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Cake making turns to combat duty on 'Last Cake Standing'

April 3, 2009 |  6:15 pm

James-Rosselle-with-final-c A producer with the Food Network was on the line, pitching cake designer James Rosselle on its biggest, baddest cake challenge yet, "The Last Cake Standing," which starts Sunday. Competitors vie for $50,000 and the title of the "Best Cake Artist in America."

In other words, it was a golden opportunity for the 28-year-old from Whittier (at right) who is looking to open an appointment-only designer cake shop for his fledging business, Elle Cakes. Orders start at $600 and go skyward from there. You can check out a photo gallery of some of his cakes here.

So what did he tell the Food Network? "I told them I had to think about it."

Absolutely nothing against Food Network, said Rosselle, who had already competed in three similar contests for the network and emerged undefeated. But the challenges are so physically and emotionally grueling, he said -- "the audience just sees the tip of the iceberg" -- that he had to do some soul searching and determine whether he was ready to do it again.

Now wait a second. Are we still talking about baking cakes?

If Rosselle sounds like a battle-weary soldier, it's not by coincidence. The melding of two of the most successful genres in TV history -- reality competition and food programming -- have been an unbridled success.

But they get their traction from driving contestants in ways that the regal and genteel Julia Child  would never have imagined.

"I hate these shows, I just hate them," said Ciudad and Border Grill chef Mary Sue Milliken, who never dreamed such shows would be around when she was doing "Too Hot Tamales" for the Food Network. She said some of the prime-time cooking competition shows take it too far.

"That's not what food is supposed to be about. Food is supposed to be about love and taking care of someone. . . . I get called all the time to be a judge on some of these shows and I'm like 'No!' I don't want to do it."

Take "Hell's Kitchen" overlord Chef Gordon Ramsay, who recently hurled fresh meat at an underling who had displeased him. Contestants on "Chopped," "The Chopping Block" and "Top Chef" routinely fight back tears when they face elimination.

And Rosselle, should he survive the earlier rounds of "Last Cake Standing," will be forced to endure a 24-hour cake-making challenge. That's right. 24 hours. Of cake making.

Milliken might dislike some of these kinds of shows, but audiences are certainly tuning in. A rare flop came last month, when NBC pulled "The Chopping Block" off the boards after it was clobbered by the competition, including "American Idol." It starred legendary chef Marco Pierre White, who once trained Ramsay and is pretty fearsome in his own right.

During an interview before the start of the show, White was asked about the cooking competition genre and whether it was butchering the nation's already-complicated relationship with food.

Quite the contrary, White said. "Have you ever been inside a restaurant kitchen," White said?

"That is reality."

And anyone who has ever tried to hustle dinner onto the table, or tried to feed a hungry restaurant full of diners can identify with the reality show contestants who exhibit the stress, anxiety and sheer, flat-out panic entailed with plating up a dish. Or, God forbid, baking a cake.

The lie, White said, is when it's made to look as easy as pie.

For Rosselle, the decision to join the competitors in "the Last Cake Challenge" was ironically made more complicated by his past success.

As an undefeated alum, he had to wonder whether another appearance would be an unnecessary gamble that could tarnish his perfect record.

"There is so much that goes into it, getting ready for it and planning as much as you can, and then the challenge itself is just brutal," Rosselle said recently, standing in his kitchen, surrounding by designer cakes and rows of the decorative sugar flowers for which he is known. (Made from sugar and hand-painted, the flowers look as if they were plucked from a garden. The process of making them, drying them and then painting them can take days.)

"There was definitely a part of me that wondered, is it worth it? Could I lose more than I could gain?"

In the end, Rosselle signed on. "I realized it was too good to pass up."

"Last Cake Standing" begins Sunday at 8 p.m. and is billed as the network's first-ever elimination-style competition.

" 'Last Cake Standing' super-charges our popular Food Network Challenge series to make it the toughest, longest, most extreme cake competition ever," Bob Tuschman, the network's senior vice president of programming and production, said in a statement about the show. "Viewers will be amazed, not just at the brilliant creations, but at the fierceness of the competition. Who knew cake decorating was an extreme sport?"


-- Rene Lynch

Photo credit: Food Network