Though fun-sized Hershey’s bars, Skittles packages, and more candy might still be leftover from Halloween, it’s actually time to start thinking about desserts for the holiday season. Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are both relatively early this year—November 22 and beginning on December 2, respectively—so luckily, there is a Massachusetts chef competing on TV this month to inspire your seasonal adventures in the kitchen. Holiday Baking Championship returns to the Food Network tonight, with local restaurant veteran and educator Douglas Phillips among the contestants.
For the record, it was challenging for Phillips to get into the holiday baking mindset when he filmed the show over the summer.
“With baking, or with food in general, you should be hyper-seasonal,” says Phillips, an alum of the sustainably sourced Woods Hill Table in Concord, who is currently the baking and pastry instructor at North Shore Community College. So pumpkin, cranberry, and warm spices weren’t at the top of his mind. “But those flavors are so synonymous with life. You know what those flavors are. You don’t have to think about it too hard.”
The holiday season has always meant feasting for the pastry chef, who grew up in southeastern Ohio and went to the Culinary Institute of America in New York City. Phillips honed his skills under chef Francisco Migoya at the now-shuttered Hudson Chocolates, before staging in New York City at the likes of Eleven Madison Park and Restaurant Daniel. He moved to Massachusetts after working with Woods Hill Table cofounder Charlie Foster at Daniel Boulud’s now-closed DBGB Kitchen.
Phillips left the fast-paced restaurant industry in 2016, as he prepared to welcome his first child with his wife. While he currently consults with local restaurants—including helping to revamp Maynard’s Pleasant Café earlier this year—he joined the Middleton campus of NSCC in January 2017. Earlier this year, Phillips rolled out a brand-new, year-long baking and pastry certificate program at the college.
“Cooking is still very much hand-to-hand passed knowledge,” Phillips says. He credits his “Ivy League culinary degree” and working with his mentor, Migoya, for his insight, and he sees his current role as paying it forward.
Phillips says being away from the day-to-day heat of a restaurant kitchen did not work against him in the culinary competition.
“You’d be surprised how quickly you fall into old habits. I did it for so long, and I did it under someone who pushed me to be more,” he says, referring to Migoya. Plus, as a teacher, Phillips keeps it real for his students. “They have this period to get it done. There’s no extra time, because in the industry, you’re not getting paid for overtime.”
Each episode of Holiday Baking Championship is comprised of two, timed rounds per episode, and a competitor is eliminated every show. Last season, Harvest pastry chef Josh Livsey was a finalist. Phillips, of course, could not reveal how he fares this season. But win or lose, Phillips’s first TV experience was a valuable one, he says.
“Competing is one thing,” he says, “but it’s very unique to find nine people who all they want to talk about is baking and pastry. They all have amazing backgrounds and ways of doing things differently, so it was an amazing learning experience.”
As the holidays approach, Phillips is looking forward to making his grandmother’s traditional vanilla custard pie, and decorating sugar cookies with his family. Some of his desserts are appearing regularly at Pleasant Café, and his recipes (executed by his students) will fill the pastry cases at the on-campus Beacon Café in Middleton in the spring.
No one knows if Phillips be the chef to accept the $25,000 cash prize at the end of the season—and he can’t wait to watch the premiere with friends at home in Ayer.
Holiday Baking Championship debuts Monday, Nov. 5, at 9 p.m. on Food Network. Season five continues into mid-December.
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