Alyssa Gangeri


Chef Alyssa Gangeri is used to offbeat requests from customers through her specialty business,  “Ally Cakes.” She has made custom confections in the shapes of guitars, basketballs, and even boxing gloves. While there’s an occasional special request for a unique filling or icing, most are the usual chocolate and vanilla. But when one “customer” requested duck fat as a mandatory ingredient, Gangeri was thrown off.

Duck fat was one of the required ingredients during Gangeri’s stint as a contestant on the first season of the Food Network reality show “Sweet Genius.”

Now in it’s third season, “Sweet Genius,” showcases pastry chefs who compete for a $10,000 prize. Four contestants compete in three rounds of baking, with one eliminated after every round. Each timed challenge contains secret, mandatory ingredients that must be used in the dessert. There is also an “inspiration,” which contestants must incorporate into the visual design of their desserts.

Gangeri,  28, is the type of woman who reaches to shake your hand while she’s still ten feet away. She is the Executive Chef at the River Walk Bar and Grill on Roosevelt Island. She opened the casual restaurant with her boyfriend in 2009. She also continues to  runs her own custom cake business, Ally Cakes, and consults for a hotel in Florida.

Gangeri graduated from the Culinary Institute of America when she was 19. Originally from northern New Jersey, Gangeri has worked at the Ritz Carlton in South Beach, Miami, and as a pastry chef for Exxon Mobile in Dallas, Texas.

Unlike many reality television participants, Gangeri did not contact the Food Network or apply to the show. “They found me,” she said, and she’s not sure how. Gangeri explained that the culinary industry is very network-based, and that anyone could have recommended her to the producers.

“Next thing you know I got a phone call,” she said. When she realized it was the Food Network, she “almost fell over.”

Gangeri went through about ten interviews before being selected. She was quizzed  about things that didn’t directly relate to her cooking, such as her fashion aesthetics and personal clothing style, and she was clueless about the show’s premise since producers had not revealed any details. “I didn’t know if it was a competition, or if they were just going to be following me,” she said.

Filming for “Sweet Genius” took two days. The first day was from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. The four contestants were told there would be three rounds: frozen, baked, and chocolate, with one contestant being eliminated after each round.

The contestants were allowed to bring their cookbooks and recipes, but upon signing their contracts, all materials were taken away. Gangeri said she found this nerve-racking, “For a pastry chef, that’s like, your world. It’s a science. You have to have the exact amount of things in there for it to be perfect.”

She said she knew of two of her competitors through industry, Manabu Inoue and Martin Howard (also known as “Chocolatina”). However, throughout the filming process, Gangeri said she did not speak to the other contestants. “I kind of got into competition mode and didn’t want to interact with anyone and give them anything they could use against me,” she said.

Round one’s mandatory ingredients were tater tots and sour lemon candies, and the “inspiration,” which the contestants had to interpret while building their dessert, was a jellyfish. The challenges were unexpected, “I had no idea there was going to be a mystery ingredient. I had no idea there was going to be an inspiration,” Gangeri said.

Gangeri said all her real-world experience was put to the test. “You question everything,” she said, “You didn’t know what was coming before it came. You didn’t have five minutes to think about it.” She made a passion fruit glace (with tater tots for texture) and added white chocolate tentacles to make it look like a jellyfish. Gangeri’s creativity got her into the second round.  “I don’t think I’ve eaten tater tots since then,”  she said, laughing.

In the second round, where the mystery ingredients were fusilli pasta and duck fat, Gangeri was eliminated. “I was angry when I was eliminated,” she said, “Angry and upset, obviously. They [the producers] do make it seem like you’re great and you’re gonna stay.” However, Gangeri said she was pleased with all the nice things host and renowned pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel had to say about her – that he looked forward to seeing more of her work in the future. “I think that made it worth it for me,” she said.

Due to the contract Gangeri signed, she had to keep her participation secret until the show aired. Her mother and boyfriend were the only ones who knew. “Keeping that secret was very, very hard,” said Gangeri, who comes from a large Italian family.

Her episode aired four months after filming. At the time, a cousin of Gangeri’s was getting married in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and her entire family had travelled there for the festivities, so they all had the opportunity to view the episode together. Gangeri was nervous about how she would be portrayed, but happy that she had her family there for support. “It’s hard to watch yourself on TV. Very hard,” she said.

Since the show, Gangeri’s family has tried to recreate the “Sweet Genius” challenges. “My family rather enjoys throwing weird ingredients at me now. I don’t know why,” she said, laughing, “I don’t enjoy it.”

Gangeri looks back at  “Sweet Genius” as one of the hardest things she’s done in her career. “Being a woman in the kitchen is extremely difficult,” she said, “I always thought that was the hardest thing: getting past male chauvinism, and just kind of making a name for yourself.”

In addition to getting her name out there, Gangeri said being on television has helped her be more comfortable with herself. “When you watch re-run after re-run, you’re like ‘I talk like that? I make those faces?!’ You really nitpick yourself,” she said, “You learn to be okay with yourself.”

And if “Sweet Genius” ever decides to do a rematch, Gangeri said, “I would do it again in a heartbeat. I’d be happy to do it again.”