`Tis (Still) the Season: An Interview with Holiday Baking Championship Contestant Sabrina Coombs

Sabrina Coombs has extensive experience in the culinary industry. She became interested in baking at an early age, continued to hone her skills in high school, and went on to study at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta before working as a pastry chef at several locations.

Some of the names on her resume include the Four Seasons Hotel, Omni Hotels & Resorts, and the Epicurean Hotel in Atlanta. 

Now (at the time of this interview), she’s one of four remaining contestants on season 8 of Holiday Baking Championship on the Food Network.

We chatted with Sabrina about how she developed her baking skills, one of her toughest professional challenges, her time on Holiday Baking Championship, and some of her likes and (shocking) dislikes when it comes to the world of desserts.

Scott (GNN): So, let’s start with a little background. I like to do a brief synopsis of everyone’s background. The Cliffs Notes version, if you will. You were born in London, right?

Sabrina Coombs (SC): I was, yes.

GNN: And you moved to Atlanta when you were…

SC: Very young. So about two to three. Yeah. I’m a Southern girl!

GNN: Gotcha. And you moved to Atlanta right off?

SC: Right off to Atlanta.

GNN: So, as you’re growing up in Atlanta, when were you first introduced to baking?

SC: For me, it was almost like my family chore for any of the birthdays and stuff like that. We were always around food. My dad was making the big meal, and he would say, “Okay, here, make this box cake mix.” But being the person that I am, I had to do my very best at it. So, that’s kind of where it all started.

GNN: When did it go from you doing it because you were told to thinking it would be cool to do for a living?

SC: Yeah, well, it’s funny. I went to a high school here in Georgia that had a pretty big culinary program. They have their own professional kitchen, and they have a teacher and everything. I was like, “Well, this is pretty tight. I like this.”

We had a culinary program and they would bring in chefs or restaurant tours. And there was one demo from a culinary instructor from Le Cordon Bleu. And I was like, “Wow, this is tight.” And he had some swag and stuff. Then they gave us a pamphlet to check out the school. And I was like, “Okay, this is pretty awesome.”

The kind of flip side to that was I was actually dancing at the time just where all the dance moves came from last week on the show.

GNN: I saw that on the show. You did your moves twice!

SC: Yes. They were telling me, “Again,” I’m like, “Okay.” But, yeah, I was actually wanting to go to a performing arts high school and dance forever. I was going to make that my career. But I got injured in high school, and I was like, “Well, baking it is!” (Laughs)

GNN: Right? I guess fate made that decision for you.

SC: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I still feel like it’s very much a creative outlet, so I’m very, very happy to still be in it.

Sabrina and Jody on HBC

GNN: Yeah. It’s crazy because when I interviewed your fellow competitor, Jody, last week, he talked about how he went to school for accounting and law and took a crazy left turn and ended up in the culinary world. Your road went pretty straight.

SC: Yeah. Yeah. My road went pretty straight…pretty early, too, because I went to culinary school straight out of high school. And a lot of people don’t do that. So, I’ve pretty much always been the baby or the young one at my job just because of that.

GNN: One of the questions I ask anyone who does anything creative is how supportive their family was in their decision. Was your family very supportive of your career choice?

SC: My family was extremely supportive. I mean, they were going to let me be a dancer! They’re like, “If you love to do it, you do it.”

GNN: Touché. I didn’t even think of that.

SC: And my mom is actually an extremely talented artist. She does amazing self-portraits and stuff. So, there was always art around our house. And she had us all play at least one instrument. So, she very much had us involved in the arts in that way. So, they’re very, very supportive.

GNN: Well, I have to know…what instrument? You can’t drop that bit of knowledge and keep going! What instrument?

SC: I played violin, piano, and I did drums for a little bit.

GNN: Wow! That makes you a…wait, one, two, three, four, five? You’re a quintuple threat!

