Angel Food's Katy Gerdes on Project Runway, pizza donuts, and winning $10,000

Local pastry chef Katherine Gerdes won big on the Cooking Channel's Donut Showdown
Local pastry chef Katherine Gerdes won big on the Cooking Channel's Donut Showdown

If you're a fan of donuts and competition cooking, then you probably already know about the show Donut Showdown on the Cooking Channel. But if you weren't tuned in for Friday night's episode, you might not know that our very own Katherine Gerdes of Angel Food Bakery went head to head against two other competitors in a fierce pastry throw down -- and won big.

While donuts were new territory for her, Gerdes is no stranger to televised competition. We sat down to talk a little bit about donuts, baking for Angel Food, and how her time as a competitor on Project Runway helped her to prepare for the world of pastry competition.

See also: Top 10 donuts in the Twin Cities

Hot Dish: You started out in the professional world as a fashion designer. How did you manage to go from the runway to a pastry kitchen?

Katherine Gerdes: I've always been into baking so as I kid I was always doing it in the summers and whenever I was bored, or for family holidays. I don't have a grandma that bakes and my mom doesn't cook, so when we needed 10 pies for Easter, that was always my job. I was just kind of self-taught that way and then all through design school, I would get a job as a pastry assistant. I just kind of talked my way into those jobs and I'm not exactly sure why anybody actually hired me, but I think I was good for summer assistant.

Then I did the fashion thing and to put it bluntly, I just don't like that industry. My personality just doesn't gel well with the fashion industry. I'm not cutthroat in that kind of way. I mean, I'm super competitive in other ways, but I just couldn't put up with it.

Having a design background could actually be pretty helpful in terms of pastry. Would you say you were able to put those skills toward baking?

I needed to get out of the fashion world, so the next logical move was to find a job doing something I knew that I could get a job as, which was a pastry chef. The design lends itself really well to pastry, because anybody can put frosting on top of a cupcake, but can you make it look nice? Can you make people want to buy it for $3? Having gone to design school, you can translate that way of thinking into anything that you do. So it's like, how do I take this baking recipe that's maybe clear-cut and how can I change it to make it something brand new?

So, once upon a time, you were a contestant on Project Runway. Were you able to take things that you learned from that experience and apply it to the Donut Showdown?

I think my biggest fault on Project Runway was that I was too aware of the fact that I didn't want to be known as the crazy person on the show, which is something I still believe. I don't want to be known as the crazy person on TV, so I was too self aware in that case. I also was working for Target design at the time, which is obviously very retail-driven, having to think about what millions of people are going to buy, so those two things combined made for a very boring TV persona.

The sheer fact that I'm a business owner now and having to be more aggressive in my daily life, that's helped to bring a lot of personality out of me and on TV, that's what they want to see so I'm not going to hide that. You know, we have 45 minutes to make two dozen donuts and if something gets messed up I don't have time to [say to] Crystal who's my assistant on the show and one of my chefs, I don't have time when we're on TV to be like, "Crystal, I think your hair is really pretty and I love you, but you really screwed that up, so lets try this again." Instead I just have to be like, "DO IT AGAIN!" and just yell at her, and they want that. That's what they want to see on TV and that's what it's like in the bakery on a daily basis.

Would you say that the open kitchen environment of Angel Food helped to make you feel a little bit more comfortable for the show?

You know, I do TV appearances pretty regularly for like live cooking demos and stuff, and at a certain point, you know, they just say that you have to pretend that the cameras aren't there. So I just have to do what I do, and having this bakery has really helped, especially this bakery because you can see everything that we do. You get used to doing everything while you think people are scrutinizing you and if you screw while people are watching, you almost have to pretend that you didn't screw up and be like, "No, I meant to redo this, I just didn't want to do it right the first time!" Having an open kitchen is a lot like being on TV all the time, so I think we were pretty prepared for that mentality.   What kind of information did the Cooking Channel give you before heading into the competition?

We knew the basic information going in ahead of time. We knew that the first round was 45 minutes and you have to make two dozen of the same flavor donut using their secret ingredients, but we didn't know what the ingredients would be. We knew that in the first season of the show, they had a table of ingredients and the contestants had to pick three random things and use them, but we didn't know if they were going to do that or if they were going to change it up. Now, If you've been watching, they did change the format and they now announce the ingredients that everybody has to use.

For us, they literally lifted the dome and said, "Pizza toppings! Mozzarella, pepperoni, and tomato sauce!"

So did you do any practicing with weird ingredients ahead of time in order to prepare yourself for what might lie in store?

No, because actually Crystal and I are not the donut chefs at the bakery. So, prior to the show, I had made donuts maybe twice in my life and she had never done it. I picked Crystal because she has the ability to jump in and go. I can ask her to make me whoopie pies, and even if she's never heard of them, I can tell her that they're kind of like cookies and cakes, and then she'll make them. Baking translates. If you're good at cupcakes, you're going to be good at donuts, you just have to figure out the science behind it. The creative aspect is all the same. If you can make a weird flavored cake work, you can make a weird flavored donut. So we spent the week and a half before the show trying to learn how to make donuts!

What kind of donuts did you make?

We had to make four donuts total. The first round we had surprise ingredients (pizza toppings) and we made a pepperoni, mozzarella, and ricotta "pizza fritter" with two dipping sauces -- sweet tomato jam and basil creme anglaise.

The second round was based on a "New York" theme and we had to make three donuts: a maple-tabasco glazed "Chicken, Waffles, and Pickles" donut (they surprised us with having to use pickles in a donut, so we added fried pickles to our chicken and waffles donut), a tres leches donut with lemon curd filling and bittersweet chocolate sauce, and a Coney Island Cruller with cashew caramel buttercream filling.

What was it like to win?

It was so surreal to win. After the judging I had a pretty good feeling that they liked our donuts the best, but I couldn't get my hopes up because you never know.

What are you doing with the $10,000?

I don't know yet. Some of it will go to the bakery and of course some of it will go to Crystal. I should probably do something responsible with it, but I think I'll use it to go on a snowboarding trip somewhere cool this winter. Maybe a heli-boarding trip. I've always wanted to do that!

Will you have any donuts from the episode available at Angel Food?

We will be having some of the donuts from the show, but we're slowly rolling them out and some of them will just be specials every once in a while (like the chicken pickle donut). This week on Thursday we'll be having the pizza fritters for the first time. After that I don't know exactly when we'll have the other flavors, but we'll post something on Facebook and Twitter when we do.

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