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

Gay ex-Navy pastry chef was so obsessed with roommate that he murdered girlfriend

Daniel Willyam, right, faces up to life in prison for the 2009 murder of Samantha Nance.

A Dallas County jury today found a gay former Navy pastry chef guilty of murder in the 2009 stabbing death of his roommate’s girlfriend.

Daniel Willyam, 28, faces up to life in prison for the murder of Samantha “Shelley” Nance, 20.

Nance, a student at the Dallas Art Institute, was found stabbed 42 times at her Lake Highlands apartment.

Willyam, who also attended the Art Institute, was the roommate of Nance’s boyfriend, Nathan Shuck. Prosecutors say Willyam murdered Nance out of jealousy because he had become increasingly obsessed with Shuck.

The Dallas Morning News reports that the jury, which found Willyam guilty earlier today, is now weighing his sentence.

—  John Wright

RCD reveals 5 Factor honorees

Next Thursday marks the third time the Resource Center Dallas has held The 5 Factor, which honors members of the community who have done a lot in the community. This year’s celebrants include a Dallas Voice contributor.

Journalist Jenny Block, whose most recent article for us was published just last week, is recognized in the “journalism” category. Ron Corning, the new host of Channel 8′s Daybreak show, is the media recipient. Pastry chef Brownen Weber, whom I wrote about last week, is recognized in “culinary.” Fashion designer Prashi Shah was cited for “fashion” and restaurateur Monica Greene, pictured, as the “icon.”

The honorees will be at a gala held at the 1500 Dragon St. on Oct. 20. Tickets are $50.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Dallas baker wins Food Network challenge

To a pastry chef, the term “piece o’ cake” probably pisses you off. (Don’t even get ‘em started on “easy as pie.”) Cake is hard! Especially when you’re trying to impress the judges on a national network, commemorating the re-release of the most popular animated film of all time.

But Dallas’ Bronwen Weber of Frosted Art Bakery and Studio made it look, well, like a piece o’ cake Sunday night, when she won the Food Network’s Lion King-themed bake-off.

Weber’s dynamic interpretation of the villainous Scar in mid-leap bested all the other competitors, with the show airing the second weekend when the new 3D Lion King claimed the No. 1 spot at the weekend box office.

This is nothing new for the gay-friendly Weber, who last year designed “pride cake” cupcakes with rainbows and HRC symbols. She has won 14 medals from the Food Network, including eight first-place citations — three more than her nearest competitor. The episode airs again tonight at 7 p.m.

You can find Weber’s treats at FrostedArt.com.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

‘Top Chef’ set in Texas next season

In the category Worst Kept Secret, Bravo officially announced that the upcoming season of Top Chef will be set in Texas. Filming is well under way.

This is not news to anyone following the series or Texas foodies, who have been blogging about seeing chefs all around San Antonio and Austin already.

What is a surprise is that it took so long for the series to officially make its way to the state. Stars in prior seasons — including the recent all-stars — include locals Tre Wilcox, Casey Thompson and Tiffany Derry.

The series will begin airing later this fall. Next week, Top Chef: Just Desserts, with a Stephan Pyles pastry chef among the cast, begins airing. We’ll have a review closer to the air date.

Read Bravo’s press release below.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Tasting notes

Addison casts a ‘Queer Eye’ on food (again); Axiom spins for charity

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Ted-Allen-bottle-shot
DRINK UP | Ted Allen returns to Taste of Addison to deliver a presentation on wine.

With summer basically here (on the thermometer if not the calendar), restaurants and bars are revamping their menus. At Fearing’s, that means complimentary two-bite mini tacos and three new cocktails, including a sangria and gin drink, for midweek (Wednesday and Thursday) happy hour from 5:30 to 7 p.m.  inside at the Rattlesnake Bar or al fresco at the Live Oak Bar.

Scott Gottlich and J Chastain have launched a new menu at their Second Floor restaurant inside the Galleria. Among the entrees are now a croque madame pizza, day boat scallops and a Meyer lemon meringue cake. Gottlich’s other restaurant, the fabulous Bijoux at the Inwood Village, will present a showcase of classic dishes during May and June. From May 17–20, then June 17–18, you can enjoy a five-course meal with time-honored dishes like oysters Rockefeller and beef Wellington. Cost is $68 ($95 with wine pairing).

Fin Sushi — now officially Axiom Sushi — holds the “Spin 4 a Cause” event  twice monthly on Wednesdays. Each time, the restaurant will choose a local celebrity to serve as guest DJ, who selects a non-profit of his or her choice as beneficiary. Money raised from 6 to 8 p.m. directly benefits that charity.

