up at our hotel at 6 am and we stood around for 2 hours drinking coffee and diet coke before anything started. Needless to say, we were pretty amped up by the time the cameras were on us and we were baking!
TF: Did you just LOVE the Christmas / Holiday theme in the first show? Or was that tough?
Kyra: Christmas is my all time favorite holiday, so I was thrilled when Justin revealed the inspiration challenge. And because dinner rolls and stuffing and gravy were on the inspiration table, I automatically knew that they would be filled with gluten and I couldn’t use those ingredients. I think this actually helped me, rather than hindered because it narrowed down my list of options for me.
Ultimately I selected the apple cider and the cranberry as inspirations and made a Cranberry AppleCider cupcake.
TF: What was your competition like, and how did you handle them?
Kyra: Honestly, I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t pay much attention to our competitors. I kept my head down and just worried about doing the best job I could.
TF: Was there a lot of trash talk? (Anybody you want to “out” as sneaky :)) or was everyone professional? Or even supportive?
Kyra: I have experienced supportive competitors, as well as those who were trying to get in my head, or worse, sabotage my baking. I’d say the majority were very sweet and professional though. There’s a reason we all became pastry chefs and bakers: we like to sweeten the day of those around us!
TF: OK. The judges. Was there anyone that you thought you had to particularly win over?
Kyra: Yeah- all of them!
TF: Anyone extra tough on you?
Kyra: I don’t know that I’d call it extra tough on me, but Florian is a very well-respected French pastry chef and easily recognized when I mistakenly overcooked my sugar (TWICE!) while making Italian Meringue the first time I appeared. I figured I wouldn’t point out my mistakes to the judges, but if they asked me about it, I would fess up. He said to me, “This meringue…it tastes like it’s not cooked right?” and I grinned and nodded. He smiled back and that was that.
TF: Did you learn from their advice as they gave it? and were you able to apply it under pressure like that?
Kyra: I’m fortunate that my strengths include thinking quickly on my feet, and creating dynamic and memorable flavor combinations—two things that have served me well during my four appearances on Cupcake Wars. And of course, every time one of the judges gave me something to work on, I made sure to incorporate their suggestions, regardless of whether I personally agreed with them. After all, they’re the judges. And they decide who wins.
TF: Describe the pressure. I can’t imagine. Don’t even know what to ask here.
Kyra: I don’t know what to say. "E:LIHWLIUEGOAGSBD" is what comes to mind. It’s crazy intense. The nerves prevented us from getting much sleep so we were a little ragged on set. And the first time I competed, I was fresh out of the hospital not 3 hours before I hopped on the plane. I hadn’t eaten solid food in almost 6 days, and I figured that just staying on my feet was a win, regardless of the outcome. But it’s also fun, and creates lasting memories.
People ask me every day at the bake shop if Cupcake Wars is really as crazy and stressful as it appears on TV and I always shake my head. No, it's not as crazy as it seems: it's at least 20 times more intense. You have to remember that they are filming everything in one day, which equates to roughly 16 hours of tape time PER CONTESTANT. And there are four teams. So they have to condense all that footage into 42 minutes (plus commercials), which means that a lot of it ends up on the cutting room floor.
TF: Wait. You were in the HOSPITAL just before the first competition? What happened?
Kyra: I'm not sure what I was sick with. Perhaps the flu? Perhaps food poisoning? I hadn't been able to keep ANYTHING down for 3 days when my husband took me to the emergency room, worried about dehydration. They kept me there for an additional 2 days, and then I immediately hopped on a plane and went to LA (Jason was scared sick and mad at me for not putting my health first).
TF: What was it like when you got back home?
Kyra: There is a small time lapse between when you film and when the show airs, and because I had signed a non-disclosure agreement, I couldn’t TELL anyone what happened, or even that I was involved. So it was really anti-climactic.
TF: When it was over, exactly how exhausted were you? Was it different after each competition?
I slept for 15 hours a day for the following 4 days after the first show!
NOW. Let’s talk about the 2nd show.
TF: OK. Let's! Describe your second experience and how it differed from the first.
Kyra: Well, for starters I WON the second time (came in runner up in the Holiday Tree Lighting the first time!) That was pretty spectacular. And since I had been on before, I already knew that the judges loved my cupcakes as much or more than “regular” cupcakes, so that was a load of pressure off.
TF: Kyra Sedgewick, who happens to be a personal favorite of mine, and the team from “The Closer” were your end “client” for the 2nd show. When did you get to meet them?
Kyra: We met them on-stage on the set of The Closer right after the competition (in December 2011).
TF: Did you interact with them much? And how did that go?
