- The Magazine
The bunny’s head was crumbling, literally splitting apart. Gene Shepherd appeared unfazed, calm, collected. But in reality…
“I was in complete and utter panic,” recalls the baker of the moment during his first major challenge on Food Network’s new reality competition series, Easter Basket Challenge. “I stood there for at least 20 minutes, chin on hand, thinking ‘What the hell am I going to do?'”
The show, which premiered Monday, March 1, at 10 p.m., and runs four more weeks on the cable network, is the latest in its elaborate, over-the-top bake-offs, a mainstay of the Food Network’s Prime Time lineup. It’s hosted by the buoyant Sunny Anderson and features, as judges, celebrated chefs Jordan Andino and Claudia Sandoval.
“I’ve spent years and years and years watching these shows, criticizing the contestants for the dumb, dumb mistakes they may have made,” says Shepherd, who runs the DMV-based online bakery, Cakes by Gene. “I’d be thinking, ‘Of course I would never do that. And then, when you’re in it, and there’s a camera pointing at you, and Sunny says, ‘GO!’ your brain turns to mush. All the things you’ve spent years perfecting become silly mistakes you make yourself. It’s a humbling experience, that’s for sure.”
Shepherd ultimately repaired the bunny’s head using white chocolate and cold spray, but it left him less time to fine-tune details on the massive piece — and the judges took notice. “I’m a huge perfectionist,” he says. “So to have to present something that is not what I deem as perfection is really a blow to the ego. The judges laid into me in real life a little bit more than you see on TV. I thought I was on the chopping block.”
The good news is that Shepherd was not eliminated, and will proceed through at least episode two. He can’t reveal much, including whether or not he baked his way to the show’s $25,000 Grand Prize. He does reveal, however, that the first episode took 18 hours to film. “It’s just crazy to think that they can edit it down to forty-five minutes,” he marvels.
In that first episode, seven bakers were given only five hours to create with an edible, museum-quality display that paid tribute to the Easter Bunny. “It takes me five hours at home to make a simple layer cake with some decorations,” the 46-year-old Maryland resident says. “And here I had to build an entire structure and decorate it in five hours! It was a terrifying but enjoyable experience.”
A huge fan of Easter, walking onto the show’s big, colorful set for the first time felt to Shepherd a little like stepping into the world of Willy Wonka. Easter Basket Challenge incorporates every staple of the festive holiday imaginable, and future challenges revolve around the seasons’ ubiquitous Peeps, Easter Bonnets, and great gobs of candy, from mounds of chocolate to mountains of jelly beans.
“Easter has always had the best candy,” says Shepherd. “A lot of people think Halloween or Christmas. But no, Easter always has the best. And for me [one of the best things about the show] was the ability to turn that love of Easter candy into actual edible art. I love Cadbury Mini Eggs. I love Peeps — they have to be stale and dry, but that’s the way I like them.”
Shepherd opened Cakes by Gene two-and-a-half years ago, leaving behind a twenty-year career in retail merchandising. Though he has always operated his bakery online, without a physical storefront, Shepherd does miss working in a proper industrial kitchen, and has been fulfilling orders from his home kitchen for much of the past COVID-impacted year.
“Before the pandemic started, my focus was on custom cakes — cakes for events and birthdays and weddings, things like that,” he says. “Obviously, when the pandemic started, that came to a screeching halt. So I pivoted and started doing these little mini cakes. I called them ‘Quarantine Qakes,’ and right out of the gate they sold like gangbusters. They’re just little five-inch, eight-to-ten serving cakes, perfect for small gatherings and things like that. They come in four flavors and four designs. My business thrived on those for about three months. And they’re still going strong.”
Shepherd calls out his husband on the series premiere. The pair have been together for 13 years, and were married in 2015. “He is my biggest cheerleader,” he says. “He’s been my support system through all of this. He’s cheered me on when everything’s been a success. And he’s also been a giant crutch when things have not been well. So he’s been there the whole time. He’s awesome.”
While his husband used to be Shepherd’s initial taste-tester, “he’s now kind of sick of cake. So unless it’s something very new that I’m trying, he’s like, ‘No, I’m good.'”
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