SC: Well, I didn’t say I was great! Okay. Actually, I did guitar, too. I was the best at the piano because I have these witch fingers. They really can reach pretty far. And then, the violin was definitely second. Drums didn’t last too long. And the guitar is just a never-ending learning thing (laughs).

GNN: Right. Still, that’s pretty incredible. I only play kazoo and triangle. I’m phenomenal at the triangle.

SC: What about the recorder?

GNN: I was horrible at that. That was too complex. That’s why I had to play the kazoo because the recorder was super complicated. Speaking of complicated, what was the hardest thing to learn? You’re going to school, baking pastries, and learning to decorate, all of those skills. What was the hardest thing to get for you? Any sticking points?

SC: For me, my hardest class was bread. Because they made us do so many baker’s equations. I had an old school teacher who was like, “No. We’re going to learn how you equate the right bread and water and dry ratio.” And I was like, “This is the part I don’t like. I bake. I don’t math.”

GNN: That’s why I do what I do. I don’t math, either!

SC: I’m very thankful for it, though. Because now, I can easily do that kind of stuff. But that class really made me question my choice! I was like, “Oh, okay. Well, I guess I won’t be a bread baker.” (Laughs)

GNN: So, you get out of school. What’s your first post-school gig?

SC: So, right out of school we had to do a three-month internship. That job ended up hiring me after my internship. It was a steakhouse. So, I was their pastry cook there. And then, from there, a fine dining restaurant we have here called Atlas asked me about the position. And I was there for a long time. That’s really where I kind of found my niche, which was fine dining, upscale, complete with tweezers type thing.

GNN: Gotcha.

SC: I was lucky to have that opportunity straight out of school to find that. Because I have to admit, a lot of people I went to school with either aren’t in the industry anymore or have kind of faded off somewhere else, just because of that certain window right after school. If you don’t get in there, you get lost in the commotion.

GNN: I know that feeling! Everyone wants to take a little break after school. And man, I was already hustling for jobs when I still had a semester left.

SC: And I was hustling in school. I mean, if I was going to pay that much money for that place, I was going to reap everything that they would give me!

GNN: Yeah, 100%. So, I looked at your LinkedIn page. You worked at the Four Seasons. You worked at Omni Hotels. These are some big-time places. What was the craziest job project event you ever had to handle at any of these jobs? Some big celebrity like Beyonce comes in and needs 5,000 pastries by tomorrow? Anything crazy like that?

SC: Well, I’ve had my fair share of celebrity encounters. Obviously, at the Four Seasons, we had a few. In Atlas, we had a few. I will have to say, the Super Bowl, here in Atlanta, really tested us.

GNN: Oh, man!  What was that like?

SC: Yeah. That was something. Because of course, we had all the upscale and VIP clients. But we also had…everyone just wanted to be somewhere and be seen. We had to have 24-hour cops on-premises. I don’t think I left the hotel that weekend.

GNN: How much stuff do you remember having to make? Rough estimate?

SC: Well, we wanted to do this Vegas-style thing. So, I remember we had to do a $250 sundae. We did a sundae that I had to put edible gold leaf on. Then they had full-size football cakes. It was shaped like a football. So, we did about 200 of those. Every person who checked in got a chocolate truffle that looked like a football. I don’t think I slept. I think I was covered in chocolate, smelled like chocolate. I honestly hoped the Falcons came around. Then it was such a disappointment…it wasn’t even us in the Super Bowls. I’m just like, “This sucks.”

GNN: Was there any point where you said to one of your co-workers, “Hey, here’s 100 bucks. Just go by the grocery store and get some cupcakes.”?

SC: At that point, one of my cooks came up to me and said, “Chef, don’t be mad.” And I was like, “What happened?” We also did these molded chocolate footballs as amenities that they could crack with a hammer. She’s like, “Well, I went to put the cart on the elevator and there was a bump.” I said, “Well, I need about 10 minutes.” And I’m really happy that the doors on the freezer are nice and thick.

