May 18, 2024


Built General Tough

Behind-the-Scenes Secrets Of Baking Competition Shows

This interview is part of “Netflix Cooking School,” Delish’s new partnership with Netflix where we bring readers exclusive content tied to the premieres of some of their most popular new (and returning!) food shows.

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Ashley Holt, the cake connoisseur of Bake Squad and creator of Sugar Monster Sweets, is not only responsible for some of the wildest and most viral sculpted cakes of all time, but she’s also been a big part of making your favorite food celebs—Buddy! Joanna!—the icons they are today. Ahead of Ashley’s Netflix premiere, I got to speak to her about her experience in food production, what it’s like to work with chefs on that level, and what her process is like for making those crazy aforementioned cakes…plus why she thinks you can make them too!


Courtesy of Ashley Holt

Walk me through your career. How did you end up on a Netflix show with Christina Tosi?

When someone asks me, “What is your job?” I sometimes don’t know how to answer because I’m an artist, I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a producer, I’m a consultant. I’ve been in the food industry for more than 10 years and I just have a very competitive spirit. Years ago, I got into a [TLC] baking competition called Next Great Baker that I ended up winning, and it yielded more opportunities in TV. I did Cake Boss for a couple of years. That opened the door to working into food media. Buddy [Valastro] asked me to be a culinary producer, and my first reaction was: “Yeah, sure, I can do that.” I left going, “What the heck does a culinary producer do?

From there, I worked as a food stylist for Amazon. I was the senior food stylist at The TODAY Show. More recently, I was Joanna Gaines’s culinary producer for her new cooking show. Finally, Bake Squad contacted me. I was getting out of my postpartum depression, getting settled, and just feeling a lot better. It was like the universe was saying, “OK, Ashley. We see you. We appreciate your hard work and here is your passion back.”


Courtesy of Ashley Holt

I was going to ask you how you would describe what it is you do these days, but you gave me a whole bunch to work with!

I know [laughs]. I’m a culinary producer, a food stylist, and an artist.

What can you tell us about working behind the scenes with *the* Cake Boss, *the* Joanna Gaines, and *the* Christina Tosi?

I still have to pinch myself a lot of the time. I worked with Buddy at the height of Cake Boss fame, and it was very surreal to be working so closely with him, as a competitor, then as a staff member, and then as his culinary producer. He is a mega-star, behind and in front of the camera.

Working with Joanna so closely and producing her hugely popular cooking show is an absolute dream. She is blowing up in the world right now and I’m right there with her, helping her develop recipes, putting everything together for the show, and she is just such a sweetheart of a human being. It’s like she doesn’t even realize how famous she is. She’s so down to earth. And we’ve been nominated for a Critic’s Choice Award!

As for Christina? She was one of the first cooks I ever [looked up to], and I love watching what she has been able to do with Milk Bar. She has completely blown the business out of the water, and her product launches are so impressive. Having her as our host for the show, getting her advice on everything, and working so closely with her is a complete dream come true.


Courtesy of Ashley Holt

How did Bake Squad differ from other food TV you’ve shot in the past?

We were able to go big with the proper support—that was definitely very new. Plus, we’re working together as a team. There’s a friendly competition inside each challenge and of course we all want our bake to be picked to go to the event, but at the end of the day, we’re left standing next to this creation we’re very proud of. Of course there were times when we could have used a few more hours to perfect our creations, but it can’t all turn out completely perfect every single time. That’s real world and that’s OK!

Let’s talk custom cakes. What do you recommend to people who come to you to create one?

Some people definitely come in with a clear idea, but a lot of times, when they’re coming to me for a cake, they want me to run with it. I love that! There is—and there should be—a collaborative nature to it, but a lot of times, if I’m accepting cake orders, people know we’re going to do something a little non-traditional.

[Sculpted cakes] really push me as an artist. Every single time I start an intricate sculpted cake, I always question myself, and even I am surprised by what I can do. I have my own little personal journey throughout all these cakes. Plus, anything big is fun. The more traditional type cakes? Those don’t really spark joy for me. I don’t really like doing things that are too generic.


Courtesy of Ashley Holt

What distinguishes a sculpted cake from a cake someone could get just about anywhere else?

The cake itself is sculpture. It looks like a piece of art! You’d be surprised that you’d even be able to cut into it, whether it’s a two-foot-tall bunny that looks like a topiary out of your garden or a typewriter that is just so intricately detailed and perfectly scaled you would walk up to it thinking you could actually type a novel on it. You cut into it, you’re like, “Oh my gosh. There are10 layers of cake inside of there!” It tricks the eye and it’s wild.

So no part of you was surprised when this became A Whole Thing on the internet this past year, yeah?

Oh yeah. I think it’s awesome—so many artists are coming out and realizing the hyper-realistic cakes have exploded in popularity. It’s fun seeing so many other people doing the same thing, especially when each person’s “same” thing is different. When I decided to feature cakes, it completely turned my life around. It gave me a place to put all the energy I had, it gave me a positive outlet for all that energy. It can have that effect on anybody and that makes all of it worthwhile. The more, the merrier!


Courtesy of Ashley Holt

But so few people can do it!

We are all skilled in what we do, but we all started somewhere. My first cakes are hilarious to look at. For my first sculpture—my first human head sculpture—I sat on my kitchen island for three days; I didn’t even change my clothes [laughs]. I became obsessed. I could sculpt every angle of my face, I used calipers and mirrors, and went all in on the lines, the highlights, and the curves. I could not believe what I made—I never would have bought that I could’ve done that! I didn’t know until I tried. No matter how daunting anything may look—whether it be cake or any other career—know that we’re magical, powerful human beings. We are capable of completely anything.

Bake Squad‘s first season premieres August 11 on Netflix.

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