Kyra: There was less interaction than I would have liked, but I did get to wander the set of the police station while we were waiting for the cast and crew to wrap filming. And GW Bailey (the guest judge from my episode, and Lt. Provenza on The Closer) kept popping his head in to taste test our cupcakes and chat with us.
TF: What was Kyra Sedgewick like?
Kyra: She’s beautiful, and warm, and funny and sweet, and at the same time, whip-smart. She’s also teeny tiny! I love her oversized smile and the way she talked to everyone (cast and crew and strangers like me). I’ve always been a fan of hers, at first because we have the same name (spelling and pronunciation and all), and then later because I admired her work ethic and from what I’d read about her in interviews, she seemed really positive and down to earth and playful. In person, all of those are true of her!
TF: She must be teeny tiny - because you are teeny tiny!
Kyra: Oh, I love you!
TF: Did anything funny happen with the crew?
Kyra: Tony Denison, who plays Lt Andy Flynn on the show, came from a scene where they were filming the crime scene. He was wearing booties and gloves and kept them on while he ate cupcakes. It was pretty comical, and Jackie didn’t at first put two and two together -- she thought he was a germaphobe!
Rifling through Brenda Leigh Johnson’s candy drawer was also a hoot! There were Twizzlers and Reese’s PB Cups and DingDongs and Sixlets in there!
TF: Oh, I adore that drawer! What went through your head and your heart when you won?
Kyra: Holy MOLY! I just beat traditional gluten-filled cupcakes! WOW! Huge coup for gluten-free people everywhere!
TF: What was the FUNNIEST thing that happened on Cupcake Wars?
Kyra: Jackie is pretty hilarious under pressure, and we just kept a rolling banter going. One of her great quotes, “Kyra- I am sweating in places I should NOT be sweating!”
I think Jackie and I were at our most entertaining in the Madagascar 3 Cupcake Champions Episode. Neither of us had slept a wink the previous night and we were all hopped up on caffeine so the remarks flying out of our mouths were mostly nonsensical, but we were so deliciously tired that we thought it was all hysterical.
Jackie told me that she felt really behind and wanted to cry, to which I responded "I know, me too, but we don't have time. Start making some decorations. You can cry later." And she did!
TF: Were there any twists in the Champions Episodes?
Kyra: They had sprung a last minute twist on us partway through round 2: not only were we going to have to make the judge's cupcakes, but we would ALSO have to make an extra 8 dozen cupcakes and a 2 foot by 2 foot cupcake mosaic in the Madagascar 3 theme. I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying something inappropriate on camera! ARGH! And we finished the round with our judges cupcakes to taste and the mosaic completed, but it certainly wasn't something pretty, or that I was proud. And Jackie, being the perfectionist artist that she is burst into tears. It's really hard to present something for judging that you'd rather just throw on the floor and jump on, and she sobbed that she was sorry she lost it for us, and that it was okay if I fired her. I hugged her and said, "You did the best you could and that was a mean trick to throw at us, and I am glad to be done and we can just go home and eat M&Ms." (Side note: I don't even like M&Ms all that much! No idea why I said that)
As it happened, the judges appreciated our artistic take on the hand painted Alex the Lion, rather than a bunch of fondant shapes cut out with cookie cutters, and we went on to win the episode!
TF: What was the SCARIEST thing that happened?
Kyra: Just being there the very first time and not knowing if the judges were going to spit out their cupcakes and tell me that it TASTED like it was gluten-free.
TF: What was the most MADDENING thing that happened?
Kyra: My very first time on, I was decorating a sheet pan of cupcakes right before we loaded them on the display in round 3: I spun the sheetpan and dropped the ENTIRE tray of 250 cupcakes on the floor. And I knew I was on camera, so I had to remind myself not to say a swear word and not to cry!
TF: What was your FAVORITE moment of the entire experience?
Kyra: WINNING! And then Winning again!
TF: Did you make lasting relationships from the show?
Kyra: I still keep in touch with one of my producers (from the 3rd and 4th times I was on the show), and the gentleman who ultimately beat me in the all-star version, Cupcake Champions!
TF: Who was the MOST interesting person you met on all 4 shows?
Kyra: Candace Nelson fascinates me because she is such a smart business woman. And Florian is a giant teddybear (although I think he likes that people are a little afraid of his gruff exterior). And Kevin Vanderaa (the guy who edged me out of the competition during Champions) is a sweetheart and a gem.
TF: You are a great competitor. You came in 2nd on Cupcake Wars Champions after being first - TWICE. That is pretty amazing. Put that in perspective for us – from your point of view.
