`Tis the Season | An Interview with Holiday Baking Championship Contestant Jody O’Sullivan

When it comes to being a geek, Jody O’Sullivan is a geek about all things pastry! After getting a degree in law and accounting and not loving what he was doing, he decided to take a hard left turn and begin studying baking and pastry arts.

His career took off from there, as he went on to own his own business in Ireland, became a member of the Mexico Culinary Team, and now teaches at both Bunker Hill Community College and Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.

His experience and abilities brought him to the attention of the folks at Food Network and Holiday Baking Championship, where he was selected as one of 12 contestants to compete on the eighth season of the show.

We had a chance to chat with Jody, who (as of this writing) you can still watch on Holiday Baking Championship on Mondays at 8:00 PM EST about his career, advice he has for aspiring bakers, his experience on the show, what it’s like to teach others, and what some of his favorite (and not so favorite) desserts are.

Scott (GNN): So, I appreciate you taking the time. It’s really been great watching you on the show and I was super interested in your background…how you got to where you are because geeks are just anyone who likes something a lot.

Jody O’Sullivan (JOS): Indeed.

GNN: And clearly, I mean, I would hope that you haven’t spent your career doing this and you don’t get some pleasure out of it.

JOS: No, I absolutely love it. Yeah, I absolutely love what I do.

GNN: And here’s the craziest part, as I peruse your LinkedIn page, and, unlike getting stuff from Wikipedia, where I don’t know if it’s right or not, I know this stuff is correct. You started in Ireland going after a degree in law and accounting.

JOS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, really, I had the usual progression to being a pastry chef; I started in law and accounting! (Laughs) It’s surprising how many people I come across who have kind of had a similar career path or Damascene conversion or epiphany or whatever it is.

Basically, I did law and accounting. I had kind of worked in kitchens when I was in school. So,16, 17, and it wasn’t a great experience; it wasn’t a great team in the kitchen. It was very kind of…from that point of view, not great people, all of those kinds of old school cliches you hear about chefs like they’re angry and they’re drunk all the time. And very little kind of training going on in terms of like, “Oh yeah, this guy is new, let’s show him the ropes.” No, the establishment I was working in wasn’t exactly five-star, either. There was an element of that too. And also, when you’re 16, 17, the last thing you want is to be working in a kitchen on a Friday and a Saturday night, so.

GNN: Whaaaaaat? No way! (Laughs)

JOS: Yeah, I know, right? So, I kind of parked it a little bit, studied law and accounting in college and started as an accountant, or started as a tax adviser, I suppose, to be more specific. Never liked it. But it gave me the freedom to do other things.

Then I kind of got to the point where I was like, I want to do something that I can see myself doing in 30 years rather than in three years. And like I said, I always loved cooking, always loved baking. So, in 2012, I signed up for pastry school in France, and I was like, “well, if it doesn’t work out, it’s going to have been a fun time anyway,” and it was. So, literally the minute I walked in the door, I was like, “Yeah, this is exactly where I want to be”

GNN: Okay, now, I majored in English in college. I knew from tenth grade I wanted to write, but I’m like, “I don’t know whether I want to go into journalism or if I want to teach or write fiction.” It took me some experimentation to determine what I wanted to do. Was that the way it was with you or was pastry chef was the thing right out of the gate?

JOS: No, I kind of knew pastry chef was it, all right. I enjoyed culinary like the savory side of things, but I’m more…I keep saying it to my students, I’m less, “throw salt on it until it tastes good,” and more about a kind of…I suppose it offers more chances for creativity in terms of presentation.

GNN: Right? Salt, butter, and bacon, baby. That’s what I learn on almost any cooking show; you throw one of those three things in a dish, and everything is just better!

Okay, so going from the law and accounting to baking and pastry-cheffing…was your family supportive of the decision? I mean, that’s a pretty hard left turn!

