Astoria fitness instructor Bryan Rivera found himself elbow-deep in sugar and spice and everything nice earlier this year when he competed in the fourth season of Holiday Wars on Food Network.
Inside a studio in Utah this past January, Rivera and 26 other cake and sugar artists hurriedly concocted creative Christmas cookies, cakes and baked goods like their lives depended on it with time constraints, ingredients they’d never used before and a high altitude that affected their recipes.
Holiday Wars is not unlike many limited-run, reality competition baking shows that crop up this time of year—Holiday Baking Championship, Nailed It! Holiday, Holiday Gingerbread Showdown, Christmas Cookie Challenge—that put bakers to the test in stressful situations hued in red, green, white, and blue and set to jingle bells.
In this particular show, host Jeff Mauro (formerly hosted by Raven-Symoné) leads nine teams of bakers through challenges to create “mind-blowing and seasonally delicious cakes” that Shinmin Li and Aarti Sequeira judge. Only one team wins the championship title and the grand prize, which in this case, is an all-expenses paid trip to see Iceland’s Northern Lights. The season debuted on Sunday, November 6.
While the competition is still going, we can’t divulge what happens on the show, but we were able to catch up with Rivera about his experience, which included making a sound bowl out of tempered chocolate, an edible tablecloth, Santa Claus in a hot tub at the North Pole, a cake made with egg nog and more with his team called “Rebels Without a Claus.”
Has it been a goal of yours to bake on TV or was it something you kind of fell into?
It was never a goal. I am very introverted and I don’t like attention, but so far, I’ve put myself in many situations where I am the center of attention. I never expected to be on a show let alone on Food Network in a competition. Food Network has been a part of my life forever. When I was growing up, I always watched Food Network. It was my go-to because it was so relaxing, so fun and interesting.
I remember getting the phone call. I thought I was getting Punked or scammed. I was in such disbelief but it was a combination of “this is so amazing” and “oh god, what have I gotten myself into?”
Tell me about your baking background.
I, like many other people, started baking during quarantine. I always enjoyed it but I didn’t pursue anything outside of buying break-apart cookies. I was doing that with friends, we’d do it over Zoom and have baking parties. As things started to open up a little and we could go outside with masks, I offered outdoor boot camp classes and started bringing baked goods for a little reward. You get a burn and a baked good afterward. My friends and clients started saying “you need to start selling these things.” I started my own company, Brytown Bakes. I love it. It’s a passion that doesn’t always feel like work. We get so caught up in doing something to pay the bills, so it’s nice to have this other business that is like my baby and I feel passionate about.
I make a lot of cookies, bars, cakes and pastries (and custom orders). My main thing is the treat of the week. I have weekly offerings of something different. It’s a limited-time-only situation, so I have more control and I’m not panicking.
How does your usual baking differ from the baking you did on the show?
I usually am able to do whatever I want and if something inspires me, I go for it. On the show, we were thrown into themes and that could be to work with certain ingredients or that it needs a specific component to it. Being on the show was a way to challenge myself by not doing something that might be more simple like what I’m selling at home. I had to quickly get comfortable with working with a lot of ingredients and processes I haven’t really done before. I had just started my business three months before filming the show. I felt like a brand-new baby. It felt very overwhelming.
After I was cast, I almost pulled out because of my anxiety and my nerves, but I kept telling myself this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be on the network that I love and respect and do what I love on a platform that is huge. I had to do it.
What do you love about baking?
For me, it’s very therapeutic. I’m the type of person who loves to follow instructions and rules; it’s very much a science. Once I got into developing my own recipes and playing around with how different ingredients affect the overall product, I found it fun and interesting. It’s not as simple as throwing things in a pot. I hate cooking because it’s looser. I like structure.
What are some examples of things you’ve made on the show?
We were working on these massive sculptures, which are fun to work on, but it’s a larger scale than I’m used to. In the first challenge, we were assigned a specific ingredient: egg nog. My teammates hated eggnog, which is usually a cause for concern, but I’m half Puerto Rican and we have a drink called coquito, so that spoke to me. We ended up creating a cake that reminded me of my family. It had a nice sort of memory element to it and the judges liked it.
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What is it like working alongside such talented bakers?
I was so nervous to meet my teammates. I felt like I needed to be very honest and upfront. No one likes to be the weak link. I told them I had very limited experience and hadn’t yet touched fondant or done any airbrushing, but that I wanted to help as much as possible. (I put myself through a little boot camp leading up to the filming.) My teammates were so amazing. I couldn’t have asked for more supportive—friends—now. We keep in contact every day.
What is it like watching yourself on TV?
It’s hard. It is so surreal. I’ve held watch parties, which makes it nice but also scary because I don’t know what to expect. I don’t remember some of the things I said. There were a couple of moments…I’m a bit silly. At least it’s authentic?
How do you look back on the experience now?
It was very stressful. I was in sort of this bubble with a small group of people—only those people know exactly what you’re going through. Coming back and holding onto the secret was tough. But I learned so much from everybody: my teammates, other teams and the judges made me better at my profession. It’s more than I could have ever hoped for.
Would you ever do it again?
I’m not sure yet. It depends. It was such a whirlwind. I think I got really lucky with such amazing teammates, but it was so stressful—I can’t forget that part, as fun as it was. I’m just trying to be in the moment and enjoy it while it is airing.
How has being on the show affected your life?
I am getting more attention than I would like, but it’s showing me how lucky I am to have all the love and support that is around me. I have received so much love and my friends and co-workers have all been so supportive. It’s amazing to look around and see what you’re surrounded by.
What is next for you?
I am going to keep on baking. I want to stay more consistent and out there with my visibility. I want to keep getting better at my skills so I can provide really tasty high-quality treats.
Finally, what are your top bakeries/dessert spots in NYC?
Mille-Feuille—I love them so much and have a soft spot for their macaroons. They’re my go-to coffee and macaroon moment.
Chip City—I am right across the street from it. It’s not helpful.
Queensbake House—What’s not to love!? I love that they’re local, they have amazing chocolate croissants and exciting pastry offerings, the coffee is good, the staff is really nice, and to top it all off, the pancakes are ridiculous!
You can catch Bryan on Holiday Wars Sundays at 9pm ET/PT on Food Network and streaming on discovery+.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.