This season on Holiday Baking Championship 10 bakers entered the competition to show off their creativity and skills for a chance to win $50,000. After eight weeks of baking everything from cookies to cakes, three bakers remained to face off in the finale: Steve, Maeve and Adalberto. But as is always the case, only one of them can walk away the Holiday Baking Champion and the winner of the grand prize.
Who baked the best holiday-themed cake in the finale? If you haven’t watched yet, then don’t read any further as we’re chatting with the winner of the championship.
Although Maeve may have only won her first Main Heat in Episode 6 with her unique croquembouche and her first Pre Heat challenge with her sugar cookie tree in the finale, she was one of the most-competitive bakers in the championship, which was easy to see from her passion and determination to make it among the final three. And risking third-degree burns to create an isomalt sleigh for the finale’s Main Heat definitely says volumes about her dedication to baking art.
FN Dish recently sat down with Maeve to chat about her win, how she felt when she found out, where her drive comes from and what she plans to do with the $50,000 prize. She also let us into the daily goings-on at her bakery Sugar and Scribe in La Jolla, Calif.
Congratulations on the win!
Maeve Rochford: Oh, thank you so much. It was, kind of, like surprising, and a very unusual excitement. I haven’t had that kind of excitement before.
How did it feel? It looked like you were shocked at first, and then it looked like you were going to pass out.
MR: I think I did almost pass out. … I think that it was this moment where I had just totally expended all of my thoughts and creativity, and I put — I mean people joke, like “Oh she said her soul,” but like I really did. I put my heart and my soul into it, and so when they said my name … it was kind of like that freeing, validating, exciting, jump-up-and-down, I want to do high-fives kind of a moment, and I’m not actually that expressive of a person, so it was just so delicious.
Where does your competitive drive come from?
MR: It’s genetics. All of the women in my family are this crazy. I think [it’s in] our blood, that mix of Irish blood slash years and years of competition definitely has molded me into the competitor I am today. I mean, when you start off at seventh grade being in one of the most-competitive rowing leagues, and then moving onto the junior national team, and then getting a scholarship to college, I mean it’s kind of like breeding that killer instinct. … It’s also why, like sometimes I look so surprised when I finally pull one off [because] you’re taught to always be critical of yourself, and so, you have this very strange combination of confidence and insecurity bouncing back and forth.
You mention your Irish background. We definitely saw you bring that out all throughout the competition. How important was it for you to represent your heritage in the recipes that you made?
MR: I would say that it was probably one of the most important points that I wanted to get across. I’ve heard on a daily basis for the last five years when people come into my bakery, “Oh, I didn’t know the Irish could cook,” or “Oh, I didn’t know the Irish could bake.” … I kind of want to lunge across the counter and be like, “Are you serious?” You know, the French aren’t the only people.” But on the other hand I feel like what an amazing gift I’ve been given, because I can show the world, [that] actually the Irish, Scottish and English were tremendous bakers. … For me baking isn’t just sweet. It’s baking savory. It’s baking sweet. … A lot of people think of it as, like baking cakes or baking cookies. For me, baking is an all-encompassing, holistic life approach.
During the competition we saw you pushing the boundaries of sweet and savory. In the cranberry sauce Pre Heat, you decided to make a bread pudding that featured rosemary and bacon. That might have been the first time you did that on the show, and the judges were really impressed with it. Why did you wait a few episodes to show off your sweet and savory skills?
MR: The raw answer is that I’m a competitor, so I wanted to see what other people are doing, what the show is looking for. … I was trying to be very crafty in what I was doing, and then I think after really the trifle disaster, and feeling a certain level of frustration, I decided that from that moment on … I’m just going to really stay true to what Bobby is saying. … If he’s saying reinvent something, or maybe use this ingredient, I’m going to stay true to that ingredient, and that’s become my best skillset, flavor profiling and the use of unique spices. … I’m just always trying to learn more about flavor, and … if you were at my bakery you would see I interact savory and sweet constantly, and I’m constantly pushing what people think goes together… .
Thinking about the trifle incident, can you talk about that a little bit? Recall for us what made you break down in front of the judges. What were you feeling in that moment?