GNN: Right? You could scream for hours in there! I really wouldn’t understand that issue if my wife didn’t make me watch Buddy and Duff. And they have to move all that stuff. And it’s like, “Any little bump with this big cake that’s all involved and pieces and parts that can full off. Just a little bump.

SC: I’ve had chocolate sculptures. It’s one little bump that you’ve never seen before on the floor. And it’s just, oops.

GNN: Okay. You’ve done all these jobs. We’ve got an overview of your career. Now you’re on Holiday Baking Championship. Congratulations on that. So, based on what Joby told me, there were basically two ways to get on the show: they would contact you or you could apply. So, what was your path to the show?

SC: So, they found me on LinkedIn, and I ignored them because I thought it was a scam! Then they reached out again. Eventually, I finally answered them and realized, “Oh okay. Not everything is a scam nowadays.”

GNN: Right? I mean most of it is, but it’s a good thing you followed up!

SC: Yeah! So, they actually reached out to me in March. Then the interview process just went over and over and over because it was a phone call, phone call, Zoom call, Zoom call, phone call. It was very intensive.

GNN: That’s what Jody was saying. I mean he said the process started in January of this year.

SC: Yeah. The entire process was long. We were talking and I told them I was like, “I don’t know, they found me in March,” and they’re like, “March?” And I’m like, “Yeah. I’m sorry.”

GNN: Yeah, loser! Late to the game!

SC:  Hey, they still found me! (Laughs)

GNN: So, you get on the show. Had you watched the show before?

SC: Yeah. I’ve actually had a couple of acquaintances who had been on the show in past seasons, so I’ve seen a couple. I’ve never done a whole season through. Like, I can’t tell you any of the winners. But I know the synopsis of it.

GNN: What’s something you learned that you could share that from watching it you’re like, “I didn’t think that was going to happen,” or?

SC: Wow that’s a toughie. Well, I didn’t realize how intense it really was.

GNN: Yeah. We’re sitting at home thinking, “They’re just baking.”

SC: Yeah. And I’m like, I’m baking, but when you really are thrown into the moment and it’s like, “This is what you have to do, do it.” And you’re like, “Ohhhhh. Okay.”

GNN: Was there a skill that you don’t use very frequently that you had to use where you’re saying, “Oh crap,” but you did a good job? Or were there any, “Oh man, I should be better at this,” moments?

SC: No, because I mean I pretty much chose my strong suits and techniques that I do all the time. And if I got complicated it was going to be in decoration or technical ability, in that way. I wanted to be confident, because it’s when people did things that they hadn’t done before and weren’t confident in is when they messed up, so.

GNN: Yeah. I’ve got to say, when Richard did the sweet version of sweet potato au gratin, my wife and I were like, “What the hell is Richard doing?”

SC: And Richard was so pumped!

GNN: Stoked.

SC: He was so stoked! And he’s like, “I’m going to make pie.” And I told him to make pie. But then he comes in the room afterward and tells us. Because we don’t know what each other makes unless you’re my station buddy and I can kind of peek over and watch you. We really don’t know because they don’t let us taste anything or see anything. We when we’re done, you’re out.

GNN: Right, right.

SC: So, it makes sense now because he came back to the green room and he’s like, “I don’t know if they’re going to like it. Carla didn’t seem too happy.”

GNN: The judges even asked him why he didn’t do pie and he seemed to think it would be too simple. It was a swing and a miss, though.

SC: That’s where you have to know your strengths. Like, if you know you make a great pie, make a great pie. But then, you want to take the risk. And if it did come out really great that would have been really cool. But you have to ask yourself, “Do I stay on the safe side and know that I make this really great thing? Or do I go the other way, take a risk, and it might be great, or it might be really bad? So, that’s kind of where you were the whole competition.

GNN: No, right. As a person, I’m not a risk-taker. I keep telling my wife while I’m watching, I’d rather have a boring old pie that tastes amazing than a creative pie that doesn’t taste good at all. I don’t get why people don’t go with their strengths.

