Reporting Sara Pelissero
Cupcake owner and operator Kevin VanDeraa and his catering manager, Alicia Hinze, had two choices: serve the judges of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars an extremely salty treat or start from scratch, remaking the entire batter with the clock quickly winding down.
In a moment of panic, VanDeraa made the call and dumped the salty concoction into the trash.
Making one cupcake in 45 minutes is a lot of pressure, but now the duo was forced to make two.
“I just couldn’t believe it. It was already such an incredibly tight timeline,” VanDeraa said Wednesday, after the show aired. “I think we did the right thing. I mean, our options were, try to do it again or throw our hands up and say, ‘OK, we’re going home first, good luck everybody.’”
It was the right decision, indeed. That last-minute maneuver saved the Minneapolis duo, and helped them continue in the competition until the very end.
It was long ago when the local bakery had been approached by Food Network to audition for the reality series’ season two. But by the time they got their audition tape in, the season had already been cast.
“We just thought, ‘Oh, they forgot us, we didn’t make season two so we’re not going to make it,’” Hinze said.
Six months later, they got the call asking if they would kick off the first episode of season three.
“We didn’t even know if they had been renewed for a new season or anything like that,” VanDeraa said. “So it was a nice surprise when we got the call.”
A few weeks later, they were on their way to L.A., headed to shoot the first episode of the third season — completely oblivious to what was in store.
“The competition is very real,” VanDeraa said. “It was a lot more stress than it looked like on TV. We were at the prop table like, ‘Wow.’ I can remember having a meltdown. Alicia said it was probably the most pressure she’s ever felt, and I agree, like in any time in our career.”
They may have been feeling the stress but at the very least they looked great. Both sported an “I (heart) Mpls” T-shirt for the taping, with the heart turned into a little cupcake.
VanDeraa said that was just a nod to their immense Minneapolis pride. After all, this is the city where VanDeraa gets to celebrate his true love every day. After spending almost 10 years in the Navy, he headed into the corporate world to work PR. Call it a midlife crisis or what-have-you, but VanDeraa reached a point where he was ready for a change.
“I left and I wanted to kind of figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “I sought after culinary school and I thought, I love to cook, I’m going to check that out. Next thing you know I was registered and in class.”
He spent some time cooking in Chicago before an opportunity came up to open up his own shop in Minneapolis. VanDeraa said he didn’t even go into the café thinking of focusing on cupcakes but through the naming process, it just seemed to fit.
“About a year later, after we opened, the cupcake trend really took off,” he said. “At that point, we had a lot of other baked goods in our pastry case so we shifted our focus more to cupcakes — an easy shift with our sign already on our building.”
With 70 different flavors of cupcakes on the menu, they had plenty of options to practice with before the big show. VanDeraa said they made sure to at least make a batch of cupcakes a day, working as a team to ensure everything would click once they got to the challenge.
But as much as they prepped, the nature of the beast of competition always leaves the window open for plenty of unexpected situations — and plenty of drama. VanDeraa and Hinze found themselves scratching batter recipes, racing against the clock and more than one time, facing the wrath of the judges.
“It was very stressful and dramatic and intense,” VanDeraa said. “We were exhausted by the end of it.”
The challenge asked the competitors to use a variety of spices and ingredients with an Indian inspiration to serve at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. Think curry and cardamom-infused cupcakes.
“I think that the first thing that came to mind was, when you think of Indian food, and even desserts, you don’t think overly sweet or very sweet at all,” Hinze said.
The flavors weren’t their expertise by any means but they made it work and created some killer combinations, like a curry carrot cupcake — one of the four creations they made that will be available at their University Avenue shop.
The two watched the show, which aired Tuesday night on Food Network, with a bunch of friends and their Cupcake staff at a party at the Hard Rock Cafe. Even though they lived through it, they said it was fun to see what made the show and what ended up on the cutting room floor.
In the end, our local duo — spoiler alert — didn’t come out on top but they said they had a blast and that’s really all that matters.
“I honestly thought it could’ve gone either way,” VanDeraa said of the result. “There were definitely pluses, things that (the other team) did better, or maybe got better comments from the judges and then there were things that we thought, you know, were better on our side. But you know, Lilly (the competitor) is such a nice person. We loved Lilly and Erin. … I actually called Lilly this morning to congratulate her.”
Win or lose, this adorable café — and recently added food truck– has plenty to celebrate. Through several road blocks and more than their share of hiccups, they did Minneapolis proud and competed all the way to the end. And, with the release of their new Cupcake Wars cupcakes — our tastebuds are the true winners.
Cupcake is located at 3338 University Ave. SE in Minneapolis. For more information, check out their website.