Let ’em eat cake

Drag-queen-cum-pastry-chef Chad Fitzgerald rocks TLC — and now Oak Lawn — with his baking prowess

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BATTER UP | Chad Fitzgerald went all-in for his audition for TLC’s ‘Next Great Baker,’ becoming the go-to guy and the crybaby ... as well as being the only gay contestant on this season.

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

In what used to be a butcher shop, Chad Fitzgerald sits in the back room of a storefront now called The Cake Guys.

The dark red walls of the bakery make for a cozy, elegant ambience, but the cakes take center stage: Towering confections with ornate scrollwork, rhinestones, peacocks and chocolate-covered strawberries are jaw dropping.

Despite his calm demeanor as he strolls through his shop, Fitzgerald and his cakes are about to be seen on a much bigger stage.

“The producers told us when the show airs, life will change,” Fitzgerald says.

“The show” is the second season of Next Great Baker, which debuts Tuesday on TLC, with Fitzgerald among the contestants.

The path from kitchen to TV studio has been a long one for Fitzgerald. As a kid, he would head to his grandmother’s house after school in Hereford, Texas, where he picked up her creative skills. At her knee, he learned ceramics and sewing, but it was her baking that really nabbed his attention.

“She completely influenced that,” he says. “She bought me pans and decorating tips and my first mixer while I was in high school. I ended up going to culinary school at Oklahoma State University but I didn’t like it — I already knew how to make cakes; I didn’t want to do any of the other chef stuff.”

Fitzgerald received a degree in education at West Texas A&M. Baking became a hobby as Fitzgerald took up teaching for 21 years. Baking re-emerged seriously in 2003, when he and his partner, Edward Navejas, began The Cake Guys out of their garage.

It quickly boomed. They opened a full-service shop in Duncanville in 2008, and have just expanded to Oak Lawn, which led Fitzgerald to make a major decision.

“There were not enough hours in the day and I was overwhelmed,” he says. “I’d teach, bake till 3 a.m. and get up to go to work. When I resigned this month, everyone told me they were surprised it wasn’t sooner.”

The Duncanville location is now a production facility; they handle all the cake orders — mostly from bridal parties — out of their Oak Lawn location.

A few years ago, Fitzgerald and Navejas started applying to appear on chef-based reality shows. They had the talent, but never made the cut, until a casting director for TLC called to ask them to try out for Next Great Baker.

“I got that call and I told them that we’ll apply,” he says. “But they needed something by that night. This was in May or June. It was a very long app, but I stayed true to myself.”

By staying true, he means he let his natural tone come out, freely peppering LOL and LMAO throughout his answers, and not sounding pretentious. But it was the question “What would set you apart?” that acted as a mini-crossroads. In other applications, he’d held back, revealing some personal details, thinking his baking skills should be all that mattered. This time, he decided to go all-in.

“It was do-or-die, so I sent in pics and videos of me doing drag,” he laughs. “I also bawled talking about my grandma, who died two years ago.

It was about 6:30 p.m. when I sent it in, and the casting agent called me around 7:15. She told me was the best application so far.” With more than 10, 000 applicants in the mix, Fitzgerald “started feeling good about it,” he says.

Fitzgerald then flew to New York for a screen test and on-camera interview. There he met Buddy Valastro, better known as the Cake Boss.

“I had a fabulous time doing that,” he smiles. “And they made me do a drag number on video — as a guy! I had told them I was Miss Texas USA At-Large and Miss USA At-Large in 1996 as Stacy Holiday.” On July 31, Fitzgerald got the phone call.

“They said ‘Congratulations, you’re one of the Season 2 contestants,’” he recalls. “I started crying, of course. I called the staff and just said ‘I made it! I made it!’”

Typical of reality TV, the show only now is airing, though the competition ended weeks ago. Fitzgerald has been baking away, waiting to see how life just might change as a result of the competition. He’s already noticed some changes (a few autograph requests), but he’ll know better once the series begins airing.

“Other contestants thought I was a cheater because I had my trinkets and gadgets,” he says. “But I’m a planner. Other contestants came with three bags [of supplies]; I shipped 38 boxes. I took an aquarium, strobe lights, anything that could go in a cake. This is the biggest thing in my life — why wouldn’t I prepare?”

Fitzgerald says he never became a character. Although he was the only gay contestant and was occasionally encouraged to “gay it up” for the camera, he stayed true to himself.

“I kinda became the go-to guy,” he says. “People would ask me for advice and that’s just pure respect. I was the nice guy of the group, but I was definitely the crybaby on the show.”

Of course, how he fared remains to be seen as the season plays out. For now, Fitzgerald knows he and Navejas have a good thing. Win or not, The Cake Guys know one thing for sure.

“I don’t want people to buy our cakes just because I was on TV,” he says. “But once you try our cake, you’ll be hooked.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 25, 2011.

CORRECTION: We printed that Next Great Baker airs on Tuesdays when it actually airs on Mondays. The first episode airs Nov. 28 at 8 p.m on TLC. We regret the error.

—  Kevin Thomas