FARGO — Thomas McCurdy had heard the stories about how cooking contest shows used “TV magic” to help chefs pull together extravagant meals despite various obstacles and in a short amount of time.
“I don’t watch any cooking-related shows,” says the pastry chef. “But I’ve always wanted to be on them.”
The Devils Lake, N.D., native got his wish last month when he not only competed on Food Network's new “Chopped Sweets,” but won the episode.
“With ‘Chopped,’ there is no TV magic. It’s all real,” McCurdy says from his home in Irasburg, Vt. “That was the most pleasant surprise, the show really is all about baking.”
Like its older sibling, “Chopped,” “Chopped Sweets” pits four bakers against each other to make three dishes, with one chef shown the door each round. Contestants have to serve up something that uses four mystery items from a basket in 30 or 45 minutes.
McCurdy confirmed the chefs didn’t know what was in the basket and couldn’t use prepared recipes or even calculators to make their creations.
“There really is no time to think” once the baskets are open, he says.
Preparing for the show, his husband Bailey Hale would set out paper bags with four ingredients, and McCurdy would have to whip something up in 30 minutes to simulate the “Chopped” experience.
Cooks on “Chopped” may have an easier time under those constraints as they can cook by feel and taste as they go.
“Baking is such an exact science. One can only have so many ratios in their head,” he says.
He had to do some mental math to scale back his recipe for scones from a batch of 72 to just four on the set.
It worked as he won the judges’ hearts and appetites by transforming a breakfast burrito, baby bananas, spicy cotton candy and cold brew into a mocha floating island with chorizo brittle.
In the second round, he whipped a bacon and eggs candy, oats, blueberries and soy sauce into a coconut carrot oat shortcake.
His final win came from flipping a bowl of cereal, British toast spread, figs and Liege waffle batter into a pancake.
All of which is more impressive considering that when he graduated from North Dakota State University in 2009, it was with a degree in sociology and a minor in music as a tuba player.
“I’d never considered working in food as a career,” he says.
While he didn’t see it as a job, baking was more than a hobby. During his first semester in the master's sociology program at Temple University in Philadelphia, McCurdy took a day off to think about what he really wanted to do. And what he really wanted was to bake, something he had no time to do as a student.
“It just hit me, ‘Oh my god, what if I could bake every day?’ I’m not spontaneous at all, but I knew right then that’s what I had to do,” he recalls.
He finished the semester, then went to pastry school and got a job in a kitchen. He imagined he’d stay in the restaurant business, creating plated desserts, until he realized his future was in baked goods.
“What people really want are cookies, muffins and scones, and people want them all of the time,” he says.
He and Hale moved to Vermont and started Ardelia Farm & Co., where Hale prepares cut flowers and McCurdy bakes for special events and farmers markets.
That is, until the coronavirus outbreak put a halt on events. The couple made a quick pivot and started Kingdom Direct Food Delivery, a play on the area of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom.
“It’s taken off like wildfire,” says McCurdy, who recently hired two new employees and bought a delivery van.
The “Chopped Sweets” $10,000 prize really couldn’t have come at a better time.
While the episode was filmed in October, it aired on April 13. He had planned on hosting a big watch party, but social distancing put a stop to that.
Still, he’s been touched to hear from friends from all points of his life, especially getting notes from mothers of his high school classmates and an old English teacher who sent a handwritten card and asked for a recipe in return.
While he told the judges he thought winning “would launch me to greatness,” he’s just working on getting by for now.
He has no plans for a cookbook, but recently started writing a book on entertaining after throwing a dinner party a week last year.
“That’s really what I’m most passionate about, entertaining and feeding,” he says. “But maybe this isn’t the best time to write about gathering people together.”