SC: Embellish it. Like, take some kind of embellishments.

GNN: Right? There you go! Get creative with the decorations but stick to your strengths! Now, another thing Jody mentioned was how quiet it can get.

SC: It can get scary quiet! We’d all just be so into what we were doing, and Jesse is not there the whole time bothering you. He kind of just comes in and out. When he’s not around, literally all you hear is the noise from mixers, because everyone is just heads down. Maybe you’ll hear cameramen running around and changing out battery packs.

But, when we talk to each other, it’s because they tell us to talk to each other and we’re like, “So, what are you doing?”

GNN: How are you doing? Are you doing good? I’m doing great.

SC: And then Jesse comes over and he starts talking to you and you’re like, “I have to do this right now,” or if something messes up you know they’re about to be in your face!

GNN: So, now I’m going to hit you with a bunch of lightning-round questions.

SC: All right, let’s do it.

GNN: One of your fellow contestants has to bake your birthday cake. Who is it? Who makes your birthday dessert?

SC: Jose.

GNN: Jose. Excellent. Who would you hire first of your fellow contestant? You’re starting a business tomorrow. Who are you hiring?

SC: Jose! (Laughs)

GNN: Okay, all of a sudden, every dessert is wiped off the planet, but one. What dessert is staying?

SC: Crème brûlée.

GNN: I won’t hold it against you that you didn’t say fresh chocolate chip cookies. Now we’re going to do the opposite: one dessert is wiped off the face of the Earth. Nobody could ever have it again because it’s disgusting. What is it?

SC: Oh, God. There are so many. I don’t like a lot of things.

GNN: All right. We’ll give you three desserts you can eliminate.

SC: Banana pudding, fruitcake, and those stupid whoopie pies.

GNN: It’s funny. A friend of mine wanted me to ask you for the recipe for those whoopie pies you made!

SC: Well, here’s the thing. I feel like I remember there being a question on a form I filled out for the show, or someone asked me like, “What is your least favorite thing to make?” And that was one of them! That episode, I literally was like, ‘Really? Okay.”

GNN: See, now that’s on you! It’s like if I were on Fear Factor. I’d tell them I’m afraid of lasagna, beautiful women, and root beer.”

SC: Nachos on the beach!

GNN: Exactly!

SC: I literally put that on there, and then I somehow magically karma grabbed it.

GNN: You’re your own worst enemy. You have no one to blame but yourself. So, if there were a challenge that you would totally crush, what is it? What do you kill, the best thing you make?

SC: That’s tough for me because my favorite things are plated desserts, which are tons of different elements, which really doesn’t transfer over to Holiday Baking Championship. But I’ve never gotten complaints on cake. So, I like cake, and I’m good at cake. Every cake I gave the judges they liked, so.

GNN: Speaking of cake, you have a skill set that makes you very valuable to friends and family…

SC: (Interviewer’s Note: She said this knowing 100% what I was going to ask. It was hysterical.) Yes.

GNN: Based on your facial expression, I’m thinking I don’t even need to ask the rest of the question. I’m guessing you get asked to make desserts often.

SC: Yes. And my favorite quote to give them is that I don’t bring work home.

GNN: Bravo. Well done.

SC: But my mom is already asking me about her birthday cake because of her birthday’s Christmas Eve. She actually took a class here at my job. And I was doing a Q&A and my mom was just like,-“Question, are you making my cake, lady?”

So, yes, I get pimped out a good bit by the family and friends for all birthdays and gatherings.

GNN: Do you ever just want to go to the store grab a Little Debbie not do anything fancy? Or do you have to go big every time…even for yourself at home?

SC: So, I’m going to shut both of those down. I hate sweets! (Laughs)

GNN: Wait, what?!?  That might be the best answer I’ve ever gotten to a question!

SC: No. If I’m at the store and I want a guilty pleasure food, it’s salt and vinegar chips and queso and nachos. That’s where I’m at. I’m not a sweets girl at all.