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

JOS: It is. It is quite the obtuse angle there, right? They were. They were very supportive of us. They kind of realized I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, and they kind of had the same attitude I did in that, if it works out, fantastic. If it doesn’t work out, well nothing ventured, nothing gained. You can always go and try something else. Because I had also completed a master’s in history at that point as well. And with the view of, “Oh, I’ll go and work in academia,” and then I mean, the chances of getting a job in academia in history, are basically zero. So yeah, this was kind of a, “Oh, let’s see how this one goes.” So yeah, massively supportive of us.

GNN: So, your pastry chef training took you from, well, your schooling also, what was it? Ireland, England?

JOS: So, Ireland, and then France, for training.

GNN: France? Okay.

JOS: And then I moved to London and worked with some really amazing chefs in London. And then moved back to Ireland to work in a five-star hotel. Because London’s great, absolutely amazing, but there comes a point where you just kind of get burnt out. And I was very much feeling that after…it wasn’t even that long. 18 months or so in London of constant kind of work, work, work, work, work, and very little sleep. I was just feeling kind of haggard and burnt out.

So, I moved back to Ireland to be close to family, and then started my own business in Ireland with the view of, “I’m going to put down roots here and this is what I’m going to do.” And then about three months afterward, this cute girl kept walking in and buying macarons from me, and 18 months later, she was my wife. And she is not Irish, so it was like, “Okay, maybe Ireland isn’t forever.” So…

GNN: And you spent some time in Mexico as well, did you not?

JOS: Yes. Yes, I did. Indeed. So, we have kind of decided, “Look, Ireland isn’t for us. Let’s apply for jobs around the place,” with the caveat of, “whoever gets the job first wins, and that’s where we’re going to go.”

So, we were sitting on our couch in Ireland about three days after we got married and I got an email from a collection of numbers and letters and I was like, “All right, spam,” but let me see what it says anyway. And it was the Mexican Culinary Institute saying, “Hey, do you want to come and work in Mexico?” So that’s kind of what I did. In late 2016, we moved to Mexico to start in January 2017. And then in 2018, I was part of the Mexico team in the Culinary World Cup as part of the pastry slash kind of sculpture team, so…

GNN: Okay, I have to know, what does being on the Culinary World Cup team entail?

JOS: So, a Culinary World Cup, there’s a live cooking element, which is kind of a restaurant, for want of a better word, like a set menu for 120 people. And then there’s a display element, which is kind of a buffet table. So, lots of different kinds of canapés and a sculpture in the middle of that, that kind of captures your whole idea and your whole theme for it. And I kind of bounce between pastry and the sculpting side of that.

GNN: Okay, got it. Now I want to pop back a little bit just because I’m super curious. What was the hardest thing for you to learn as you’re doing your training, going through school? What was the sticking point? Were there any sticking points or did it all come naturally?

JOS: A couple of them actually. Organization is a big thing…realizing the value of being organized and being kind of somewhat clean in the area because you come from a home-cooking background, which basically I was. Yeah, I had a bit of experience, but it’s like, “Oh, yeah, sure, I can just leave this here and I’ll come back to it.” But then you realize that I have one six-foot table and that’s it for my day. So, organization was kind of almost the most difficult part of all. Everything else is very, “Just keep trying it until you get it right.”

GNN: Right. Yeah, no, 100%. As someone who designs training for a living, I see cooking and baking, at least the very basic elements of cooking and baking as following directions. It drives me crazy when someone says they can’t cook at all because just to get something done, it’s following directions, right?

JOS: Exactly. There are, okay, it needs to look like this or not like this when you move on to the next step, but generally, follow the directions and you’ll be close enough to get it right.

GNN: Yeah, yeah. And then tweak. Tweak from there, make it your own.

JOS: Exactly.

GNN: So now you’re in Boston and you’re an instructor…

JOS: Well, actually, let me stop you there. I’m in Quincy because my in-laws they’re very Quincy proud, so I would say I’m in Quincy!

