By Olivia Frenkel
“ 3… 2… 1… hands up! Bloody good job, bakers!” Bay Area pastry chef, Karl Fong, presented the judges with a deliciously rich, devil’s food cake with a complementary blood orange curd and dark chocolate buttercream. The cake’s presentation was as unpleasing to the eye as it was pleasing to the tongue. Fondant eyes bulged and blood orange flesh oozed from the crevices of the zombie heart shaped cake. The judges loved it. Fong out-scared and out-baked seven other contestants and was crowned the season 5 winner of Food Network’s Halloween Baking Champion, receiving the grand prize of $25,000.
Karl Fong is a long-time Bay Area resident who grew up with an artistic mind. “I’ve been an artist all my life. Even throughout highschool I did a lot of art classes and advanced art courses,” said Fong. During his childhood, he recalls his time in the kitchen, saying “I would make boxed brownies, cakes, and cookies, which now I consider cheating, but I was still in the kitchen and learning new skills.” As these skills grew, he realized that he could meld these two passions and pursue a career as a pastry chef.
Fong began his training at the Contra Costa College in a two and a half year program where his teacher proved to be an incredibly supportive figure. “I would ask him a ton of questions and I think that was the key early on. His intent was for the student to go up and ask him about things like procedures and bake times.”
Through Contra Costa College, Fong was sent to different internships where he received most of his class credits. He worked in restaurants and even a pastry shop in Berkeley, called Masse’s Pastries. In this hands on work, he learned more about the pressures of being in the kitchen while gaining more practical skills. “I was very fortunate to have chefs that were willing to share the knowledge that they had. I was never asked to do things like peel a bunch of apples all day, they were open to teaching me things and fixing mistakes. Afterwards, he attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco where he learned “the science and the why behind everything. This is huge because once you know the why, you can do so much.”
With this new knowledge and experience, Fong went on to work for B44 Catalan Bistro in the Financial District of San Francisco where his boss encouraged him to temporarily move to Spain to gain even further knowledge about pastries.
Fong fell deeply in love with Spain, but came back to work for B44 whose owners were in the process of opening a fine dining restaurant called Les Amis. He was asked to fill the new position as the executive pastry chef while still maintaining the job at B44. Though Les Amis closed after two and a half years, Fong is grateful for the creative opportunities that fine dining has offered him. “This job let me really dive into the details, textures, and temperatures of desserts.”
Fong decided to move on from B44 and helped a friend open an American restaurant by heading the pastry department. He produced desserts for his friend’s three restaurants as well as a few other restaurants in the Bay Area for around eight years before finding his own space to start Cakes By Karl.
Through his work there and through positive Yelp reviews, the producers of Food Network’s Baking Championship series found and originally cast Karl in the Holiday rendition of the show. However, upon further examination, they quickly realized that Karl’s background in the arts would make him a much better contestant for the Halloween Baking Championship. “It was a long process with all the interviews and emails, and I almost threw the towel in a couple of times, but one day I got the call that I made the show!”
Being on the show was “surreal. It was like you were dreaming, but it also adds to the pressure.” Though Fong works best under stress, he explained that “the time crunch isn’t doctored up. The time limit they see on T.V. is legitimately the time limit you have and you are working at full sprint the whole time.”
Unlike the baking itself, the on camera and voice-over portion of the show sometimes proved difficult for Fong. “The producers would sometimes tell me to lighten up,” explained Fong through a laugh, “When they announced I was in the top three and that I’d be making it to the final round, I had zero response and they had to retake the shot so that I would smile.”
Fong’s favorite part about the show was simply the people he met. “We talked shop everyday and we gave each other advice and recipes and techniques. I still talk to them even today.” The sense community that Fong built with the other bakers was even evident in the zombie heart shape cake that he presented to the judges in the final round of the show. “I was inspired by the final four,” said Fong during the last episode, “Peter is represented by the brains, the big eyeball is representative of Jessica, and then we know Julie was totally into plaid, so I made a plaid costume for the zombie”
Fong’s passion for the whimsical and daring side of dessert is apparent from his success on the show and from the work he does at his own pastry shop in Vallejo. If you would like to see more of his work, his website is calesbykarl.com and his instagram is @cakesbykarl.