Blouin_Dessert_4ed
IS THAT REALLY EDIBLE? | You bet your last taste bud you can feast on the raspberry and vanilla cheesecake ‘surprise’ from The Mansion’s new pastry chef, Nicolas Blouin.

The Mansion on Turtle Creek has named Nicolas Blouin as its new pastry chef, and just a quick look at some of his architectural creations, pictured, will set your mouth watering.

Tiff’s Treats, which could single-handedly undo all my exercise gains, has opened its third Dallas location, at Hillcrest and Northwest Highway. To celebrate, on May 14 it will sell boxes of fresh-made (and still warm!) cookies and brownies, proceeds of which will benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

When we think of pizza meccas, Grapevine doesn’t pop quickly to mind, but that changes for a bit this weekend. The burb’s Main Street Days festival in its historic downtown celebrates pizza for three days putting it on a most deserving pedestal. Napoli’s, Farina’s Winery and Café and Gepetto’s Pizza are just some of the restaurants making an appearance. We hear the latter’s medium pizza is a hefty five pounds. While pepperoni is the stuff dreams are made of, think a step up with some of the offerings from Farina’s Scorcher pizza with chicken and jalapenos to Napoli’s s’mores pizza.

Speaking of, the Uptown pizzeria Coal Vines has opened a branch at The Shops at Legacy. That joins the latest branch of Deep Ellum’s Twisted Root Burger Co. which also opened there, making The Shops — with a Kent Rathbun restaurant (Jasper’s), an Angelika Film Center and other shops — is really becoming the Uptown of Plano.

Addison’s annual Taste of Addison food extravaganza starts Friday, May 20 and runs through May 22, not only with samplings from dozens of restaurants, but also music from Third Eye Blind and others. Queer Eye food expert Ted Allen and Robert Mondavi spokesperson returns to give a wine seminar for eager palates. Learn more at AddisonTexas.net.

Dickey’s Pit Barbecue has made the first permanent change to its menu in 50 years. The spicy cheddar sausage, a special item in recent months, will now be a fixture on the menu.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Vegetarian Times has nominated Dallas’ Hail Merry for a Foodie Award, recognizing its raw-vegan blond macaroons. You can vote for it at
VegetarianTimes.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 13, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Taste maker

Using his skills at detail and aesthetics as pastry chef, Rick Griggs moves his art from the plate to the canvas

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer lopez@dallasvoice.com

PIECE OF CAKE | Former pastry chef Rick Griggs now produces work that won’t be gobbled up — he comes out as an artist with his first solo show Saturday. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)
PIECE OF CAKE | Former pastry chef Rick Griggs now produces work that won’t be gobbled up — he comes out as an artist with his first solo show Saturday. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

OUT OF THE BLUE
Cameron Gallery,
1414 Dragon St. Oct. 16–Nov. 18. Opening night reception at
6 p.m. RickGriggs.com.

…………………………..

Call it an identity crisis or a leap of faith, but Rick Griggs has his mind made up. With more than two decades of experience as a pastry chef, Griggs is in the midst of a career change. Earlier this year, he switched away from regimented hours of working in a restaurant to the nebulous schedule of a full-time artist. And with that move came a bundle of nerves and uncertainty.

“I’m nervous in the monetary sense, not getting a regular paycheck,” Griggs says. “But it’s also exciting. It’s like an adventure —  you don’t know how it’s going to unfold. That’s part of the fun of it. Not knowing is a little bit nerve-wracking. But I tend to be a free spirit.”

This week Griggs will have his first solo show, Out of the Blue, at the Cameron Gallery in the Design District, marking a fairly significant moment for him. His artwork has been featured in local magazines and hangs in prominent public spaces and Dallas homes, but this is sort of his coming out moment as an artist. After years of building up a reputation as a quality pastry chef, he now has to reinvent and reintroduce himself to the local scene. But he’s got a head start.

“I show at Abacus and Jasper’s,” he says. “They have my work on rotation.”

“Rick has always been one of the greatest pastry chefs I’ve ever worked with and turns out, he’s an incredible artist as well,” says Kent Rathbun, the chef who was Griggs’ boss for eight years at Abacus. Rathbun himself is an art lover; his Plano restaurant, Jasper’s, was named after its inspiration, the gay artist Jasper Johns.

But it was not until Rathbun’s annual Dallas Art Party this year that Griggs seriously planned a change. Although he had been working on his art and selling it, pursuing his passion as a career was the next step for him to move forward. But really, he’d been living his dream for 20 years.

“This really was a natural progression,” he says. “My eye  became more refined in doing pastry work. Your vision changes as far as what you’re doing and I think if I’d started painting in 1984, I’d be doing different things now. With that time and learning technique, I think I’d be more layered, a better artist.”