Kyra: My first time on Cupcake Wars, I was the runner up, after just getting out of the hospital, and after a long day of the judges raving about my baking. It was bittersweet to lose, but my competitor on the Holiday tree Lighting had a very elegant display that better suited what the judges were looking for.
My second appearance went much more smoothly, because I had a better idea of what the judges were looking for, and so I was better able to give it to them. That was The Closer episode, and I just kept on honing in on what the judges wanted to see to bring victory home on my 3rd appearance.
TF: How did it feel when the judges loved your cupcakes?
Kyra: Incredibly validating! Especially since they have eaten thousands cupcakes, and I was competing against traditional all-purpose gluteny flour cupcakes!
TF: What was the BEST compliment you received from the judges?
Kyra: Florian said of my Dark Chocolate Delight cupcake “This cupcake is the perfect chocolate cupcake. I have eaten the whole thing!” (It was a dark chocolate cake filled with dark chocolate mousse, topped with dark chocolate Italian Meringue buttercream and a ganache drizzle)
Candace told me, “I think you’re a very inspirational It-Girl for gluten-free baking. These are just delicious!”
What could be better than that?
TF: What was the worst thing the judges said?
Kyra: Well, I mentioned how Florian called me out on my overcooked Italian meringue on the Peppermint Hot Chocolate Cupcake: Candace didn’t think the ginger cream cheese frosting on the Chai Spice cupcake tasted gingery enough, but that’s a simple fix!
TF: How did the judging/judges for the Cupcake Champions Finale differ from the first show?
Kyra: By my 3rd and 4th appearance for Cupcake Champions, the judges acknowledged that as we were the best of the best, they were going to be more exacting and looking to be dazzled. I knew I had to pull out all the stops with both, my cupcake flavors AND the decorations, and so I filled every cupcake and layered the flavors and components and made all edible decorations for each cupcake.
I was told that no one had attempted such complicated components and pulled it off successfully—until me!
TF: That is pretty incredible, Kyra. Tell us something else that nobody knows about behind the scenes at Cupcake wars… that you are allowed to, anyway!
Kyra: Some of the assistants have never baked before! That was a mini-challenge to hurdle.
TF: Seriously! That must have been a challenge, indeed! How has your life changed since this has happened?
Kyra: Well, because of my first appearance on Cupcake Wars, I was interviewed for “Gluten-Free Living” Magazine, where I was featured alongside two gluten-free bakers who have written cookbooks for TenSpeed Press (an imprint of Random House). The editor was following up on her authors and saw my portion of the interview and contacted me, so that’s how I got the book deal, without having to get an agent. And the outpouring of support from gluten-free people across the country and shipping orders all over gave me the momentum to open a retail store. I feel very blessed that I’ve been able to do what I love day in and day out, and I attribute a lot of that to Cupcake Wars.
TF: What’s next for you, Kyra? Anything new coming up?
Kyra: I’ve been finalizing edits of my cookbook, set to be released late next summer. I’m very excited to see it finished (I’ve been working on it for nearly 2 ½ years, testing and re-testing all the recipes to make sure they’re foolproof). I’m also working on a new website, where I’ll debut different sorts of recipes, all of them gluten-free and many dairy-free or grain-free, and I’m also working on getting a few of my gluten-free and dairy-free cupcake mixes packaged and to market!
TF: If you could some up your experience in one sentence – or one word – what would that be?
Kyra: WOO HOO!
Watch Clips from the Episodes
December 2010 Cupcake Wars "Holiday Tree Lighting" runner up
December 2011 Cupcake Wars "The Closer 100th Episode" WINNER!
May 2012 Cupcake Champions "Madagascar 3 Premier" WINNER!
June 2012 Cupcake Champions "Finale" runner up
More About Kyra
Kyra Bussanich is the owner of Crave Bake Shop, and the first gluten-free winner of the Food Network's Famed, "Cupcakes Wars". Kyra graduated with honors from the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu patisserie program, which gave her a solid foundation of knowledge about classical French baking techniques which she was able to apply toward baking gluten-free. Kyra was diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder when she was 20 years old. Part of staying healthy meant switching to a gluten-free diet, avoiding all wheat and overly processed foods. Whenever possible, she uses local ingredients, and serves customers with multiple allergies, as well.
About the Interviewer, Elisabeth Veltman
Writer, owner of Blue Pearl Strategies, and lover of all culinary delights, Elisabeth is a Tender Foodie. She started The Tender Palate, a website for foodies with food allergies where she consults with experts from every area of the Tender Foodie life. She believes that everyone should live deliciously and have a healthy seat at the table. Find her at www.tenderpalate.com.