Santa has cakes for DAYS!
The holidays are filled with treats, but one of the biggest treats this year was turning on the Food Network and seeing Jeffrey “Santa From Atlanta” Gray whipping up some amazing treats on Season 7 of their hit show Holiday Baking Championship! Now, I don’t know about you, but I love LOVE dessert (particularly cakes and pies), and I love them even more when there’s a handsome bear in an apron doing the baking.
Jeff may have been eliminated from the championship, but this endearing Santa doppelganger has definitely won over the hearts and bellies of so many hungry bears with his decadent cakes and charming smile. I recently had a chat with Jeff to discuss his baking background, his cake business, and his experiences working on Holiday Baking Championship.
Kyle Jackson: Hi Jeff! Well, first off, how did you get started baking?
Jeff Gray: Hey Kyle! So, both of my grandmothers and my mom were bakers, especially around the holidays. I looked forward to every Christmas and Easter to eat the goodies they would bake. Much of what they baked were traditional family recipes, and I started to watch them bake them each year.
After they passed, I decided that I would keep those recipes alive, and I started baking during the holidays for my remaining family. Every holiday, when I would pull out their handwritten recipes, I feel like they are still with me, and it makes me very happy.
To me, baking is all about memories. Those smells and flavors bring back great memories, and I want to use them to create new ones for the younger generations of my family.
I worked in the advertising industry for 33 years and ran my own firm for 23 of them. It was fun going to work each day and creating something for my clients. As the years went on, I ended up doing budgeting, billing and management and had no creative outlet.
That led me to my kitchen , and I got a Cottage Food License so I could bake and sell items out of my house. My plan was to make breads and cookies and sell them at Farmer’s Markets on the weekend. As with most plans, it never happened. A friend asked me to bake a cake for his birthday party and after that, my business exploded and I only do cakes now.
I have had no formal training, and I am teaching myself piping skills as I go along by watching YouTube videos and reading a lot of recipes and tutorials.
KJ: How did you end up becoming a contestant on Season 7 of Holiday Baking Championship?
JG: I had set up an Instagram page to promote my home business, Papa Bear Bakery and to showcase my decorating skills. In mid-April of this year, I received an Instagram message from someone who identified themself as a casting agent for the Holiday Baking Challenge for Food Network. Thinking it was a friend playing a joke on me, I ignored it at first. But then, I decided to Google the person and I found out it was real.
I called them back, and after a couple of phone interviews, filling out the application and a virtual interview, I had to present a couple of baked items on another virtual presentation to the Culinary Director and a few Producers from Food Network. All of this happened in a couple of weeks, and then the waiting began.
Finally, in late June, I was notified that I had been chosen as one of the contestants for the show.
KJ: How was the experience on the show for you?
JG: It was incredible from start to finish. With all of the concerns over COVID this year, Food Network made sure we were safe and well cared for. We were housed at a resort outside of LA and the set was onsite, so everyone involved was in a safe bubble.
Walking onto the set for the first time was overwhelming; I couldn’t believe that I was actually there. It all seemed like a dream, but once they announced the first challenge, I was brought back to reality. The clock started and I was off and running.
It was the most fun I have had in a long time, and it was also one of the most stressful experiences. I was going through all of this with 11 other great bakers, and even though we were competitors, we all supported and helped each other when we could. I consider all of them my friends.
The judges were incredible, and I took in all of their comments and criticism. Being such a new baker, they could only help me grow. It was definitely an ego boost when they liked something and complimented me.
KJ: How did you get the nickname “Santa from Atlanta”?
JG: Look at me! (laughs) I’m a gentleman of a certain age with white hair and beard, a handlebar mustache and a belly.
Seriously, it was actually the host, Jesse Palmer, who first called me that on the first day of shooting, and I gladly accepted it. I’m comfortable with who I am and what I look like, so why not use that to my advantage? Besides, it’s just plain fun.
KJ: You mentioned your professional baking practice. How long have you had it and where can we find it?
JG: My business is known as Papa Bear Bear Bakery, and I currently service the Atlanta area. I bake to order and you can find my menu and photos of my cakes on Facebook and Instagram under Papa Bear Bakery, and also Santa From Atlanta. My website is papabearbakery.com.
I started this business when I closed down my advertising agency in June of 2019. I planned for it to only be a part-time job, but it keeps me pretty busy. I hope to grow it to a full-time gig!
KJ: What’s your favorite thing to bake for the holidays?
JG: Without a doubt, my favorite things to bake at the holidays are the old family recipes — My paternal grandmother’s Chocolate Chip Cookies, my maternal grandmother’s Apricot and Nut Kolaches and my mother’s Pumpkin Bread.
I’ve grown up having these each year and it brings back great memories when I bake them. I want to pass these recipes on to my nieces so that the memories can continue. If I can make my family and friends feel loved by my creations, then I am one happy baker!