Gin­ger­bread Throw­down

Denton pas­try chef Steve Konopel­ski vies for brag­ging rights on Food Net­work’s ‘Haunted Gin­ger­bread Show­down’

Sunday Star - - LIFE - By CON­NIE CON­NOLLY cconnolly@ches­ Fol­low me on Twit­ter @con­nie_s­tar­dem.

DENTON — Gin­ger­bread is just for Christ­mas any­more.

In fact, if you ask Denton pastr y chef Steve Konopel­ski, it’s the per­fect medium for some fright­fully cre­ative gin­ger­bread struc­tures.

Just in time for Hal­loween, the award-win­ning pas­try chef’s bak­ing and dec­o­rat­ing skills will be show­cased at 10 p.m. Sun­day, Oct. 28, on the Food Net­work’s “Haunted Gin­ger­bread Show­down.”

Steve also will be fea­tured in an up­com­ing is­sue of Food Net­work Magazine if he takes home the top prize.

Lo­cal friends and neigh­bors are in­vited back to the 404 Tap­house Bar and Grill in Denton to watch the fi­nale. About 50 peo­ple gath­ered there on Sun­day, Oct. 7, for the first of the four-part se­ries on the pop­u­lar cook­ing chan­nel.

“It was very ex­cit­ing for me as a chef,” said Sh­eryal Matthews, co-owner of 404 Tap­house. “Steve has taught me a lot in just the past few weeks. I think there’s a strong pos­si­bil­ity that he wins the fi­nale, he’s so tal­ented.”

The first round the the show­down cel­e­brated the 30th an­niver­sary of the clas­sic Hal­loween film “Beetle­juice.”

“It’s Show­time!” fea­tured Steve, along with pas­try chef Andy de la Cruz of New­port Beach, Calif. and Jen­nifer El­more, a wealth man­age­ment pro­fes­sional and cham­pion gin­ger­bread baker from Chapel Hill, N.C.

Although Steve grew up in the tiny town of May­fair in Saskatchewan, Canada, he went on to grad­u­ate from the Royal Winnipeg Bal­let School. Be­fore his re­tire­ment from show busi­ness, he had danced and acted in Broad­way shows, in­clud­ing “Hot Feet,” “Beauty and the Beast” and the Tony-award win­ning “Gypsy.”

Steve, along with his spouse, patent at­tor­ney Rob Grif­fith, are co-own­ers of Turn­bridge Point Bed and Break­fast in Denton. If he wins the $25,000 prize, he plans to use some of the prize money to cre­ate an up­scale of­fice space over­look­ing the Chop­tank River for Grif­fith.

“I am so happy to be do­ing ‘Beetle­juice,’” Steve said on cam­era. “I love this movie; it’s so iconic.”

He knew the theme of the com­pe­ti­tion but not the iden­tity of his com­peti­tors, the judges or even the host, San­dra Lee.

No stranger to the Food Net­work, he com­peted in the “Hol­i­day Bak­ing Cham­pi­onship” in Novem­ber 2015, fin­ish­ing as the run­ner-up af­ter eight episodes.

The Food Net­work reached out to Steve for this com­pe­ti­tion.

His ex­per­tise in dec­o­rat­ing wed­ding cakes and pas­tries, his ex­pe­ri­ence as a bak­ing com­peti­tor and his back­ground in mu­si­cal the­ater on Broad­way gave him the com­po­sure to take the Food Net­work’s con­test chal­lenge and com­pli­ca­tions in stride.

“Since it can take hun­dreds of hours to cook and as­sem­ble gin­ger­bread, we al­lowed you to be­gin cre­at­ing your mas­ter­pieces in your own home,” said se­ries not host San­dra Lee. “Ninety per­cent of your cre­ation must be edi­ble, and 70 per­cent of that must be gin­ger­bread.”

From the time he was se­lected to com­pete, he had four weeks to de­sign and bake his gin­ger­bread pieces. He made the three-day drive to Den­ver rather than tak­ing the chance of ship­ping them ahead or fly­ing out with them.

