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Candace Nelson Interviewby Pattye Grippo    
Candace NelsonIt's cupcake vs. cupcake in Food Network's tastiest competition yet! Each week on Cupcake Wars, four of the country's top cupcake bakers face off in three elimination challenges until only one decorator remains. The sweet prize: $10,000 and the opportunity to showcase their cupcakes at the winning gig. Whether a special Ace of Cakes anniversary celebration, a star-studded magazine party or an A-list celebrity golf tournament, these Cupcakes Wars really heat up. Candace Nelson (owner of Sprinkles Cupcakes) and Florian Bellanger (chef and co-owner of online macaroon company MadMac) serve as permanent judges with a third rotating judge each week, and Justin Willman hosts. See Pazsaz Entertainment Network's Cupcake Wars page for more about the show.

I had a chance to speak with Candace Nelson about cupcakes, cooking, and the Cupcake Wars television show.

Question:
I wanted to talk a little bit about the show itself. Everybody makes cupcakes now. What I want to know is what you're looking for exactly in a winning contestant?

Candace Nelson:
That is a tough question, but I'm going to do my best to answer it. I think, number 1 is, obviously, it has to be a great tasting cupcake. But number 2 is, it has to be on the mark as far as what the challenge is that day. And the challenge, as you know, changes with every show. What I saw a lot of the time, were contestants who were trying to play it safe, and weren't really tackling that challenge, like the bacon, or the lox or the goat cheese like we saw last night. Now granted, if you make a simple cupcake and you don't go outside of your comfort zone, and that cupcake tastes amazing, you're gonna get great points from the judges. But what was really amazing to see when people stepped outside of that comfort zone and tackled an ingredient like smoked salmon, like Hollis did last night, and made it just fly. Really tackled the challenge, really just owned it and surprised us. I think the thing that was great to see was when someone really surprises us.

Question:
Sounds like we have a lot to look forward to then!

Candace Nelson:
Oh yes, you're not gonna believe the ingredients these bakers are challenged with.

Question:
Let's use last night's show as an example. Could you walk us through what your typical day on the set is like for this show?

Candace Nelson:
It starts with hair and makeup, 'cuz I don't wake up looking like that. [laughs] It starts with a lot of hair and makeup, and then it's pretty much the schedule you see on the show. There's a couple of bathroom breaks and coffee breaks for the judges. I don't know if you saw any of the shots while the bakers were baking during their allotted time schedule, but we were sitting there watching the entire thing. So when I say I was sitting on my tush and eating cupcakes all day, I am not exaggerating. [laughs] I did not move around [laughs]. The production was very efficient, you saw how quickly those bakers were moving, and so the time definitely flew and I can't complain about my job because it's pretty cool to sit on my behind and eat cupcakes all day.

Question:
With all the food shows and competitions popping up all over TV, did you ever think there would be one created for cupcakes? Did you really think the cupcake craze would explode as much as it has?

Candace Nelson:
You know what, I didn't. I really didn't. I continue to think of cupcakes as sort of sleek and simple and nostalgic, but the reality is, it's a very competitive marketplace out there, and I think it's genius for the Food Network to pick up on that, because the show is really a mirror of what's going out there in the industry. With so much competition sprouting up, it's harder and harder for people and their companies to get exposure. And so you'll see on the show, these bakers are just, they're really so desperate for that exposure to take their business to the next level, and they want to win it so badly, and it really adds quite an emotional element to the show.

Question:
Last night you had the contestants using different ingredients that may be surprising to have on a cupcake, like bacon. Do you continue to do this on the show, and what is the most surprising combination that worked well?

Candace Nelson:
Well I have to say the show that's coming up tomorrow night is pretty surprising. It's a Sea World based event, so you can imagine the contestants are working with ingredients from the sea... and I'll leave it at that. It's a really unlikely combination obviously, you think of cupcakes and you think vanilla and chocolate, you're not thinking about the sea or fish or seaweed or any of those things. But no, absolutely the bakers were challenged every week, and that's the really amazing thing, is seeing these bakers who are very comfortable in their environment - in their bakery, at their catering company, really have to step outside of their comfort zone and their safety zone. For some, it proves a little too challenging, but for the ones who owned it, like Hollis did last night, it's pretty amazing. They can make believers out of the judges.

Question:
In creating Sprinkles and through Cupcake Wars have there been any particular cupcake that was just so bad it didn't work? What is the worst one you've ever made or tried?

Candace Nelson:
In developing recipes for Sprinkles or when I was tasting on Cupcake Wars?

Question:
Either.

Candace Nelson:
Oh God, I have to say I've tasted some doozies on both fronts. I'll tell you one of the most disgusting sounding cupcakes on Cupcake Wars, and it involves tobacco.

Question:
That does sound disgusting!

Candace Nelson:
So I'll leave it at that, you'll have to watch.

Question:
What do you want to do with this show? Showcase the businesses that create cupcakes, or experiment with flavor? What do you really want from this?

Candace Nelson:
Me personally? Or just the show in general? I think it's a window into the world of cupcakes, and what's funny is, when my husband and I opened Sprinkles five years ago, people thought we were completely insane. 'You're gonna sell what? And what else are you going to sell? Just cupcakes?' And the reality is, cupcakes are a legitimate industry right now, and I think that's really grabbed a lot of people's attention, and I think the cupcake's appeal is really universal, so I think the show's appeal will be really universal. But the thing that's so interesting to me about the show, is that it's really showing how competitive the world of cupcakes and the business of cupcakes has become. Obviously in a show setting with challenges and so on and so forth, you really do see some raw emotion. People who are trying to make it in this business, and they want this exposure so desperately, and they wanna win - I think it's pretty heartfelt. I certainly know how they feel, I was there five years ago, and I think there's a lot of people out there, like the woman I spoke with who is blogging but wants to open her own business, who wanna see what it's all about. They have that dream too.

Question:
You cater to Beverly Hills, lots of celebrities must come in to your shop. I was just curious, have you ever been starstruck by a celebrity customer coming in to your shop? If so, when and who was it that really got your attention?

Candace Nelson:
My story of being starstruck by celebrities is not the same as everybody else in my store. [laughs] I was very starstruck when Nancy Silverton came in, I like it when the chefs come in. but certainly I think everyone else in the store was much more impressed when Jake Gyllenhaal came in, and sweet Blake Lively came in, and I was amazed to see Tori Spelling wait in line and eat a cupcake in the store. She is very thin [laughs]. We have a parade of really fun and colorful characters that come through the store, and that's one of the great things about working there.

Question:
What do you see in the future for Sprinkles? Are you going to expand to other products, are you gonna do mini cupcakes? Do you see yourself changing at all, or do you like where you are?

Candace Nelson:
Well our philosophy to this day has been to do one thing and do it well. Right now we're really focused on expanding our locations. We're opening five new locations in the next six or seven months, we're pretty busy doing that. But I wouldn't rule out the possibility of going in to other dessert items in the future.

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