GNN: Okay. Absolutely, I’m sorry. I did not mean to offend (laughs). So, you’re in Quincy and you’re an instructor now?

JOS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m in the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and in Bunker Hill Community College as well.

GNN: So, instructing or doing, what’s more fun?

JOS: Do you know what? My job is fantastic in that I kind of get the best of both worlds.

GNN: That makes sense.

JOS: I absolutely love teaching, but our program in Cambridge is a kind of a 37-week crash course in…if you want to get into the industry, these are all the skills you’re going to need. And in the second half of that program, there are modules on chocolate sculpting, sugar sculpting, all of that kind of stuff. So, I kind of get to play around a lot within the confines of that job; it’s kind of both, to be honest.

GNN: That’s cool. That’s awesome.

JOS: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. It’s not prescriptive in any way, shape, or form, really.

GNN: So, you say you’re teaching a “crash course,” and this kind of plays off of a question I just asked and you answered, about organization skills. When kids or adults or whoever comes into the program for the 37 weeks, other than organization, are there other things that they don’t realize they need to be good at? They’re like, “Oh, my God, I didn’t even think I needed to be good at this.”

JOS: Yeah, you know what, piping. That’s something I don’t think anybody ever really grasps, “Oh, yeah, this would be super useful,” until it is super useful.

So, we also run recreational classes, and you can see the people who have done a lot of cake decorating or a lot of just general kind of piping work by the way they handle the piping bag, by the way, they’re able to control what is happening. And then you see people who are the other end of the scale complete novices. And no matter how many times you tell them how to do something, it doesn’t match up because they don’t have the experience of doing it a number of times.

So, for example, I’ll teach a macaron class and for piping macaron, you don’t move the bag at all. You just pipe the macaron, and it comes out kind of like an automatic machine. It just presses out and it’s done. And 99 times out of 100, if somebody has no experience of piping, they’ll start to pipe a circle in spite of me saying, “You don’t pipe the circle. Your piping tip is a circle and comes to a point naturally.” So, I think that’s the biggest one, to be honest. Piping skills and how necessary they are for kind of everything.

GNN: Right. Yeah. It seems so easy, because it’s just a bag, and all you do is squeeze, it’s so simple!

JOS Exactly!

GNN: Then I watch people do it. And I told my wife, “I’m never doing that…ever! I’m not even going to try.” So, do you have any advice for anyone looking to get started in the culinary world? I mean, you started in an unconventional way. Is there some sort of method…do just kind of dive in or maybe take a class first?

JOS: I think that’s it…so yes…yes to both. I think definitely diving in is a great idea, but know what you’re diving into. The last thing you want to do is go diving in and then realize you’ve put money into it, that you don’t actually like this all that much. That you would prefer to be doing something else, like maybe prefer to be doing savory, whatever it is.

So, find some classes local to you. Take those classes seriously. If you’re still interested after seeing those classes, or if you come to a point where you’re like, “Do you know what? What else do I really need out of this? I’m kind of happy in what I’m doing.” If we take career-changing as a kind of a specific example, like, “I’m kind of happy in what I’m doing. I’ve gotten to a level through these classes that, this is where I want to be. This is enough for me.” Or, “Do I want to continue and do I actually want to go whole hog career change?”

GNN: And it’s funny, as I talk to creative people, I keep forgetting nowadays almost anything is on the internet. I guess before you spend a dime on classes, you can probably watch YouTube videos to at least get the basics and see if you enjoy it.

JOS: It’s true.

GNN: So, in my old age, I tend to forget the interwebs exist and I’m like, “There’s that thing called the interwebs, and you can Google your YouTubes and watch videos.”

JOS: These are the things that make life easy.

GNN: Right, 100%. Now let’s take a moment to wax philosophical. What separates a really good baker from a great baker? Or anybody in that field? Anyone who makes food? What separates the good from the great?