Still, gin­ger­bread pre­sented a unique chal­lenge.

“It’s not a medium that I work with very much,” Steve said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “This was the sec­ond gin­ger­bread struc­ture I had ever made.” His first was for the St. Michaels Christ­mas gin­ger­bread com­pe­ti­tion which he won.

“The ladies in St. Michaels wore me down af­ter three years — I was afraid they’d come bear­ing scented can­dles and wooden spoons,” Steve quipped.

“Un­like the other com­peti­tors, my piece had no struc­tural sup­port,” Steve said. “That’s the big hur­dle — is this thing go­ing to stand up? Thank­fully, it was ver y dry in Den­ver.”

“All those walls were just gin­ger­bread. There was noth­ing else hold­ing it to­gether. My ini­tial plan was to put the whole thing up on day two be­cause I didn’t want any­thing to fall,” he said. “But then I thought if any- thing was go­ing to fall, I’d rather build it on day one. Then if we come back in (the next day) and it’s still stand­ing, then we’re golden.”

The medium may change, but the (bak­ing) prin­ci­ples are the same, Steve said. “So though I was lit­tle bit in­tim­i­dated by an un­fa­mil­iar medium, the tech­nique is not for­eign to me at all. That’s one of the rea­sons I said I would do this com­pe­ti­tion. I dec­o­rate all the time.”

“At the end of the day, a gin­ger­bread house is just a re­ally big cookie,” he said. “It’s not re­ally that scary.”

He knew curve balls de­signed to throw the bak­ers off their game would crop up dur­ing the stress­ful com­pe­ti­tion, and he used them to his ad­van­tage. He and his as­sis­tant Car­rie Schoen­feld used glitches to their ad­van­tage, as well.

Schoen­feld, an at­tor­ney with a 1-year-old in Annapolis, made the po­ten­tial three-week com­mit­ment in Den­ver with the bless­ing of her hus­band.

She and Steve were class­mates at the French Culi­nary In­sti­tute in Man­hat­tan, where Steve grad­u­ated at the top of his class.

In clas­sic sto­ry­telling fash­ion, Lee adds a plot com­pli­ca­tion — and Steve isn’t happy.

“Bak­ers! So I have a ques­tion for you: Do you want a trick or do you want a treat?” Lee asks.

“You know what? You’re get­ting both,” she says with a wave of her hand.

“In ad­di­tion to your gin­ger­bread pieces, you will have two hours to bake a tasty treat for our judges, and our clock will keep run­ning. This tasty treat must be de­li­cious and also must be in­cor­po­rated into the fi­nal de­sign of your piece.”

As he’s rush­ing for his in­gre­di­ents, Steve says con­fi­dently, “This is go­ing to be de­li­cious.”

His orig­i­nal idea to cre­ate a torso of a char­ac­ter as a bon bon falls flat. The cho­co­late doesn’t set up in the mold.

“I had a plan, and it was a great plan, and when it didn’t work, I didn’t re­ally have a Plan B, and so I did kinda start to freak out for a minute, and then my as­sis­tant said, ‘Let’s do this,’” Steve said. “In­spi­ra­tion comes at some of the weird­est times.”

“I heard once that co­in­ci­dence is just when op­por­tu­nity and prepa­ra­tion meet,” Steve said.

Steve and Car­rie’s team­work re­sult in a blood or­ange caramel bon­bon shaped like a snowflake and topped with a gin­ger­bread em­bel­lish­ment. “Car­rie pointed out to me that although it’s a Christ­mas mold, it’s an art deco de­sign, and with the right dec­o­ra­tion, we could pass this off as art deco,” Steve said.

How­ever, it’s de la Cruz who won the chal­lenge and earned an­other 20 min­utes when­ever he chose.

Steve knew go­ing into the con­test that “you should never be 100 per­cent com­fort­able.”

“If you’re al­ways slightly on edge; it gives you an ad­van­tage,” Steve said. His be­lieves his train­ing in live the­ater also helped. “If some­thing goes awry, you can re­spond to it.”

