This time it was off to Orlando, FL. But for this Bake-Off, I was lucky that both of my daughters were able to meet up with my husband and I in Florida a few days early. We were able to spend time together, shopping, going out to dinner and of course, a day at Disney World, because you are never too old to enjoy Disney World!!!
Along with the You Be The Judge contest, another new twist was added to this contest. We had been notified a few weeks earlier that Oprah would be announcing the Grand Prize winner on her show, live. All 4 category winners would be announced in Orlando, Monday night before the Celebration dinner. They would then be whisked off to Chicago to appear on Oprah’s show that following Thursday, where one of them would find out that they were the Grand Prize winner!
Once again on Sunday, it was a whirlwind of orientation, demos and the meeting up with old and new finalist friends! After the Sunday night Welcome Dinner and a try at getting some sleep, once again it was the start of the Bake-Off with the Grand March. The atmosphere during the actual Bake-Off seemed so much different to me this time – less electric – probably due to the absence of the Food Network crew. Sandra Lee, once again, was the host and again, spent some time on the Bake-Off floor chatting with the finalists. Oprah’s TV crew was there, with Alli Wentworth, who seemed to be looking for drama at every turn. We found out the 4 category winners that night before the Celebration dinner, and once again, another Bake-Off was over – at least for me. Once again, it was back to reality. And once again, thoughts of recipes on the mind because the next Bake-Off entry period would be here before you knew it!
I think the best part of being a Bake-Off finalist is all the friends I have made along the way. I know a lot of people get really caught up in winning the contest and the thought the one million dollar grand prize. In the months leading up to the contest, with all of your friends and family telling you they know you are going to win, sometimes it is hard not to dream big. But I would tell anyone who gets the opportunity to go, to just to take it all in and enjoy every single moment. If you think about the “tens of thousands” of entries Pillsbury claims they receive, the fact that you are actually there, already makes you a winner!
When Kristina and I first met contestant Jannine Fisk, all we could think of was how sweet she was and full of energy. The Bake-Off turned out to be life-changing for Jannine as you will read:
My Dance with the Doughboy
by Jannine Fisk
The date was August 31, 2009, a typical Monday evening. I was preparing dinner when the phone rang. The caller I.D. said “Minnesota” but that did not seem strange to me, considering dinner-time charity solicitation phone calls were not uncommon in my home. It never occurred to me that it could be the call that I and so many others had been waiting for … “THE call” … The Queen Mother of all calls … the call from Pillsbury informing you that you were chosen as a finalist in the Pillsbury Bake-Off . It was my first time entering and I had submitted a total of ten recipes to the Bake-Off contest in April of that year. As I had with so many other contests, I hoped for the best and waited to see if I was chosen, knowing that Pillsbury receive tens of thousands of entries for the Bake-Off Contest each time. The official rules said the finalists would not be notified until September 1st and even though that date was only one day away, for some reason it just wasn’t on my radar. Assuming there would be someone on the other end of the line mispronouncing my name and asking for a donation, I answered “Hello” in a slightly less than pleasant voice. The very sweet and very professional voice on the other end responded with, “Is this Jannine Fisk?” (perfectly pronounced, I might add) … When I replied, “Yes”, the caller responded with, “Is this Jannine Fisk of Malden, MA who submitted a recipe to the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest entitled “Bourbon Street Muffuletta Braid?” I put down the knife I was using to cut potatoes, felt myself catch my breath and heard my voice (a few octaves higher than usual) excitedly replied, “Yes! That’s me!” I pointed at the phone with one hand and mouthed the words, “Pillsbury Bake-Off!” to my husband as the voice on the phone informed me that I was a potential finalist for the 44th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest. I remember having to sit down because I was shaking and my legs felt weak. I began scrambling for a pen and some paper to write down all of the important information that the caller had for me. They were very specific in their choice of words, saying I was a “potential” finalist and my status had not yet been confirmed. They went on to give me lots of information, rules and specifics about the contest and I was instructed not to tell a soul or I would risk disqualification. Most of me was listening and taking notes but a small part of me had already begun a glorious daydream, picturing myself on the Bake-Off floor, presenting my recipe to the judges, and yes, having the confetti rain down upon me as I held a huge cardboard check for one million dollars. Unfortunately my Bake-Off experience did not end the way my daydream did, but I had the experience of a lifetime that can only be summed up with one word: “priceless”.
