- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

DENTON, Md. (AP) - A standing room-only crowd packed the Market Street Public House in Denton on Sunday, Dec. 20, to cheer on local pastry chef Steve Konopelski in the season finale of the Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship.”

While Konopelski did not walk away with the $50,000 grand prize, he said he accomplished everything he hoped to when he first applied to appear on the show last spring.

“It would be wonderful to have the title and get the check, of course, but that was not my goal,” Konopelski said the day after the finale aired.

“I did it because I wanted to push myself as a pastry chef, to get some validation that the career transition (from a professional dancer) was the right move and to test my limits,” he said. “I did all those things.”

Konopelski and nine other bakers from across the U.S. taped the eight-episode series over three weeks in July in Los Angeles.

The first episode aired Sunday, Nov. 1. In each episode, after two baking challenges, one baker was eliminated by the judges, until three remained to compete in the final.

Konopelski, of course, was not allowed to tell anyone how far he made it in the competition before the finale aired.

When Maeve Rochford of San Diego was announced the winner Dec. 20, the crowd in the Public House cheered for Konopelski anyway.

“It was really very humbling to see everyone still so incredibly supportive,” Konopelski said. “To have everyone stand up and applaud my efforts was very moving.

“Walking into the last challenge, I already had felt like I won. I was so proud I had made it through eight weeks.

“I got to share my passion with the entire country,” he said. “I got to share my passion with all of you guys. What has been really cool is throughout this entire experience, I felt the community has come together so much. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the support you have given us.”

Konopelski watched every episode at a public viewing. The first episode, the viewing party was held at the Chesapeake Culinary Center in Denton; the other seven were all watched at the Public House.

“I was pleasantly surprised how big (the viewing parties) got,” Konopelski said. “People got to the pub at 6 p.m. and camped out three hours just to see the show.”

Konopelski said he appreciated everything Public House owner Brian Tyler and his staff did to host the viewing parties, especially since they could only be scheduled one week at a time as Konopelski advanced in the competition.

Tyler said the crowds grew week after week.

“I think it speaks to the type of people that I always say that Denton has,” Tyler said. “It is a special place and these are special people.

“They should be celebrated as they celebrated Steve,” he said. “It is just indicative to the type of community that we have. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

On a larger scale, Konopelski said he and his husband, Rob Griffith, who moved to Denton just over a year ago to open their bed and breakfast, Turnbridge Point, wanted to thank the entire community.

“We moved here not just to start a business, but to be involved with the community,” Konopelski said. “The way everyone has just opened their hearts to us and welcomed us is such a wonderful thing. Rob and I just want to say ‘thank you’ to everyone.”

Konopelski said he got a lot of support throughout the run of the show, from people who sent messages or pulled him aside when they spotted him in the grocery store. He said kids have told him how cool it is to see him on TV.

“That is the icing on the cake for me,” Konopelski said.

In the finale, Konopelski began the first challenge by making a sugar cookie tree with stars, inspired by his native Canada.

“The night sky up there just takes your breath away,” he said. “They call it ‘The Land of the Living Skies.’ The Northern Lights are incredible. You can see so many stars.”

In the final challenge, Konopelski made his traditional vanilla cake with the theme carol singing, a theme picked by Rochford. Konopelski featured fresh fruit, fondant and lyrics along the side, making some of the lyrics bigger than the others.

“I love carol singing and I know when you go, there is always someone singing the loudest and others singing quieter,” he said. “I think it represents someone unique.”

At the end of the show, the judges complemented Konopelski’s design, work and taste of the cake. The judges felt his cake was more of a summer cake.

“What I was very proud of from myself was I feel I was really true to who I am as a baker, as a pastry chef,” he said. “I stayed true to my points of view on food. I stayed true to my esthetic in decorating. I didn’t try to do something else.

“I could have very easily done huge splashes of color but that is not who I am as a decorator and a designer,” he said. “Everyone celebrates the holidays in a different way. That is what makes it great. That is what makes it unique.

“I did me,” he said. “Going into this competition, I wanted to bake my recipes to the best of my ability. But as long as I’m proud of what I did, that is all that really counts.”

Now that the show is over, it is back to business as usual for Konopelski.

A classically trained pastry chef, Konopelski designs wedding cakes and hosts a brunch every month at the bed and breakfast. January’s brunch is already sold out, but future dates will be available.

A demonstration and wine pairing will be held Saturday, Jan. 16, at Harvest Ridge Winery in Marydel, as will a chocolate and wine pairing Saturday, Feb. 6.

Konopelski teaches baking classes at the bed and breakfast; the next series will begin in the spring. Private classes are also available.

Cookies, cinnamon rolls and other pastries are always available to order on the website, turnbridgepoint.com.

Some of the cookies Konopelski baked on the show, including chocolate chip, gingersnap and orange vanilla sugar, are staples at the bed and breakfast.

Other treats he baked on the show, like whoopie pies and cranberry crumb bars, were recreated and sold immediately following the airing of the episode, but are not regular offerings.

Konopelski said his proudest baking achievements on the show were a cookie wreath he made in one episode, and the desserts he created when he was assigned pomegranates in another episode, a flavor he does not usually use.

Konopelski said the most valuable thing he got out of the experience was personal growth as a chef.

“That was far more valuable than the money would have been,” Konopelski said. “That gets spent very easily.”

Konopelski said he also became close to most of the other bakers during the taping; the majority are still in contact nearly every day through a group text.

It has only been about three years since Konopelski graduated at the top of his class from the French Culinary Institute in New York City, now known as the International Culinary Center.

Before he went into the baking and hospitality industry, Konopelski was a trained dancer and Broadway performer.

A native of Mayfair, a tiny town of 30 in Saskatchewan, Canada, Konopelski began attending the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School at the age of 16, graduating in 1997. He went on to study ballet at Brigham Young University, leaving the school in 1998 to complete a two-year mission.

After his mission was complete, Konopelski returned to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School for further training. From there, he performed in a variety of shows throughout the U.S., including stints on cruise ships and several variety shows. His first Broadway performance was in “Hot Feet” in 2006. After his final role in musical theater ended in 2011, Konopelski decided to retire from performing and pursue his passion for baking.

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Information from: The Star Democrat of Easton, Md., https://www.stardem.com

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