There is a relation, though, between his pastry work and his painting — which means he could be a better artist than he gives himself credit for.

“I see a lot of similarities,” says Griggs. ”I use a palette knife because I realize there is a technique similar to  putting icing on a cake. A lot of my work also has that splattered paint like I’ve used with sauces. It’s a lot of the same fluidity and control.”

Griggs’ creative streak stretches back to his youth. His father worked in a very specific design world: archery. Being around that, Griggs got used to working with wood and paints. He says that was part of the foundation for his interest in art and also home restoration.

Griggs calls these subliminal influences which are coming out now in his work.

Griggs says it’s hard for him to explain his art. Visually, it’s abstract with geometric sensibilities. But interestingly, he says they are spontaneous and even reactionary. They are preconceived ideas or visuals but manifested into something altogether different when he begins each piece.

“I’d say it’s very intuitional and responsive. The paintings are a very subliminal rendering or an abstraction that could be relative to organic landscapes or architectural renderings,” he says.

Griggs’ culinary career began in 1984 and took him to Miami, New Orleans and Athens, then brought him back to Dallas and The Mansion on Turtle Creek before going to Abacus. Still, Griggs doesn’t think he’s leaving food behind.

“I still will dabble in food,” he says. “I have thought about opening my own business. Just as long as I can paint.”

“The intersection between art and food is basically the same — it’s a stimulus for people,” Rathbun says. “Rick has the ability to trigger two senses, which I think it truly unique and fascinating.”

Part of his personal plan is to begin his own coffee shop/gallery where his two passions can merge together. Which is an interesting notion considering what he says has pushed him to concentrating on the visual arts.

“I’ve always loved interiors and cool spaces and museums and I think the permanence of a painting versus the impermanence of food really drove me,” Griggs says. “I can spend hours and hours creating a food product that will disappear in moments, but a painting is everlasting. To me, there is a lot of reward in that.”

Griggs is working on getting the last pieces hung and then, once the show starts, he’s at the mercy of the art-loving universe.

“The exciting part is seeing how people react to it,” he says. “But I also wanna sell the art and that’s the most nerve-wracking. You have to sell to continue to produce.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 15, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

A curtain falls

Propmaster Rick Gilles, DTC’s butchest employee, leaves to be with his man

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer lopez@dallasvoice.com

Rick Gilles
GO WEST | While finishing up work at DTC’s production studio, Gilles is planning his big move to California — for love. (Rich Lopez/Dallas Voice)

Two loves separated by long distance. One left for his future. The other stayed for their future. But now, happily ever after is about to begin.

Quick, what is that? Tagline in a movie trailer for the next sappy Reese Witherspoon rom-com? No, but it is based on a true story. After 14 years in Dallas, Rick Gilles is packing up and heading west to be with his partner Shannon Swindle. Once they are reunited after a year-and-a-half separation, the plan for Gilles is to settle in, get a job and begin planning their wedding next year (initially scheduled for this year). It’s a real-world romance just in time for Prop 8 being overturned.

“I started realizing that I wasn’t going to get the wedding I wanted,” Gilles laughs. “We had been talking about it for a little while, but with the stress of moving, we postponed until next year. We want it outdoors in Napa Valley with close family and friends. And that isn’t going to come particularly cheap.”

Swindle built a sweet reputation as the pastry chef at Craft in Dallas’ W Hotel, but last year he was transferred to the Los Angeles location. He’s been living in an apartment, waiting for Gilles. But as the properties master for the Dallas Theater Center, Gilles had his own full plate — namely, moving into the new Wyly Theatre. After 14 seasons working at the DTC, he couldn’t bring himself to just leave without seeing it flourish.

“Part of the reason the move didn’t happen earlier was I had been working on getting this theater open,” he says. “I really wanted to see that to fruition and see it go through a full season.”

When Gilles wasn’t constructing sets and working on props for the stage, he was an active member of the Leather Knights (see sidebar), where he found something beyond his leather interest: He could also make an impact on the local LGBT community that he doesn’t foresee in L.A.
“When I lived there before it took a lot more effort, time and money to be involved,” he says. “With Leather Knights, I could fit into my schedule and help the community and contribute my talents.”

Perhaps the hardest part of Gilles’ move isn’t just leaving his longtime tenure at DTC, but chiefly because, he isn’t all that ready to leave Dallas. Coming here from Buffalo (though originally from California), Gilles has made his connection to the city.

“I’ll be really sad to leave here,” he admits. “Dallas has treated me exceptionally well. I love this job and I love Dallas a lot. But ultimately, I’m really excited about the future. We’ve been living apart long enough.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 6, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens