Veronica von Borstel blends her love of life with her love of food and serves it up reality TV.
Hillcrest resident Veronica von Borstel is an artist. Not the type whose work you would see in a museum, or gallery hallway. Her creations aren’t preserved for the ages, but admired for a moment on the outside then appreciated for what’s hidden underneath.
Veronica is a pastry chef, a culinary sculptress whose work lives on in the memories of those who have eaten her masterpieces.
Her confectionary skills were recognized by Food Network producers and they selected her to compete in “Halloween Baking Championship,” for a chance to win $25,000.
This fast-paced competition reality show took her from the comfort of her normal workplace into a camera-filled studio kitchen, recording her every move, and on Monday, Oct. 3, will broadcast those actions to millions of cable subscribers everywhere.
It’s full circle moment for her. As a child, while other kids were watching cartoons, she drew inspiration from other shows, and it’s a memory that is extremely important.
“I kinda grew up with it on PBS back in the day,” she said. “It was ‘Julia Child,’ it was ‘Great Chefs of the World,’ and I remember I would come home from school every day and just watch all the shows with my dad and it was really an awesome bonding moment.”
It was in those moments that Veronica knew she wanted to create some sort of connection between people and ingredients. Not only create something out of basic items such as eggs, flour and sugar, but an experience, something people could enjoy, reflect upon and visit later in their memories.
Looking through some of her deserts, you can see she has an affinity for brightly colored cakes, shaped like skulls, evoking the celebration of Dia del los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
“I’m Mexican so that plays a lot into the love of the culture and the representation," she said. "And I also have a fine arts degree, that’s what I did my undergrad at San Diego State. Being able to mix the two together is just really special for me because a lot of times people don’t have an art background, or they have an art background, but they don’t have a baking background. So being able to put both of those things together I think is what really sets me up in a market which is so competitive – we have so many wonderful bakers in San Diego.”
But how did she feel about being on television, being ridiculed by judges and viewers, her every move and choice scrutinized by people she didn’t even know?
She says she was nervous at first, but one of her good friends who passed away recently, famous Las Vegas chef Kerry Simon, encouraged her with words only she could hear.
“He was a super-big inspiration to my career, the entire time. And you know I just kept thinking, ‘What would Kerry do?’ And he’d be like, 'San Diego do this!' I remember all of the experiences and helping him prep for his first show and all of the different avenues it led him. You can’t be safe, you gotta really take the plunge sometimes, and I felt this is where my career needed to go at this point.”
The Halloween Baking Championship is a timed competition in which the bakers are given an assignment with a clock counting down the seconds. They are then judged on the appearance of the dish and its flavor. Those that aren’t able to impress the judges are sent home.
Veronica says the $25,000 is a nice incentive, but the real prize was knowing she could take a chance and push herself through something entirely new.
“For me the money wasn’t a motivator it was more of a personal challenge,” she said. “I’ve done so many things in this industry on all kinds of levels, this is the one thing that I haven’t done yet. It was more of a test to myself to see if I could do it, see how far I could go and have the experience; see if I could withstand -- if I had the stamina.”
One thing she wasn’t prepared for was the amount of time required to be on set. She says the filming hours were stressful and long, getting to sleep for only four to five hours, “I take my hat off to the people who work in that industry day-in, day-out. I don’t know how they do it.”
With each baking task being timed the stress to create something unique and original was daunting, but Veronica allowed herself some slack, concentrating instead on the timing, wanting to get the best look in the shortest duration.
“It has to look good,” she laughs, “those judges are tough. It has to taste good and they’re gonna notice every little thing – if you don’t have enough salt, if you have too much salt, those are three people who have highly refined palates. So you wanna make ‘em proud.”
Her fellow competitors didn’t make it easier for her either. She says she was humbled to be in the presence of such kitchen mastery.
“These people were powerhouses, I mean they’ve been in the industry twenty-thirty years," Veronica said. "A couple of them are culinary professors, a couple people have their own bake shops and you know, Michelle who is a fierce competitor used to work for Tom Colicchio at Grammercy Tavern, I mean these are big-name people who have been in the industry a long time, so it’s pretty intimidating walking in, and I think we all kind of have that same feeling as soon as we met each other...we turned out to be really great friends.”
Veronica says a lot of times in the kitchen she works alone and it was nice to have a support group that understands what she was going through; that seemed to be her biggest take-way from the show.
I asked if there were any tense moments on the show, when someone had to transfer a cake from one table to the next. But she won't give out any spoilers.
She does say that transportation of baked goods is always a factor in her craft.
“In this show, you’re not going to see things like in ‘Cake Wars,’” she says, “where there are these huge towers. But you make something and you’re gonna hope that it holds up and the structure’s going to be there by the time the judges get to it, so that’s always a little nerve wracking. I was like, ‘please don’t let my icing fall apart.’ And you can’t put anything past them.”
Whether it the soundstage of a Los Angeles studio, or working under the tutelage of Emeril Lagasse in Louisiana, there is one place to which Veronica will always return, and that's Hillcrest.
There is no other neighborhood like it she told me, and being a member of the LGBT community herself she’s grateful to belong to one that is always supportive, “I always like to represent Hillcrest and you guys have always meant so much to me.”
She is not planning to open up a shop in Hillcrest anytime soon though, the amount of rent each month is not something she is willing to pay.
Having been in the area her whole life she knows trying to make a bakery thrive is difficult, “Hillcrest is such a prime location, it is hard to pay the rent on a three-dollar cupcake, and if you are a restaurant that’s been around -- I mean my hat is off to you because it is tough.”
Adding more pieces to her dream, Veronica is writing a cookbook called “Sugar Mama,” a collection of recipes that showcase traditional candy-making techniques.
It’s a project that she hopes brings the heritage of recipes back into the kitchen. She fears that index cards or hand-written cookbooks with grandma’s instructions are fading from the family pantry.
“I’m a big believer in knowing about history and collecting vintage cookbooks and really having these memories of the grandparents, or what your mom used to make," she said. "I think that’s so special,” she says.
Veronica may not have her works behind glass in a museum, or hanging in the hallways at Le Louvre, but what she does is just as important as anything put on display there, even if it only lasts a few hours.
Her work, like her personality, shows that creating layers of love built from inspiration has a lasting effect on people as much as any work of art.
She wants the world to watch her compete on the Food Network show, but mostly she wants to show Hillcrest her appreciation, a community that has given her so much, and now she wnts to give back and make the community proud of her.
“it’s like no other place in San Diego.” She said. “No their place in San Diego has this kind of community and it's so fantastic. I like to do volunteer work with the LGBT Center, any time I can -- it is just so special.”
To see if Veronica takes home the $25,000 cash prize, watch “Halloween Baking Championship" which premieres on Food Network, Monday, Oct. 3, at 9/8c.