Meet Chef Michael Schulson of TLC's New 'Ultimate Cake Off'

Tonight's cuppa: iced green tea with mint -- it's hot in L.A.!


Starting Monday, Aug. 31, TLC premieres "Ultimate Cake Off," a new series in which the greatest cake artists in the world go head-to-head to build the ultimate confection. Each week, three cake decorators and their teams build cakes over five feet tall, weighing hundreds of pounds and meant to be showcased as a centerpiece in a marquee event -- all in nine hours.

This is one moment I'm sad we don't have Smell-O-Vision -- or Eat-O-Vision, for that matter.

Thumbnail image for Michael_Schulson_Ultimate_Cake_Off.jpgI did an email Q&A with the show's host, Chef Michael Schulson. I put together an edited version for a print story, but Cuppers get the full Schulson...

Q: A recent New York Times Magazine cover story questioned whether foods shows have turned cooking into more of a spectator sport than a participatory experience. What can you do to get people into the kitchen, cooking and baking, especially from scratch?

A: To me this really hits home and I think it all starts out at a young age when parents should get their children involved in cooking. Doing this is something that puts the joy into cooking and doesn't make it seem like a chore. My grandmother did that for me and, in turn I cook with my son. Together we make pizza from scratch, baked goods and even cook soft-shell crabs. I truly believe that those who enjoy cooking at a young age will continue to enjoy it forever.

Q: You're not known as a pastry chef. What research have you had to do to feel comfortable in the world of cakes?

A: That's correct; I'm not a pastry chef. However, having worked in kitchens for the past 15 years, I have an understanding of all cooking techniques, whether it's savory or sweet. Balancing flavors when you are creating any item is what determines the taste. For this show, the flavors are clearly important when it comes to the cake-tasting part of the show. The other element that I'm comfortable discussing is technique. As a chef who is a perfectionist with my food, I can look at a cake and know what is right or wrong about it.

But my favorite thing to talk about on "Ultimate Cake Off"is how the leader of each team deals with his or her teammates and the situation. I am, and have been, in charge of quite a few restaurants, so I know what it's like to be a leader. Attitude is the most important quality when trying to lead a team and I can tell by observing and listening to the team leader whether they have the right skills to be a true leader.

Q: Have you seen TLC's other cake-baking show, "Cake Boss?" If so, what did you think of baker Buddy Valastro's food world as opposed to yours?

A: I love that show. Surprisingly I watch very little TV overall, but I always tune into Buddy's show. Buddy's personality is intense, but he has the ability to keep people loose at the same time. I admire that quality in him. Buddy's food world and mine are similar in that we work and guide the people who work under us to have the same goal -- to make our guests/clients happy.

Q; What food gets you most interested and excited?

A: One of my favorite things is the change of seasons which brings new seasonal fruits to the markets. At the present time, because it's summer, I love indulging in fresh local produce, because when you are cooking you don't need to manipulate these ingredients too much for the flavors to be amazing.

Q: What food did you have to learn to love, and learn to love to cook?

A: Being immersed in Asian cuisine, I really had to learn to love cilantro, which is a critical component to numerous dishes. I remember tasting it for the first time in a steamed Cantonese-style fish dish, and I almost spit it out. This is where balancing flavors really comes into play. For example, my mother, who doesn't like cilantro either, doesn't even realize I use it in my dishes, because it becomes a subtle element amongst other flavors to create the final dish.

Q: What indispensable items should be in every pantry?

A: Numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 are all the same... kosher salt. I can't tell you how many times I eat a meal where people don't season it properly. Some of the other items I enjoy are minced garlic in a jar that I keep in the refrigerator for whenever I need it. I also use a large array of dried herbs, because if I feel like cooking an Italian meal I just take out basil, garlic, and oregano to give my dish an Italian flavor. And if I feel like cooking Latin, I take out cumin, coriander, chili powder and garlic powder and I can create a Latin dish. This translates for all types of food by just changing up the spices.

Q: What's harder, being judged by the restaurant customer or judging these cake bakers?

A: To me, it's being judged by restaurant customers by a landslide. I try to be very fair about judging the bakers since I look at the entire situation -- the limited time frame, the curveballs thrown to them and the pressure. I therefore try to be fair with my critiques. Often in the restaurant, some customers tend to have unrealistic expectations.

Q; What do you cook for fun?

A: Anything with my son. Some of our favorites are fresh breads, muffins, homemade pizza and cookies.

We also ask some favorite things - the criteria used to determine a favorite are up to you...

Favorite Book: "On Food and Cooking," by Harold McGee. This is a great book that explains why and how you can do things with certain foods.  To me, this book can be used forever at any level of cooking. The teachings in the book remain with me throughout all of my cooking creations. My favorite section in this book is the section on "eggs". The explanations about why eggs coagulate, respond to certain temperatures and form different consistencies is the essence of understanding how to take food creations to a higher level.

Favorite Music: I love to listen to all kinds of music including new mixes, pop and alternative. However, when I need some soothing, satisfying music I always switch back to classic rock. Whether it's anything from Pink Floyd, The Eagles, The Who, Kansas or Rush, hearing their music mellows me out and brings me back to my childhood days.

Favorite Movie: "Hoosiers." I love "Hoosiers" because it's about teaching people that they can do anything if they put their mind and effort into it. It's a metaphor for real life. My favorite scene from this movie is when the coach pulls out a tape measure to measure the length and width of the basketball court and the height of the room. The lesson is that the coach shows his players that although playing in this huge grand stadium, the court and basket sizes are the same as their "small" court back home. This scene emphasizes to me the fundamentals that no matter where you are in life and no matter how you learn the basics you can practice them anywhere at anytime in anyplace.

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