Hellertown pastry chef competes on Food Network's "Sweet Genius"
Jan 16, 2013 (The Morning Call (Allentown - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Country-loving confectioner Alan Pitotti of Hellertown's Dolce Patisserie has put his cosmopolitan pastry skills to a big-city test that could win him $10,000.
Although the chef admits "being intimidated by big cities," it didn't stop him from pulling onto I-78 for a pre-dawn trip into New York City in July. He was heading for a long day of competition with three other chefs on the set of "Sweet Genius," a Food Network show.
"I told myself I had to be crazy for giving the show a try, when there was so much going on in my life," he says.
Just nine days after what was the most stressful day of work in his life, he made his own wedding cake and marry Trish Konkolics of Center Valley.
The episode's winner was decided in July, but Pitotti is sworn to secrecy. The suspense ends for his family, friends and customers (including the crowd expected to gather in his North Whitehall Township living room to watch the show) at 10 p.m. Thursday Jan. 17. That's the premiere date for his "Sweet Genius" episode.
"It seems like forever since I competed," he says. "I was dying to at least share the show's air date with people who knew I competed. But I didn't even get that date until mid-December."
"I've always been intimidated by cities," admits Pitotti who is often asked why he located his shop in Hellertown. "Many people living in this area are from New York City or appreciate the quality of foods that can be found in the city. I tell everyone I'm saving them from having to travel into the city for their candy."
Pitotti grew up in Pen Argyl but garnered his pastry chef's stripes in some pretty elegant places, including Philadelphia's famed Le Bec-Fin. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America's pastry program and Northampton Community College's culinary program, he also served as a Hotel Hershey pastry chef and chocolatier for Norman Love Chocolates in Fort Myers, Fla. before opening his Hellertown shop nearly five years ago.
His high-end, artisanal chocolates go through six steps en route to becoming magnificent mouthfuls. Each chocolate, priced at $1.65, looks like the gem it is, complete with air-brushed, cocoa-butter-colored highlights and a mirror-bright surface shine. A four-piece box is $10; 18 pieces are $45 and the biggest box -- 36 pieces -- is $75.
Although the local guru of ganache usually fills his chocolates with luscious caramel, raspberry, passion fruit, dulce de leche and other tempting flavors, he admits practicing for the Food Network showdown with bacon and beets.
"Anyone who watches 'Sweet Genius' knows show host Ron Ben-Israel dishes up unusual 'inspirations' and requires mandatory, but crazy, dessert ingredients," he says. Some past episodes' distinctive dessert ingredients: fresh lobster, baby formula, caviar, artichokes, wasabi and marrow bones.
Pitotti and his wife have been fans of the show since it began. He says, "Trish gave me the confidence to try getting on the show."
He had to complete a lengthy online application, send photos of his work and himself, travel to Manhattan for a video interview and go through another two-hour phone interview before finally getting the call telling him he'd made it.
The unusual practice foods came from friends who knew he was "in training" for the show. "I turned the beets into red raspberry-beet centers for dark chocolates. I rendered the bacon, folding the bacon bits into an almond cake and using bacon fat in the milk chocolate ganache between the cake's layers."
But would challenges like this materialize anywhere else but "Sweet Genius" The young pastry chef answers, "A few weeks later, a customer who didn't know anything about the show asked me to make a birthday cake for his girlfriend with pretzels, beer and bacon. I had a head start on that request!"
Because "Sweet Genius" contestants must work from memory ("they even took our cell phones," Pitotti says), he had to reduce his recipes to smaller quantities and memorize them. Trish would call out "caramel" or "chocolate mousse" or any of the other items on flash cards, and the chef would shout out the ingredients while he was working.
His multi-tasking experience also came in handy when he was under the gun at "Sweet Genius." Although he says Chef Ben-Israel isn't as hard-hearted as he seems, he admits the host does try to distract competitors when they're working to meet deadlines, including 40 minutes for the dessert round, 50 minutes for the candy round and 60 minutes for a cake. A chef is eliminated after each round.
"Those were the most stressful minutes I've ever spent," he says. "You've got to work smart and hard and it's even more difficult because you're working in a strange kitchen. There's no room for error because there's very little time to fix it."
He deftly avoids leading questions as skillfully as he wields his airbrush for dramatic swirls, whirls and splashes of color on his chocolates. He doesn't answer questions about what he made in the second or final round, because that would offer hints about how close he was to winning the $10,000.
Only the show's publicity offers a few hints about what viewers can expect from the Jan. 17 episode that's called "Samba Genius." It notes, "With lasers as the inspiration, the chefs will attempt to make excellent chocolate desserts from a mandatory blue ingredient and a yellow one. For the candy test, they've got to work with 'a shockingly colorful tuber' and in the final round, they'll have to 'take a trip back in time' when they get a spicy snack and only 60 minutes to prove who deserves the $10,000 prize."
When asked if there are things he'd do differently, he replies, "Definitely. I'm always a second-guesser." Since he competed, "Trish and I have watched the show's other episodes. I'm not sure I could handle it again, although I'd try."
See if he wins
-- What: Pastry Chef Alan Pitotti of Hellertown's Dolce Patisserie competes on the show "Sweet Genius."
-- When: 10 p.m. Thursday Jan. 17
-- Channel: The Food Network
-- Info: http://www.foodnetwork.com
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