We asked the local pastry chef about his (spooky) adventure competing on Food Network.
With more time on his hands this year, local pastry chef Aaron Clouse was able to find one silver lining of the pandemic: an appearance on the sixth season of Food Network’s “Halloween Baking Championship.”
The show, which was shot this year in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, pitted the Olde Towne East resident against nine other bakers for the title of Halloween Baking Champion and a grand prize of $25,000. In each episode, the bakers are charged with coming up with outlandish yet delicious, Halloween-themed desserts. It’s currently airing on Mondays on Food Network. Since he’s returned to Columbus, Clouse has rejoined the kitchen at A Proper Garden’s café in Delaware, where he is executive chef.
This isn’t Clouse’s first brush with Food Network fame. The 27-year-old Sycamore, Ohio, native got his first taste of reality TV in 2018 when he appeared on “Guy’s Grocery Games” on Food Network beside Ajumama chef-owner Laura Lee. Once being initiated into the Food Network world, Clouse was added to a list for possible future show appearances. Once a talent scout reached out this year about the Halloween Baking Championship, Clouse decided now was the perfect time to go for it. “During every interview, I just was huge on the personality. You know, it's TV. They want people with big personalities,” he says.
At 9 p.m. Monday, Oct. 5, you can catch Clouse in action during the Halloween Baking Championship’s fourth episode. The theme: creepy nursery dolls. Eek!
How did you first learn to love pastry?
It started when I was a kid. My mom would do little wedding cakes for friends, and every year for the holidays we would do this massive pastry, cookie buffet. Essentially my parents, my brother and I, we’d do 14 different types of cookies. There was caramel corn, there were all these little sweets and chocolate-covered pretzels and stuff. Then we would buy these little tins, and we'd box them up. So, we basically gave out Christmas cookie holiday boxes to all of the neighbors, all of the friends. That's really where it all started, around the holidays when I was a kid.
How has the pandemic affected you and your work?
At first the pandemic was definitely very intensely crazy with me not working. … But then with all that extra time, I was able to refocus my brand, my website and focus on the Food Network stuff. That opportunity has been huge. … Luckily for me, I was able to turn the additional free time that came with the pandemic into focusing on the future and kind of reorienting the career path that I want to make for myself. Because I could work in restaurants and enjoy that and be happy with my life. But I also know that I want to focus more on travel, because that's always been a major passion. I always wanted to combine those two worlds.
What are the hardest aspects of competition-style baking?
I think the most challenging thing is you never know what you're walking into. Number one. So, you know, one day I was like, “Oh, this will be a cake day. I feel like this is going to be great.” But then you get handed some oddball flavor that you didn't pick. Like you have to run up and grab something, and it has the flavor that you're supposed to bake with or an ingredient. It was always, “Well, let me see what I get handed today, and we'll adjust it and make it work.”
I think the other biggest challenge is it's a game within itself. You're playing a game with your own skills against everybody else. It's very easy to get in your head about it. So, just remaining confident, cool-minded and just focused—I think that's the other big challenge. I saw a lot of people get upset because one thing didn't go right, and they let it spiral into the whole day going wrong.
Were there times when you felt like you were battling with yourself a bit?
I think I only got in my head once, and it hasn’t aired yet. It’s the next episode. I feel like it was a dark episode for me. I think it was just one of those things … filming during COVID and being away from family and being in a hotel room. It's a different world, too. So not only is it a new kitchen with new ingredients, new brands for ingredients, but you're also in a new place with a different altitude and temperature and you know, it's just a completely different world.
How would you describe your strengths in the competition?
The two things I was focused on were an artistic viewpoint—I definitely tried to do things in a very out-of-the-box kind of view. And then also putting together weird ingredients. I like doing weird ingredients. I always try to pick interesting flavors or ingredients that not everybody else might go for just because it will stand out. And I really like savory desserts. I think that was something that [the judges] were nervous about, but once they tried things they were like, “OK. Yeah, we can see it."
What were your fellow competitors like?
They're all absolutely phenomenal. We're also far apart geographically, but it's like a second family. I mean, we were there for quite a long time together. We had a lot of time just to hang out. We're all there for the same reason. We all can appreciate each other's journey. And so I think we just all hit it off. I mean, we have a group text message, and it's probably 200 to 300 group texts a day, and that's been going on since we left. I can talk to them more than anybody else.
What would you do with the grand prize of $25,000?
With the grand prize, I would buy a camera equipment and map out a six-month journey to circumnavigate the globe and film the whole thing. The trip would be based on pastry locations around the world. So, I've always wanted to go to Madagascar to see the vanilla bean production; to Bali to see the coffee and the chocolate production. ... And so basically it would be a whole pastry cultural journey. Imagine Anthony Bourdain but with me and pastry.