The next several weeks were filled with emails and instructions on how to prepare for the contest. There were many questions to be answered, forms to be filled out and sent back and details to discuss. Travel arrangements had to be made and instructions on how to speak with the press were given. I learned that I was required to submit a video of me preparing my recipe along with answering some very specific questions, such as where I got the inspiration for my recipe and what I would do if I had the winning entry. Professional photos had to be taken and Pillsbury was even very specific as to what color clothing we could wear in our portraits. Ingredient lists had to be approved and equipment requests had to be submitted. Pillsbury could not have been more thorough! I remember thinking to myself, it’s no wonder why they only do this every two years. It would be impossible to pull this all together every year!
After what seemed like an eternity (in actuality it was six weeks) we were informed that we could spread the good news to our family and friends that we were chosen as one of 100 to compete in the 44th Bake-Off Contest. Being a member of CCC (Cooking Contest Central), I remember watching the message boards fill up with posts from my fellow finalists, the good news spreading like wildfire. We formed a Facebook group so we could get to know each other and even ordered rubber bracelets with the words “CCC” imprinted on them so we could identify each other when we got to Orlando. I was becoming a member of a big, new family and loving every minute of it!
After several months of practicing my recipe and handing out slices to family, friends, neighbors and coworkers, it was finally time to head to Florida and make my entry for the most important critics of all – the Bake-Off judges. Because of my fear of flying, I opted to drive to Orlando for the Bake-Off. My parents spend the winter in Florida so it was a great opportunity to get to see them and take a road-trip that I had never taken before. My husband washed my car and handed me a Doughboy sticker and a neon pink window marker pen. I decorated my car with sayings like, “Bake-Off Contest Finalist On Board” and “Honk to Wish Me Luck!” and we hit the open road. Three days, almost 1400 miles and 225 good-luck honks later, we arrived at the beautiful Hilton Bonnet Creek Hotel in Orlando. The party had begun!
After we checked in to the hotel, we headed to the lobby for our first introduction to the Pillsbury representatives. We picked up our official finalist name tags and received a tote bag full of sponsor products and Doughboy merchandise. We were given instructions to wear our name tags at all times and informed about the mandatory kitchen orientation meeting and question and answer meeting to follow. This was our first glimpse at the Bake-Off floor that had previously been hidden behind strict “Do Not Enter” signs and guarded at all times by a Pillsbury representative. This was serious business! I remember straining to try and see my range (I was number 8) from behind the velvet ropes. The ballroom had been cooled to 60 degrees F in preparation for the anticipated heat from the 100 ovens being used at the following morning’s Bake-Off. After all our questions were answered and instructions were given to us, we were allowed some free time to explore the hotel and rest up for the big day ahead. Our CCC members had previously arranged a meeting in the hotel lobby bar to get to know one another in person. We exchanged lots of hellos and hugs and even autographs, as we passed our Bake-Off recipe booklets around for each other to sign. It should have seemed strange to be so close with these people who had not only never met each other before but also were competing for the same million dollar prize as you, but somehow it felt more like meeting long-lost members of your family. We were a family that day and we remain as a family even two years later. We still keep our Facebook group active and not a week goes by where there isn’t a post from one or more of the members of the 44th Bake-Off.
We attended an official meet and greet dinner that evening where we got to mingle with the rest of our fellow contestants. The Hilton Bonnet Creek served an elegant dinner and we listened to several Pillsbury representatives speak. The dinner was meant to be relaxing and fun but there was a very obvious air of nervousness and anticipation amongst the contestants. In several hours we would be marched into that same ballroom to cook our special secret recipes three times in a four-hour timespan for a shot at winning a million dollars. Who wouldn’t be nervous with a morning like that on their calendar?
