By Lisa Kava
A popular Upper West Side bakery is being represented in Food Network’s 2022 Spring Baking Championship. Tom Smallwood, head of Culinary Development and Training at Magnolia Bakery, is one of 12 contestants from all over the country participating in the competition’s eighth season, which premiered on February 28th. The competition continues for eight weeks and will air every Monday from 8 to 10 pm. A winner will be announced in May at the season finale.
Magnolia Bakery, known for its cupcakes, pastries, and famous banana pudding has a store on Columbus Avenue at 69th Street, and seven other locations in New York City, including one at Broadway and Central Park South. The bakery has expanded to include direct customer sales and nationwide shipping. Smallwood is responsible for the development of new products, projects, and recipes. He also trains staff in large volume baking.
Food Network is a cable television network, with programs about cooking and food-related entertainment. The network also publishes a magazine. The Spring Baking Championship is one of many seasonal baking competitions featured throughout the year; others include the Halloween Baking Championship, the Easter Baking Championship, and the Kids Baking Championship.
In the Spring Baking Championship, which was filmed during the summer of 2021, the contestants are given a different “assignment” each week. The first assignment was to create a floral bonanza cake with the theme “Everything’s Coming Up Floral.” The contestants, who are all together in a large kitchen, do not know the assignment ahead of time. They must come up with a recipe quickly and bake on the spot, Smallwood explained to West Side Rag on a zoom interview.
“More than anything you need to think on your feet. It’s about coming up with an idea or plan and following through with it,” he said. The show provides all ingredients and kitchen equipment. “We were like kids in a candy store, they give us everything we will possibly need.”
The show features three judges and a host, all known personalities in the food industry. The judges sample the creations of each contestant and then give individual but private feedback. At the end of each episode, one contestant wins a ribbon and one is sent home.
“You have no idea how your dessert is doing compared to the others even though we all chat in the holding cell while waiting,” Smallwood said. Ultimately, the contestant who wins the final challenge at the end of the season wins the entire competition and a prize of $25,000.
Participating in the competition was a “fun experience,” Smallwood told the Rag. “I got to flex some creative muscles and think outside the box. The fact that it was cakes, ice creams, and tarts was cool as I like to bake a lot of different pastries.” He also is grateful for the friendships he made. “There was a lot of camaraderie. We all still have a group chat and swap recipes all the time, we are all really close.”
Growing up, Smallwood loved to bake. “My grandfather made all of our birthday cakes. One of my earliest memories was making Christmas cookies with my grandpa,” he recalled. After a brief stint in the finance world, Smallwood decided to return to his true passion, baking. “I knew I wanted to be a pastry chef.”
After graduating from culinary school in Paris, Smallwood worked at the Dominique Ansel Bakery in the Village. He then worked with wedding cake designer Ron Ben-Israel helping to launch a cookie venture called RBI treats during the pandemic when the wedding business had dwindled. Smallwood joined Magnolia Bakery in late summer 2021.
On Monday evening, February 28th, Smallwood hosted a viewing party for friends and family in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment to watch the season premiere. He whipped up 85 tarts earlier in the day to share with his guests. While Smallwood already knows who gets sent home each week, and who wins the championship, he has to keep it a secret. The rest of us will have to tune in on Monday evenings to find out.
Smallwood is excited to watch each week and wants viewers to enjoy the show. “I hope I am a fan favorite!” he exclaimed.