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