JOS: Attention to detail and a thirst for knowledge and betterment. Just, overall, kind of never getting to the point where you’re happy with where you are. Always kind of seeing what’s coming down the track, always seeing what other people are doing and going, “Oh, that’s super interesting. How do they do that?” And kind of pushing on from there.

GNN: That makes sense. What was the last thing you improved upon for yourself?

JOS: I was doing a chocolate sculpting class last week. Within the class, I was kind of playing around and I’m trying to figure out…there’s a way to pour sugar into already…it’s kind of technical, but pouring sugar into already kind of cool sugar. If you pour it into a spherical mold, you get something that looks like a kind of nebulous paperweight for want of a better word.

So, it’s a solid sugar ball, but inside the ball, there’s sugar that looks like it’s kind of deliberately kind of amorphous. It’s not completely deliberate, just one of those kinds of paperweight looks. And I’m getting it, but I’m not quite there yet. So, every time I’m doing it, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, okay, this is a bit better this time than it was last time, but I’m still not quite where I want to be.”

GNN: So, teaching is also giving you an opportunity to practice.

JOS: Absolutely. That’s exactly what I love about it.

holiday baking
Judges Nancy Fuller, Duff Goldman, Carla Hall, and Host Jesse Palmer, as seen on Holiday Baking Championship, Season 8.

GNN: All right. So now, here’s the big question. You’re currently competing on a little show called Holiday Baking Championship. How did you get on the show? Was it your idea? Or did your wife push you? Or did someone go, “I’m going to put you in for it.” And you were like, “Okay.”?

JOS: Basically, I got a message on…this tells you how far out advanced these shows are planned. On January 30 at the beginning of the year, I got an email saying, “Hey, do you want to be on Holiday Baking Championship for 2021?” And I was like, “Do you know what? Life experience, why not? I mean, when am I ever going to get to be on TV again? So yeah, why not? Let’s go for it. Let’s see what happens.”

So, there were quite a few screening interviews, and each time you get kicked up the chain a little bit more. And eventually, it got to the point where everybody was in, from talking to the other competitors, everybody was basically in stasis for about six weeks as they were doing background checks and all that kind of stuff to make sure that the 12 that they had selected who was going to be on the show didn’t have anything in their closet that was like…

GNN: Your ladyfingers weren’t made with literal lady’s fingers?

JOS: Yeah, see. Nice, I like it. I like that a lot. So, it kind of came out of that. And then it was, “Oh yeah, and now you’re on the show. Can you be in Knoxville next week?”

GNN: And that’s where they shot it? Knoxville? Knoxville?

JOS: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

GNN: So, they came after you. Nobody put your name in?

JOS: No. To be honest, I think they have kind of casting associates. Again, from talking to the other people, they have casting people who probably have one of the worst jobs in the world. They scour Instagram for people that look like they might be good at this (laughs)! But for the volume of stuff that’s out there, it’s one hell of a task.

GNN: Right? I mean, there are probably people that toot their own horn, and it’s like, “Ugh, they’re not that good…” I mean, I wonder how many people they must go through for this to narrow it down.

JOS: Yeah, exactly. There’s an application process as well. So, on top of whoever they’re contacting, there are also people who are applying who they haven’t found on Instagram or whatever it is because it came down to the kind of a mixture of both as to who got on the show.

GNN: And how long is the show shot over?

JOS: They called us to block off…I think it was June 20 to July 8, something along those lines, like two and a half to three weeks?

GNN: So, as far as the show goes, basically, every year they kind of have the same stuff. You’re making a yule log; you’re making something revolving around fruit cake. Did you do any practice between hearing you were going to be on the show to when you were on the show?

JOS: Yes. Practice? Absolutely. Because there was stuff that I just wanted to see if it would work, but not knowing exactly what’s going to come up. For example, the yule stump cake. I’ve made a hundred yule logs or roll sponges, whatever they are. I had never made a stump, so it was one of those things… I think I get the theory behind this, but the practice was slightly different, so.