Morning came in what seemed like a few short hours and an eternity all at the same time. We all met for breakfast and opening remarks from the Pillsbury staff. A hearty meal was served buffet-style with everything from bacon and eggs to oatmeal, grits and waffles. There were even tiny boxes of breakfast cereal, including “Lucky Charms”, which several of us ate just for superstition’s sake. Once our stomachs were full it was time to line up for the Grand March. Because nothing could be taken onto the Bake-Off floor, all of our personal belongings were placed in marked bags and collected by Pillsbury staff members. They leave nothing to chance and their attention to detail was greatly appreciated. As the march began, we were encouraged to enter the ballroom smiling and clapping, showing as much enthusiasm as possible. Cameras would be rolling so we were told to act natural but be mindful that we were being recorded. Several journalists walked along with us, trying to capture their stories as we marched and prepared to do battle. Before long, it was my turn to walk through the doors into the grand ballroom. As I walked in, I saw the bright lights and the cameras along with the spectators behind the velvet ropes that lined the outer perimeter of the Bake-Off floor. My eyes darted back and forth nervously searching for my husband in the crowd. As I approached my row and found my range, I caught a glimpse of my husband and saw he was videotaping my entrance. He gave me the ‘thumbs-up’ and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was ready to rock!
The announcement came over the loud speaker saying that the Bake-Off Contest had officially started, yet the room remained quiet and no one moved from their spots. We were all so focused on following directions and not wanting to make any mistakes that we didn’t realize it was “game time” until they made a second announcement saying we could begin. The next several minutes were filled with a frenzy of cupboard doors opening, ovens beeping, bowls and spoons clanking as contestants familiarized themselves with their mini kitchen and double checked the ingredients and equipment they were assigned. Thanks to Pillsbury and their extremely detail oriented staff, everything was as it should have been at Range 8. I asked my runner to get my first bag of ingredients out of the shared refrigerators and I was on my way to making my first of three batches of my recipe. Allie Wentworth from the Oprah Winfrey Show walked behind me, interviewing some of my fellow contestants and doing her best to report what it was like to be on the Bake-Off floor at the opening bell. (Unfortunately for me, a very unflattering view of my backside was the only part of me that made it to the Oprah show’s coverage of the Bake-Off!)
I completed my three batches of my recipe with time to spare, settled on which one I thought was the best looking one and alerted my runner that I was ready to submit my entry. I was very pleased with my submission and began the long walk to the judges table, taking care to walk slowly and carefully since I had previously dreamed that I tripped on the rug and lost my entry on the floor! I wished my Bourbon Street Muffuletta Braid good luck, blew it a kiss and exhaled. The hard part was over and I had done my best. The rest was up to the judges. The second batch was escorted along with me to the photographer’s room where my photo was taken and my entry then delivered to the display table. My third batch was cut and left on my counter for sampling by reporters and the other contestants. Everyone who sampled my entry commented on how much they enjoyed it, which was a great feeling. I walked around and sampled some of my competitors’ dishes and we took photos with the disposable cameras that Pillsbury had provided. After I had seen the competition and visited my friends that were still preparing their entries, I straightened my kitchen area and signed out of the Bake-Off floor. My husband was waiting for me on the other side of the velvet rope and gave me a huge hug. I immediately burst into tears, most likely just a release of pent up nerves and energy, which made my husband burst into tears. He asked me why we were crying and I replied, “I don’t know!” which turned both of our tears into hysterical laughter. We figured that was as good a time as any to head to the bar and have a cocktail!
We spent the afternoon by the pool, soaking up the warm sun and floating in the lazy river of the pool. Somewhere in the hotel, behind closed doors, our fate was being decided but there was nothing we could do about it. We had done all we could and by the end of the next day, one of us would be a million dollars richer. It was an incredible thought to ponder and I am sure many of us had that money spent time and time again in our minds. I was content knowing that my entry came out as I had hoped it would, I didn’t drop it on the floor and even if I didn’t win, I’d had a great vacation and met lots of wonderful people.