MR: I literally don’t cry. … So, to have, that much emotion, and be put in a situation where I have so little control, I was so out of my element, and I’m so used to being very, like cold and calculated that for once, somebody found a way to, like completely get me off my rocker… . Not having my oven and where I put things throws me off. … Not knowing the constant time. Just so many factors. I mean not to sound mushy, but I miss my husband all the time. We are definitely best friends … and so not having him around was very strange. And it was just all these weird things that I couldn’t control, and then my worst nightmare: to royally fail at something that I do all the time.
Before the doors opened [for judging], literally the words I was repeating [were] “Hold it together. Hold it together,” and I got all the way to the trifle, and I lose it. Oh my god, and so then [I found out I was one of] the ones that didn’t get sent home… . It was a freeing moment for me, because I have fallen so many times in my life, and my greatest attribute is that I try to find the humor in it, and I’m really good at getting back up. … [Afterward] I was like, “Alright, you know they granted me another try. The worst thing that could ever possibly happen, on national television, has happened, and now I’m just going to let go. I’m going to smile. I’m going to have fun. I’m going to show them what I’m really like, and fingers crossed.”
A good example of your persistence was when you made the ginger chew for the candied ginger Pre Heat, altering your original recipe, but it didn’t come out exactly as you had planned. Then you tried it again in the Main Heat and Duff said, “Why didn’t you make that in the first place?” Do you think you should have just stuck to your original recipe in the first place?
MR: Yes and no. … I was more frustrated that my first vision didn’t work out, and in my head I was thinking I should have called it something different, because I didn’t make the actual ginger chew. I altered it, because the chew on top of a baked custard would not have worked, but by then saying it was a ginger chew, now I’ve just said on national television that it is that, and so I was kind of frustrated at myself. … There are a lot of other things I could have called it so that it would fit in, and so I think that I got it back to them partially because I’m snarky, and partially because then that’s like being critical of myself.
It took a while for you to win a Pre Heat, and a Main Heat. You actually won your first Pre Heat in the finale, and you won your Main Heat with the croquembouche in Episode 6. Would you characterize yourself as the dark horse in the competition?
MR: Oh, I’m for sure the dark horse, because I’m dark. (laughs) … I have a very bizarre sense of humor. I’m dry, and I think that my facial expressions always make me look like I’m super pensive, or I’m ready to go nuts and run through the kitchen, but really that’s just me thinking and calculating everything out. I was not used to trying that many times and not getting a win, so there was a part that I found kind of comical in it. … And the other part of me found it really annoying. … [I’m] reading these tweets, and some people are, like, “Maeve looks so intense,” or other people are like, “Watch out Steve, Maeve has a meat cleaver,” and then other people totally get my humor, and totally get that … I’m actually, like a big ham. I mean, I’m a goofball. I’m just not a goofball when I’m competing. And so I think when they said [I won the] croquembouche … part of me literally wanted to take off around the kitchen stadium, like with a kazoo … but I was trying to be reserved and polished… . So, I think I’m the dark horse, because I’m hard to read, and I think when people are hard to read, you don’t know what angle they’re coming from.
In the finale we find out about your battle with kidney disease. What made you wait so long to reveal that and how did it come out in that moment?
MR: Part of the way that I’ve dealt with being sick for so long, has been really to close off a lot of my vulnerabilities. … I’m really a very private person, and I wanted the judges to always love my food, because they loved my food, and not ever because somebody felt sorry for me … . I think that as we got closer and closer to the finale, I started feeling more and more that the only way to … have them understand why I’m so intense, and why even [during] a cookie challenge my face looks like I’m competing in the world sniper contest is because every day for me is some sort of battle, and that the fact that I’m here is a gift … .
God bless you guys. I mean you’re so good. You just weasel inside of our heads, and the next thing I know, I’m sharing things with you guys that I have literally not shared with almost my entire staff. I mean, people know that … I do electrolyte treatments, but people don’t know what the deal is, and I think for some reason, at that moment, I just thought, you know what, maybe if people understood my background and so forth, they would understand why I’m so passionate all the time.
In the finale you looked determined to make a sleigh using hot isomalt. Were you going to get that to work no matter what, or did you have any backup plans to create it out of another material?