GNN: So, here’s something that drives me insane about the show, especially towards the beginning of the season. When there’s a lot of people, they can only fit so much in an hour, so the judge interactions are only like 10 to 15 seconds, edited down. It’s like they say two things, and then you’re shuffled out. How long is an actual judge interaction with you?

JOS: Well, it depends, I suppose. It depends on how well or badly it’s gone (laughs). If you’re somewhere in the middle, it’s, “Okay, fine, Jody. It’s great, bye.” If it’s gone badly, they don’t hold back on telling you it’s gone badly.

GNN: Really?

JOS: Absolutely not. And to be fair, they are where they are because they pick out these things, they find these holes. And also, I don’t know, to be honest, but from what I understand, they are also watching the baking going on. So, they’ll see shortcuts being taken and all that kind of stuff, so they’ll definitely pick up on a lot of stuff. And equally, if it goes really well, they’ll probably hold you there to ask you how you’ve done it because like every industry, like every kind of creative industry, people want to know how things are done so they can then go and do it themselves.

GNN: Sure, sure. And it’s like when you watch Chopped, the judges sit right there. Would that be unnerving to have them actually sit there and watch you, or would you care?

JOS: Do you know what? There was a challenge one week where I remember listening to the kitchen at one point, and it was complete silence. Everybody was so deep into what they were doing with absolute silence, and it was…I mean, it might have been week two or three. There were still kind of multiple people in the kitchen. It should have been loud, but everything was silent.

So, I’m kind of figuring that you just kind of get it. You would get into a zone and block out, say, the cameraman who’s standing two feet from you.

GNN: Oh, yeah, that’s another thing, they don’t show the cameramen up in your business and just coming over to do the talks with you, and that’s got to drive you nuts!  So, was there anything you learned, being on the show, that you need to improve or that you learned to like, “Oh. I can actually do that better than I thought?”

JOS: Yeah. I’ve done a lot of reflection, especially kind of in the immediate aftermath of coming home. There was a lot of just lying in bed at night going, “I wish I had done this slightly differently or that slightly differently.” I feel like there were a few…there were a few challenges that I should have just thought more about this rather than diving straight in. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve seen the show for this week. But one of the challenges this week, I’m kicking myself because it’s actually super simple, and I made it way more complicated than it should have been.

GNN: That’s tonight.

JOS: Yeah, exactly.

GNN: Okay. I will watch. Now I’ll have to watch because we’re all caught up! Now, we’re going to the lightning round. Ready?

JOS: Go for it.

GNN: We’re at lightning round. Anyone on the show, obviously, other than yourself or the judges, they don’t count. One of your competitors could bake your birthday cake, who would it be?

JOS: Baking my birthday cake would definitely be Neomie. I mean, her cakes look utterly amazing.

GNN: Really? All right. Next question. How frequently do your friends and family hit you up to make desserts for their events?

JOS: Thankfully, most of my friends and family are still in Ireland, so it’s not much of a concern.

But I did actually get an email from my family this year. I’m going home for Christmas in the next week or like 10 days or so. And I got a text message from my sister yesterday saying, “So, you’re making dinner on New Year’s Eve for all of us.” I was like, “Oh. All right.”

GNN: Wait. You didn’t say that that wasn’t a question. That was a period at the end of that?

JOS: That was a period at the end of it (laughs). So, yeah. Yeah, yeah.

GNN: Lucky you. That’s one of those things where if you have a particular skill set, your friends are lucky to have you around! I was wondering for someone like you who’s so skilled, I was wondering how often you got hit up around birthdays and the holidays.

JOS: Definitely. So, I’ve made all the pies for Thanksgiving this year, definitely. But that was kind of a happy circumstance that I had a lot of my classes…who would have thought that for Thanksgiving we’d be making a lot of pies (laughs)?