Before long, it was time to attend the award ceremony and find out who the finalists were. This year Pillsbury added a twist to the contest. Instead of announcing the million dollar winner, only the category winners would be announced in Florida and they would be whisked off by private jet to Chicago where they would appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah herself would be making the announcement on national television and handing out the check for the million dollars. There were mixed emotions among the contestants about this new development. Most of us agreed that the best part about the winner being announced was the fact that all of the other contestants were there when the confetti fell and the giant cardboard check was presented. Ms. Winfrey’s television show was taking that experience away from all of us with the exception of the category winners. While it was an amazing opportunity to get to fly by private jet to Chicago, only five of the contestants (one per category) would get to be there when the announcement was made. We were disappointed with this turn of events, however we all felt we had an equal chance to be one of the selected five, so we lined up for our introductions and hoped for the best. Sandra Lee announced the category winners with great fanfare as televisions played our homemade videos we had previously submitted in the background. The five category winners were asked to leave so they could catch their flight and the rest of us were encouraged to stay and enjoy the party. A lavish buffet was served, music played and everyone danced and had a great time. Even the Doughboy himself made an appearance and I could not resist not only dancing with him but poking him in the tummy and hearing his famous giggle. My night was complete!
We packed our bags the next morning, had our farewell breakfast and said goodbye to all of my new friends. The message on my car windows was changed to “Better Luck Next Time” and we bid a fond farewell to Orlando. We timed our first stop on our way home to coincide with the airing of the Oprah Winfrey Show so we could watch the results and Oprah’s coverage of the Bake-Off. From our hotel room in Hilton Head Island, SC, we watched Oprah announce Sue Compton and her “Mini Ice Cream Cookie Cups” as the winner of the 44th Pillsbury Bake-Off. Although it was not my name or my recipe that was announced, I truly felt like a winner for having the opportunity to experience something as magical and exciting as being a Pillsbury Bake-Off Finalist. The friendships I have made and the memories I have of those three amazing days in Orlando will forever fill my heart with happiness.
This experience was truly life-changing for me. Cooking and baking had always been my passion but until recently it was only a hobby. In January of 2011 I left my credit manager position of 25 years and opened an artisan baking business called JannaBee’s with my sister, Chef Bridget Collins (www.jannabees.com). All of our items are baked from scratch and baked to order, using tried and true recipes and top quality ingredients. We have been in business almost a year and we have received an overwhelmingly positive response to our products. Business is booming and I couldn’t be happier. I feel that I have finally found what I was meant to do. Because I am now considered a ‘professional’, I am no longer eligible to enter future Pillsbury Bake-Off Contests. While it is disappointing that I will not be able to compete again, I consider myself both lucky and blessed that I was able to be a part of the 44th Bake Off Contest and the incredible experience that went with it. I have a thriving business, I am happier than I have ever been, and I got to dance with the Doughboy. Life is good!
What a great way to end the bake-off blog series. Janna-Bee’s detailed account was so heartfelt and exciting to read. It gave me those butterflies one more time.
Looking forward to reading the next 30 years………
Bake-Off love just flows out of people, doesn’t it?
I have loved reading every single post of this adventure! Thanks so much for sharing this little slice of Americana with us in such a thoughtful way!
I am so happy you were a part of it, Brett!
Debbie, these have all been so fabulous — I’ve learned so much. Even though I was in the 44th I’m not sure it was even my favorite write up because they were all so good! I loved reading everyone’s stories though from the 44th. I have to add my little tidbit — I was actually on a Curopean cruise in the middle of the English Channel when I got my call from Pillsbury! They go to great lengths to find you and needless-to-say I had the whole boat cheering for me. Such a wonderful, wonderful experience. Can’t wait to read the recap of the 45th and so hoping it is one of my 44th Bake-Off repeat friends that takes that big check home and their place in Bake-Off history. So totally cool!
Julee, you might win the prize for being the furthest away getting the call from Pillsbury! What a great story!
Thank you so, so much for sharing this history with us! It has made my experience even more meomorable, and helping me to prepare to participate!!!