Friday, 03 December 2010 00:00
Just a scant few months after opening Taste, a specialty cake shop in downtown Syosset, pastry chef Corina Elgart had to close it, albeit briefly. Furthermore, she couldn’t even tell anyone why; a cryptic sign on the door only gave a hint as to the chef’s true whereabouts: “All I said was ‘closed for all good things, be prepared to set your DVR,” said Elgart of the sign.
Fortunately, now the community knows that Taste really was closed “for all good things” indeed; Elgart had to take a few weeks to film Next Great Baker, a spin-off program of the popular Cake Boss on TLC. Cake Boss chronicles the daily lives of Buddy Valastro, his family and coworkers at the famous Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey, as they make some of the largest, most intricate specialty cakes on the planet. The winner of the Next Great Baker will get the opportunity to become part of the team at Carlo’s, in addition to $50,000.
What may surprise some viewers of Next Great Baker is that Elgart is relatively new to the industry. The Old Brookville native, who currently resides in Huntington, had a previous career as a criminal investigator for the federal government. Post-motherhood, however, Elgart decided it was time to opt for something “a little safer.” After getting started making cakes while pregnant with her daughter, she opted to go to culinary school for baking at the Culinary Academy of Long Island in Syosset in April of 2009.
While attending the culinary program, Elgart began a side business making birthday cakes for the children of mothers she knew in the community. Word quickly got around, and soon she had more cakes to make than she could easily handle. “In less than a year, I was swamped and busting out of my house,” Elgart said. While she did plan to open her own shop eventually, the demand exceeded her expectations, allowing her to open Taste far more quickly than she could have anticipated; she signed the lease for the shop in April, just as she was graduating from the culinary academy.
Though Taste has only been open since July, it’s off to an impressive start, at least if the number of specialty cakes made are anything to go by. Elgart has already made a Sesame Street cake, complete with tiny, edible versions of Cookie Monster and Elmo, a Jeopardy!-themed piece featuring the set of the famous game show rendered in cake, and many other elaborate confections that would look right at home at Carlo’s Bakery.
While Taste gets all sorts of requests, from simple cakes to multi-tiered frosted behemoths, Elgart said she has yet to say no to a customer. “If you can think of it, we can make it a cake,” she said, going on to say that she relishes the challenge of the more difficult cakes. “If somebody comes up with something crazy, I’m all over it.”
However, all the emphasis on design doesn’t come at the expense of flavor; Elgart thinks that some purveyors of designer cake can lose sight of what’s important- how the cake tastes- and named her shop “Taste” to show her customers that her cakes aren’t just for looks.
“Nothing’s ever frozen or pre-made and I wanted word to get out about that because that’s really important to me- that’s why my cakes taste so good,” said Elgart. In case there were any doubts about the “nothing frozen” claim, Elgart pointed out that the store lacked a freezer. Other than freshness and a penchant for using high-quality ingredients, the other aspect of Taste that sets it apart is the focus on customization; if a customer wants a filling for their cake that Taste doesn’t offer, they will make it.
Elgart found out about casting for Next Great Baker from a friend on Facebook. Initially, she didn’t give it much thought; what chance did she have, among the thousands of applications the show would receive? Fortunately, Elgart decided to give it a shot just in case, and High Noon Productions got back to her within 12 hours of submitting the application. Apparently, they liked the style of this criminal-investigator-turned-cake-artist.
After interviewing for the show in New Jersey, she was told that she had made it into the top 20 contenders for a slot in the competition, but then didn’t hear anything further for a while. In fact, they only contacted Elgart to tell her she’d made the team two days before filming was set to begin. While nervous about having to close her new shop so soon after opening, Elgart said that the tremendous support she received from family and friends to take a shot at the competition encouraged her to take the risk.
However, the experience was anything but a cakewalk; the challenge of working in a foreign kitchen, against direct competitors, while being away from her family and having to answer to the eponymous Cake Boss, Buddy Valastro himself, was difficult for Elgart.
“Every day felt like ‘oh my God, America’s not going to be able to see what I really do,” she said. “You know, you always think when you watch those shows, ‘If I was on, I would handle it this way’- absolutely not. You are just as fried and harried as you see [they are] on TV,” she said.
One of the main challenges was the time constraints; cakes that would normally take days to make had to be prepared in a matter of hours for the competition.
However, despite the difficulty, Elgart said there were many positives to the experience. “The coolest thing about him is that the Buddy you see on TV is Buddy in real life,” she said, going on to say that she learned a lot of new tips and tricks not only from Valastro, but also from her fellow contestants. In addition, she got to meet all of Buddy’s family members- the supporting cast of Cake Boss- and found them all to be very warm and personable. Win or lose (and Elgart was not allowed to say how she had placed in the competition), it was a fantastic learning experience.
Furthermore, those who shy away from reality shows will be pleased to note that Next Great Baker does not use many reality show staples, like cooping the contestants up in a house to force them to interact. While the contestants were put up in a hotel for the duration of filming, Elgart said that they were not forced to live together or filmed during their off-hours, an omission that suited her just fine.
Now, with Elgart safely back at Taste after her televised adventure, the shop is branching out into new products. In addition to doing their trademark specialty cakes, which Elgart creates with sole employee Tina Carbone (also from the Culinary Academy of Long Island) they will now be doing 9-inch round iced cakes in seasonal flavors: carrot, pumpkin, red velvet, and baked apple. They will also soon be offering Hanukah Bites (miniature cake balls decorated for Hanukah), Christmas Bites, and even something called “cake pop menorahs.”
In addition, the store always has seasonal flavors of cupcakes available for customers. Sometimes, Elgart says, people see the words “by appointment” on the shop’s awning and think they can’t just walk in the store, which is not the case- everyone is welcome to come in. In fact, in response to customer demand, Taste has been offering more and more items for walk-in customers, like cupcakes and cake pops for those who want to sample some of Taste’s flavors without necessarily having to order a specialty cake. Some of the most popular items the store sells are their Reese’s and Red Velvet cupcakes, in addition to yellow cake, Elgart’s personal favorite, in all shapes and sizes.
Taste is also reaching out to the community in other ways- the shop has already participated in a Holiday Boutique fundraiser at nearby Berry Hill Elementary School, and a ladies night out at Woodbury Jewish Center.
Of course, the success of Taste may complicate things if Elgart is in fact the last baker standing on Next Great Baker; the winner is supposed to go work with Buddy at Carlo’s. However, what is a pastry chef to do if she already has a bakery of her own? It’s puzzling, but Elgart wasn’t giving away any secrets beforehand. “You’ll just have to wait and see,” she said.
Fortunately, no one will have to wait too long: Next Great Baker premieres on TLC on Dec. 6 at 9 p.m. For more information about Taste, visit the shop at 16 Split Rock Road in Syosset, or online at www.cakesbytaste.com.