Terra Nelson bakes during the Cookie Madness preheat challenge as seen on Food Network’s "Holiday Baking Championship."
Terra Nelson bakes during the Cookie Madness preheat challenge as seen on Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship.”

Terra Nelson, a culinary instructor at Jefferson Community and Technical College, will be one of eight bakers battling for $50,000 during the Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship.” The six-segment show premieres Sunday, Nov. 9, at 9 p.m.

Also a veteran pastry chef at Blue Dog Bakery, Nelson auditioned for the spot back in March and was chosen as a finalist to fly to Los Angeles this summer to compete for the show. She said the show’s in-studio production lasted two weeks, but since Food Network doesn’t want her spoiling the show’s outcome, she could only talk about “that first really long day when the competition started.”

In other words, contestants are eliminated each week, and she’s not allowed to detail the length of her time on holiday.

What she did say was that she loved the competition.

“I hate to sound so cheesy and go on about how amazing it was, but it’s so true; it was unbelievable,” Nelson said. “To go there and meet so many cool people from all over country and compete against them was great.”

But not easy. Contestants had no prior knowledge of any baking assignment, though all centered on holiday-themed cakes, pies and cookies.

“It was overwhelming being in a new place (like a studio), but when you’re doing what you love and interacting with other people who are like you, it’s great,” said Nelson, also creator of a bourbon dessert company named BourbonLine.com. “All we knew was it was a holiday theme. After that, what you’re asked to do was a surprise. But as a chef, you have to think quickly on your feet anyway.”

Nelson’s competition was varied, ranging from pros like her to home bakers, even a Certified Master Pastry Chef — the highest professional designation of its kind in the U.S.

“I didn’t know it at the time that she was one,” said Nelson regarding the CMPC, Punky Egan. “If I had, I’d have probably asked for her autograph.”

She said the time spent cooking with lots of likeminded peers was fun “because people in restaurants have this fun weirdness about them, so we like to be around each other.”

But quickly her thinking got serious.

“You start thinking, ‘I’m great at my job so I’ll do what I do,’” she said. “And you realize quickly that the others there are great at their job, too.”

Key to doing well, she said, was to bake like she already knew how and not change things to match others’ creations or just please judges Duff Goldman (Ace of Cakes), Nancy Fuller (Farmhouse Rules) and Lorraine Pascale (Lorraine’s Fast, Fresh and Easy Food).

“For me the competition was about me wanting to better myself,” though she said the group was totally surprised to learn the top prize was $50,000. “I think the camera caught the look on my face when they told us that.”

Here’s a bit of irony: Nelson is the second instructor from Jefferson Community and Technical College’s culinary program (the drastically less expensive and always perceived little brother to the culinary school at Sullivan University) to land a coveted celeb chef spot on Food Network.

Best as I can recall, no one from Sullivan has done that. And while some may say that’s not significant, it’s impossible to deny the PR benefits JCTC should milk from those stories.

Surely it didn’t hurt Nelson’s cause to get counsel from close friend and fellow JCTC instructor Damaris Phillips, who won last year’s Next Food Network Star competition to grab her own show, “Southern at Heart.”

Unlike Phillips, Nelson said she is not interested in watching next Sunday’s show in public, which Phillips did at parties at Molly Malone’s. Even though she attended Phillips’ show parties, she’s opting for a low-key viewing experience.

“I don’t know if I’m up for watching in front of a crowd, so I’m having some friends and family over to hang out and watch,” she said. “I also want to sit back and enjoy the show and see it for myself.”

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.