New Paltz artist Matt Maley was first spotlighted in the pages of the New Paltz Times in the spring of 2017, when he had just published the second volume of his Little Donny Trump political comic series. Later that same year, he took up the art of making gingerbread houses – and won the First Place prize with his Flower Tower at the Hudson Valley Gingerbread Competition at Mohonk Mountain House. Now Maley has hit the big time: He’s about to appear on national TV, as a contestant in Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship: Gingerbread Showdown. Jesse Palmer is the host, with Kardea Brown, Nacho Aguirre and Breegan Jane doing the judging.
It was a visit to Mohonk with his wife that sparked Maley’s interest in sculpting with food. “Adrienne and I were up there and saw the winners under the main staircase, and I said to myself, ‘I could do this. It looks like a fun thing to do,’” he recalls, noting that the top prize being two free nights at the Mountain House was “a big incentive.”
Maley was a little surprised by how much fun he had with the process and the materials, even though they proved challenging in many ways. “With my background as a sculptor, moving to gingerbread seemed like a natural progression,” he says. “Then I started getting hooked because of the medium.”
He would start with a maquette: “The sculptor in me enjoys building the cardboard models the most. I always envision using them to build permanent structures, like dollhouses.” But the transition to building with actual food meant learning where to obtain “construction-grade gingerbread” and how to substitute royal icing or isomalt as mortar to hold the structure together, instead of glue. He sculpts the figures that populate his whimsical scenes out of chocolate. There’s a considerable amount of chemistry involved: Creating sugar glass, for example, requires boiling the sugar very carefully until it reaches “a specific temperature when the bubbles go in – and then, whoosh!”
In the process of researching how to create awesome gingerbread houses, Maley discovered a “large and intense” community engaged in the hobby. There’s even a Gingerfriends Facebook group for serious competitors, with some 1,600 members ready to share tips and tricks.
Since his heady first victory, Maley has competed at Mohonk twice, taking Fourth Place for Mohonk Mountain Treehouse in 2018 and Third Place for Kringle’s Mill in 2019. The Hudson Valley Gingerbread Competition went entirely virtual last year on account of COVID, with only past winners invited to enter; but he was too busy to participate, due to the demands of a new position as associate creative director at Marist College.
Then, back in February, he received a text message from a scout for an agency that finds likely Food Network contestants, saying, “We saw your stuff at Mohonk.” “At first I thought it was a scam,” Maley relates. Several messages later, he finally responded, and the pitch turned out to be the real deal. So began a multistage audition process: interviews to determine if the prospect can be personable on-camera, timed trial runs of small projects on Zoom, shipping actual samples of gingerbread constructions to the producers.
Gingerbread Showdown requires contestants to work in teams of two – a builder and a baker – so the first order of business was to find a talented baker with whom he knew he enjoyed working, rather than let Food Network assign him someone who might prove incompatible. Maley remembered a friend, fellow art student and former RA from his student days at SUNY Purchase: Chelle Baldwin, who started her career as a furniture designer and later switched over to baking artistic cakes. Her Nashville-based company, SweetAbility Bakery, is noted for its policy of hiring people with handicaps as well as for its amazing creations. It’s the sort of feel-good bio that Food Network can play up in interview clips with the contestants, building audience support for their favorite team.
Baldwin signed up, and off they went on a whirlwind of prepping for the show. There were some tense moments early on, when Maley got a false positive on a COVID test and had to miss some intake interviews. But the pair eventually made it to the Food Network studio in Knoxville, Tennessee, where they spent five days in June shooting interviews and the actual ten-hour competition, assembling and decorating an elaborate four-foot-by-four-foot-by-36-inch gingerbread diorama. There were mini-challenges as well, in which the team’s baker must create a smaller confection that can be dropped into the scene. “You definitely have to manage stress, and working in a kitchen you’re not familiar with,” Maley says. “You have to find the balance between control and panic.”
The basic construction components were baked at home ahead of time and shipped to the studio, with fingers crossed that nothing breaks in transit. Once in Tennessee, the summer heat made it more difficult to work with some of the temperature-sensitive sculpting materials. Maley notes that, unlike the Mohonk event, where there’s less time pressure, “Nobody’s building a perfect sculpture. Everybody has some disasters; something falls.” That’s when the team turns to isomalt, “the spot-welding of the food world.” Their shared sense of humor helped them cope as well.
Maley and Baldwin were in the last of this year’s groups of teams to compete. The season premiered on November 15, with three teams vying for the prize in each episode. A different theme for the constructions is assigned for each week; “Holiday Window Shop ‘til You Drop” was their challenge, so one may assume that plenty of fragile sugar glass was required. Their episode will air on Food Network from 9 to 10 p.m. on Monday, December 6. Until then, no one may reveal the contest’s outcome. Make a note to tune in!
Besides a formidable non-disclosure agreement, Gingerbread Showdown’s rules include the requirement that all components must be edible. Still, when the event is completed, all the entries are swept into the trash. “It’s kind of sad, to see this stuff thrown out,” says Maley, lamenting “the flip side of creating edible sculpture that will never be eaten – especially coming out of a pandemic and being aware of communities with food disparity, ours included.” To offset the waste, he makes a point of matching the cost of materials as donations to regional food pantries.
When the big nationwide TV event was over, both Maley and Baldwin said, “I’d do that again.” Indeed, some of their competitors were veterans of past seasons. But they are required to skip a year before they can reapply. In the meantime, Maley has been working on his entry for the virtual Hudson Valley Gingerbread Competition, due for delivery the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. It will be on view at Mohonk Mountain House through New Year’s Day.
For more on the Gingerbread Showdown, including a teaser trailer with brief shots of Maley and Baldwin, visit www.foodnetwork.com/shows/holiday-baking-championship-gingerbread-showdown.