GNN: My goodness, that is scandalous!

SC: Yeah. People ask me if it’s because I work with sweets all day and I’m like, “No, I’ve just always been that way.” If I have a piece of cake, I take a bite or two and I’m like, “Okay.”

GNN: So, what do you do when someone gives you a slice of birthday cake? Do you do what you said, just take two bites and you’re done, or do you try to finish it to be polite?

SC: Honestly, if it’s offered I turn it down. If it’s just given to me, I’ll at least try it; I will. But then I go, “Oh yeah, I just don’t like sweets.”

GNN: So, what’s your biggest culinary pet peeve? I mean, I assume you do teaching and training. Right?

SC: I mean, I do a lot of training with my team and jobs and stuff like that, which I very much enjoy because when I was mentored, and even now I’m still mentored, I still have people that I reach out to. I think my favorite part about my job is mentoring other people.

My mentor always told me if you don’t surpass me, I didn’t do well enough. So, that’s very much who I am. I’m not one of those chefs or people in general who holds things to herself. You can have whatever recipe; I can teach you whatever technique you want. I’m very much in sharing of the knowledge.

GNN: I agree 100%. I just designed leadership training for my company and there was a section that echoed what you said. As a manager, you want to train people to take your place. So, I agree with you there.

So, what’s your biggest pet peeve when you’re training that someone does?

SC: So, say it’s your first day training with me. If you don’t come with a notebook, I’ll send you home. (Laughs)

GNN: I have my notebook right here!

SC: I mean if you’re not ready to write something…if you don’t have a notebook or pen when you come in to interview or if you ask for an application and then you ask for a pen, I’m like, “Okay.”

GNN: As a writer, I make it a point to never be more than five feet from a pen.

SC: Luckily, I get to wear these cool shirts when you can keep pens in this pocket!

GNN: A penholder, nice! Yeah, there’s no excuse. If you’re wearing that jacket and you don’t have a pen…

SC: They’re like, “Chef, can I borrow your Sharpie?” I’m like, “No!”

GNN: Put them in your sleeve, man. Put them in your sleeve! So, last few questions. What’s your dream job? Right now, today, I can give you anything you want, what do you want? Television show? Do you want a movie about your life? Do you want your own restaurant? What do you want?

SC: I want my own chocolate line.

GNN: Nice! But, wait, you don’t like sweets!

SC: I love chocolate. I love the science and chemistry and everything behind it and all the techniques. It’s such beautiful art!

GNN: So you like making it, but you’d have to hire someone to taste it. “Is this good? Is this good?”

SC: I’ll taste it! I just know I’m not going to go home and engorge! (Laughs)

GNN: So, for anyone who is reading this and wants to woo you with a heart-shaped box of chocolates…probably not going to work?

SC: Oh, my God. That’s funny because I had a friend who knows that. So, for Valentine’s Day, she got me chicken nuggets! (Laughs)

GNN: Too funny. So, last question, since this is Geek News Network. What are you geeking out on right now? Television, music, books? Anything.

SC: I mean I’m geeking out on chocolate, honestly! I work with a company called Valrhona; they’re a beautiful French chocolate company. I really want to go on their chocolate tour in Costa Rica and really learn the whole process of it. So, I’ve been totally geeking out about all of that.

GNN: That’s awesome. That is a good thing to geek out on. I’d weigh 8,000 pounds if I did that.

SC: I mean, there are so many things on YouTube and in books. I just find it so interesting. I’m trying to get the backing at work to get me to roast my own chocolate here. We’ll see how that goes.

GNN: Nice. Fingers crossed.

SC: Yes.

GNN: Well, good luck on the show on Monday. It’s the last episode! We’ll be tuning in!

SC: Thank you.

GNN: Sabrina, thank you again for your time. I really do appreciate it.

SC: Thank you so much, Scott. It’s been a pleasure.

Sabrina Coombs
Contestant Sabrina portrait, as seen on Holiday Baking Championship, Season 8.
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