MR: No. I was literally, like “This is happening. I don’t care if my hand melts off mid-competition.” … I was going to put on, like fifty gloves, wrap it in four layers of whatever I could get my hands on. That’s the way it was happening, and I had never done it before. … I’m a very, very determined person … and I just went for it. It hurt though. You can put that on record.
When the judges were critiquing your cake, their opinion was that there wasn’t enough filling to cake ratio. Were you second-guessing yourself at that moment when you were hearing those comments?
MR: I knew it was coming. … I needed the cake to be very structurally sound, which having more cake helps. … But I felt what they criticized me about was deserved. I mean, it was too much cake versus frosting, but I felt if you looked at the entire package in a holistic way, I felt strong, but you know, Steve’s cake was really — it was a really good looking cake. So, I think that also was on my mind during the entire judging time.
What made you decide to become a baker, and what was your turning point, when you realized “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life”?
MR: I was always a rower. … Always had a path: preschool to high school, high school to junior team, junior team to college, college to national teams. So, I always had a plan, and then I graduated, and I suddenly woke up, and I really didn’t want to row anymore, and I was really very lost as to what my next plan was because my life had been so easy. You do this, you do this, and when you look at what a coxswain is — a coxswain is truly an executive chef. They lead the team. They inspire the team. When you’re in the weeds, the coxswain helps them get out of the weeds, and I have always been baking. I have always been in the kitchen. Eighty percent of my childhood was in somebody’s kitchen, whether it was my mother’s, my neighbor’s or my grandmother’s, and I just took what I thought were my skillsets I learned from rowing combined with my absolute love of eating and all things baking, and that’s when I was like, I am going to be a baker, but I want to transform what people think of bakers. We’re not just cookie people. I think bakers can offer so much more … casseroles and lasagnas and even people who just make pizza. I mean, that comes from the oven. Anything that comes from the oven makes you a baker.
Can you talk about your bakery, Sugar and Scribe? What do you make there on a daily basis, and what are some of your specialties that customers definitely should try?
MR: So, my bakery is a hybrid. It’s bizarre like me in that it’s a bakery, and it’s a full restaurant. So, we do breakfast, we do lunch and we do light dinner. It also has a coffee bar in it, and it has a gourmet to-go section. … It is obviously predominantly Irish, Scottish and English, but just today we are putting pozole on the menu. No logical reason other than I decided it is delicious, and I think we need more of it. I’m definitely known for my farmer’s pie, which is a very traditional Irish meal … . Another big specialty of ours is definitely going to be our pies and our custom cakes. A lot of people know us for that.
We have this kind of balance between staying true to my Irish heritage, but also consider the season. So, right now being the season of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza … our menu has a lot of very traditional items. So, we have stollen, we have matzo brei, we have a variety of things for Hanukkah, for Christmas. Of course Christmas sugar cookies are everywhere. We have baked custards going on right now. Today we did an eggnog custard — probably not Duff’s favorite, but I love eggnog. We try to stay very up to date. So, our menu itself changes at least once every two months, and then the pastry section changes monthly, which I think is unique and really keeps people interested.
For your career, how does winning this competition change things? Do you feel like you’re ready to expand? What do you intend to do with the prize?
MR: I feel really excited about winning. I feel, of course, like validated. … I don’t really care what show you’re on, if you won something on Food Network, to me that’s the big time. That’s really exciting. So, I’m very honored about that. I’d love to take this opportunity to definitely grow Chef Maeve as a person, and see what else I can pull out of the hat. I’d also love to grow Sugar and Scribe, maybe have some more locations, help out the economy, hire more people. I really love my staff. So, once I get my prize, I’m actually going to give them Christmas bonuses, which is probably unusual in the restaurant world, but I definitely couldn’t do what I do without my staff. I’m definitely going to give a big chunk to my first investor, my mother. God bless her. She gave me her retirement fund without any hope of ever getting it back. … She wrote me the check, and she wasn’t stingy about it, she gave me almost everything she had. So, I’d love to finally start paying her back. … My huge weakness is dogs. I have two pugs and I have a labrador, and next year I hope to get another mastiff. (I had a mastiff, but unfortunately he passed away.) And so I plan on donating money to both mastiff rescues [and] pug rescues, but also a local dog shelter here … .