GNN: Yeah, right, who would’ve thunk it? So, speaking of your classes, I’ve always wondered about someone who cooked or baked for a living, is it one of those things where when you get home at the end of the day, you just run by Wendy’s or pick up something on the way home?

JOS: No, no, no. No, I don’t.

GNN: You’re all about it even when you get home?

JOS: Because I don’t do any savory stuff, and generally, when I’m at work, my diet involves, yeah, this is all sugar all day long, I’m kind of craving good home-cooked stuff. And I kind of enjoy doing it too, so.

GNN: That’s awesome. So, dream project, anything? Who would you want to cook with, cook for, own your own business, work in any place, have a show? I’m giving you a wish right now.

JOS: I would love to open an online cookery school. Sorry, online pastry school, to be more specific, because it would give me the freedom to live anywhere. Having a kind of a home base where you can record your videos and do all that kind of thing, but you don’t have to be there to do feedback and all that kind of stuff, that will be kind of the ideal.

GNN: That is one thing that has come out of this whole pandemic mess. It’s hard to discount all the bad that has happened through this pandemic, but people are starting to find that maybe working from home is a viable thing in almost any field at this point.

JOS: Yeah, that’s true.

GNN: Okay, so now we’re going to play off that dream. You can have any guest on the show you want. Who’s your first guest on the show? Who’s your first guest helper?

JOS: Oh, my first guest helper. Oh, wow, that’s a good question.

GNN: Duff Goldman from Holiday Baking Championship? It might be someone I don’t know the name of…

JOS: So generally, when you start a pastry program, you start with bread. And there is a French…he’s a French MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France), is the title. Basically, it means you are the best at what you do in France. And there’s this guy called Olivier Magne. His bread is utterly amazing. So, that would be my guy to come in and instruct on the bread at the start of my program.

GNN: Excellent.  Now, all desserts get wiped off the planet but one, what’s your dessert? What dessert are you keeping?

JOS: Is my mom making it or not?

GNN: In a world where your mom’s making it and a world where she’s not making it. What does your mom make?

JOS: So when my mom is making it, it’s definitely going to be her Christmas pudding. If mom isn’t making it, then probably sticky toffee pudding.

GNN: Oh, yeah, you made that on the show, right?

JOS: Yeah, we had the sticky toffee pudding. I love that recipe.

GNN: So, now I’m giving you the power to wipe one dessert off the face of the Earth. What do you what do you think?

JOS: Grasshopper pie.

GNN: It’s crazy, I hate chocolate and mint as a combination…everyone thinks I’m odd. So, you don’t like it either?

JOS: No.

GNN: We’re almost at the end. Here’s one I was wondering…what’s your biggest culinary sin slash pet peeve? One that makes you shake your head.

JOS: Oh, trying to melt chocolate in a pot directly on a heat source.

GNN: Okay. What do they do instead?

JOS: So, you’re supposed to put chocolate on a double boiler. So boil water, and then put a bowl on top and melt your chocolate in the bowl, because otherwise, your chocolate scorches, basically, instantly. So, that’s my number one.

GNN: And here’s a question I ask everyone I talk to. What are you geeking out on right now? Music? TV? Books?

JOS: So, I have a two-year-old, so there is limited time for geeking out, but definitely Star Trek: Discovery at the moment.

GNN: Nice. So, to close this up, if people want to see you, they can see you on Food Network, Mondays at 8:00. If they want to learn more about you, you’re on Instagram…are you also on Twitter?

JOS: Well, I’m not on Twitter, but I am on Instagram at @chefjodyosullivan. And I also have a YouTube channel, Chef Jody.

GNN: Okay. So, folks can find you on Instagram and YouTube. I’m still pulling for you on the show!

JOS: Keeping the flag flying and all that!

GNN: I appreciate the time. Thank you very much, and good luck with the show!

JOS: Thanks a million. Take it easy.

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