The 20 min­utes de la Cruz de­mands comes at an awk­ward time, but Steve said it was “a great op­por­tu­nity to pri­or­i­tize” his next steps and cre­ate “a mini-sched­ule” in his head. In the long run, “it was more ben­e­fi­cial to sit and re­flect,” look at his piece and use the time to his ad­van­tage.

“The tasty treat was a fun lit­tle trick, but I’m here to win this whole thing. That’s where my fo­cus is,” Steve said on cam­era.

As Steve painted Beetle­juice, he said on cam­era he was “feel­ing good, feel­ing strong, feel­ing con­fi­dent in my de­sign. I think I’m go­ing to win it.”

His back­ground in the the­ater in­spired his de­sign. The mar­quee of his the­ater was con­structed of gin­ger­bread cov­ered in fon­dant and out­lined with green LED lights. The tex­tured, gum paste sand­worm wrapped around the mar­quee. As the LED lights work suc­cess­fully, Steve chan­neled the ti­tle char­ac­ter, shim­mied and said bouyantly, “Beetle­juice, Beetle­juice, Beetle­juice.”

“The gin­ger­bread gods smil­ing down,” Car­rie said.

“Thank you, Cher,” Steve

Sud­denly, the sur­prise third judge shows up. At the sight of the campy Mis­tress of the Dark, Elvira, Steve grinned, clapped his pur­ple la­tex-cov­ered hands. As he kissed her hands, he bowed and said three times, “I’m not wor­thy.”

“It looks awe­some,” Elvira said of his cre­ation. “I love it.”

Twelve hours of com­pe­ti­tion and two hours of judg­ing paid of f for Steve.

Steve’s haunted gin­ger­bread the­ater elicited ooh’s from the judges as the LED lights flashed, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the green and vi­o­let mar­ble ex­te­rior. In­side the “spooky and dark” art deco the­ater, Beetle­juice’s head emerges from the movie screen as the edi­ble fab­ric-cov­ered ghosts of Adam and Bar­bara look down on the scene.

“I re­ally love this over­all con­cept,” Judge Ja­son Smith said. “The (face of the) sand­worm tak­ing over the movie the­ater is iden­ti­cal to the one in the movie. The one thing I didn’t like about it was it cov­ered up too many of are an­swered. the let­ters mar­quee.”

“I found it re­ally, re­ally creepy be­cause it looks like the guy I used to date,” Elvira dead­panned.

“Your at­ten­tion to de­tail is amaz­ing,” Judge Jamika Pes­soa said. How­ever, she didn’t care for the style of the tasty treats in­cor­po­rated in the de­sign, call­ing it a “kind of dis­con­nect.”

“Steve, don’t give me a snowflake and call it art deco,” Pes­soa said.

“Two con­tes­tants’ dreams die here tonight,” Lee said. “I have to say that the judges had a ver y dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to make.”

As Steve name was called out as the win­ner, his face reg­is­tered stunned sur­prise, then joy as he and Car­rie em­braced.

“I have to say I’m speech­less,” Steve said on cam­era. “For the first time in my life, I don’t know what to say. This is amaz­ing. I’m go­ing to the fi­nale, and I hope to win the ‘Haunted Gin­ger­bread Show­down.’”

Though Steve knows the out­come, he’s not al­lowed to di­vulge the win­ner.

But he’ll be watch­ing his friends’ re­ac­tions tonight at the 404 Tap­house Bar and Grill in Denton has he com­petes in “The Ul­ti­mate Haunted House.” on the ‘Beetle­juice’

Steve Konopel­ski dis­cov­ers that the cho­co­late for his tasty treat sub­mis­sion is not set­ting in his torso mold, as seen on Food Net­work’s “Haunted Gin­ger­bread Show­down.”

Denton pas­try chef Steve Konopel­ski poses with his win­ning gin­ger­bread piece, “Now Show­ing,” as seen on Food Net­work’s “Haunted Gin­ger­bread Show­down.”

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