Self-taught KC baker takes the dough in Food Network’s ‘Christmas Cookie Challenge’
A Kansas City man who taught himself how to bake is the $10,000 winner of the Food Network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge.
Kellen Whaley used his skills and creativity to beat four other contestants in a competition that gave as much weight to taste as appearance. The episode will be shown several times this month and next.
“I’m super excited and a little surprised,” Whaley said in the episode when the judges told him he had won.
Whaley, 32, is a Kansas State University graduate who is an alumni relations consultant for Greek campus organizations. He also started a baking business out of his own kitchen called Whaley Sweet.
“I’m a very particular, Type A person,” Whaley says in the episode. “I want it to look as good as it can. Detail is key.”
But the contestants had to think and act quickly. In the first round of the competition, they had 90 minutes to design, bake and decorate Christmas cookies with a tropical theme.
“I’m from Kansas City, Mo., and we don’t do tropical Christmas too often,” Whaley said on the show.
Whaley was drawn to a whale-shaped (for Whaley, of course) cookie cutter and used red icing to create a Santa Claus hat for his vanilla almond sugar cookies. He also made gingerbread men with tropical shirts and pina colada-flavored icing.
Lead judge Ree Drummond — “The Pioneer Woman” blogger — noted the gingerbread men had no shorts and wondered if they were meant to be at a nude beach.
“Sun’s out, bun’s out, right?” Whaley answered. (Actually, he said he didn’t have time to make the shorts).
Two contestants were eliminated after the first round. In the second, Whaley and the remaining bakers had four hours to create a model train out of Christmas cookies.
Whaley noted that he had never made a three-dimensional cookie sculpture before. He again turned to gingerbread. He also made pecan molasses cookies to place in a boxcar labeled “nice” and Mexican hot chocolate cookies with toasted marshmallows for another boxcar labeled “naughty.”
Drummond said the Mexican hot chocolate cookie was “everything I’ve ever wanted in my life” while fellow judge Aarti Sequeira gushed that it was one of the top 10 chocolate cookies she had ever tasted.
Whaley said the experience made him feel validated as a baker. The taping was in June in California and Whaley had to keep it a secret until the episode first aired last week.
“My co-workers thought I was on vacation and my friends thought I was out there for work,” Whaley said Monday.