At first, Julianna Jung tried to hide from the cameras, nervous as she tried to bake her apple cinnamon quick bread with cinnamon vanilla caramel.
But as she ran back to her oven from the pantry on the Food Network set, she crossed in front of host Jesse Palmer as he announced there were 45 minutes left in the first challenge of Season 7 of Holiday Baking Championship.
“Julianna, you just stole my thunder and ran right in front of the camera,” the former NFL quarterback and bachelor on The Bachelor said jokingly as Jung laughed loudly. “Such a camera hog. Everybody, Julianna wants to be on TV.”
That’s how America was introduced to the Champaign resident.
As she watched from home with her husband and two dogs last Monday, months after the taping, Jung was surprised with how calm and put-together the producers made her look throughout the show.
On the inside, she was frantic.
For a baker, moving to a new kitchen is like moving into a new home, she said, especially for a hobbyist like her.
“I was so nervous because I don’t know the ingredients that we have there, I don’t know the oven, how does it work, what are the precautions we have to take so we’re COVID-safe,” she said. “It was a lot of pressure, because I’m thinking of all of these different things while I’m baking, trying to do what I do, being in front of the camera for the first time with all of these people running around. It was a lot of pressure. I was trying to keep myself calm. I don’t know if you guys saw it on TV or not, but it was challenging.”
The fact that she wound up competing for $25,000 as a contestant on a Food Network show wouldn’t have been in the realm of possibility a few years ago.
Her journey to that point began one lonely night when she lived in Seattle, during a year in which her husband was away taking prerequisite classes to prepare for medical school. As depression began setting in one evening, she decided she wanted something sweet to eat, but it was so late that bakeries and coffee shops were closed.
So Jung decided to make cupcakes. She rarely baked up to that point, but when Jung pulled them out of the oven, she was impressed with herself.
“I was like, ‘Hey, that wasn’t that bad,’” she said.
So she baked more. She learned to make banana breads and cakes and pies. She brought the treats to work and watched as her coworkers’ faces lit up with the first bite. Soon, she began mixing and matching flavors and adding more complicated aspects to the desserts. She became so taken with the hobby that she decided to go to culinary school, although she dropped out after a semester. Instead, she decided to spend time traveling and taking master classes around the world, where she learned from prominent bakers in Europe, Korea and across the United States.
In those classes, she learned the fundamentals of baking and decorating desserts. No longer were her treats simply delicious — they were works of art.
While she didn’t grow up around baking, she did grow up with artists — her mother and sister were both professional painters. Her mother, though, gave up on her artistic talents in the first grade, she said with a laugh, but her creative ability was sparked when she discovered baking.
She began an Instagram account on Aug. 21, 2016, with a photo of lemon cupcakes with buttercream frosting and strawberries on top.
As her account, @cakedupjourney, progressed, her artistry became more ornate and complex. When she moved to Champaign two-and-a-half years ago, she wanted to fill time while she made friends and acclimated to her new job. She bought a blast chiller, an important tool for serious bakers, and dove even deeper into her hobby.
Early this year, she received a message on Instagram from a Food Network producer asking if she might be interested in going on Holiday Baking Championship.
“I thought it was a joke,” said Jung, who still doesn’t know exactly how the producer discovered her. “I really didn’t think it was real.”
Jung was put through a series of interviews, and after a few months of waiting as the network figured out its COVID-19 protocol, she was invited to California for filming this summer.
Jung was busy with her job at Health Alliance and taking online classes toward a master’s degree in health administration from George Washington University, but she decided it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
She flew to California, quarantined for two weeks, and dove into life as a TV personality. Most of the other contestants are professional bakers, which put her at a disadvantage in some respects, she knows. But being a home baker has its perks.
“If you’re working in a bakery or a restaurant, you have to bake the same things all the time, whereas I’m a home baker,” said Jung, adding that she’s currently interested in Asian flavors like green tea, matcha, black sesame, soy bean powder, sesame, “I get to bake whatever I want. So I have a little bit of a variety, and maybe that gave me an advantage.”
The show pits 12 bakers against each other as they make two dishes each show, one a smaller pastry and the other a larger dessert. Contestants are given a type of dessert to make and specific ingredients they each must use.
On the first episode, contestants were instructed to make quick bread in the first round of the show, called the “Pre-heat,” and in the second round, called the “Main Heat,” contestants were told to pick from a selection of winter hats and design a cake that resembled it. After each dish, one contestant was eliminated.
As she stood in front of the judges during the first episode, she found herself in a completely unfamiliar position. Instead of simply appreciating the positive qualities of her baked good, they were critically evaluating it.
“I’ve never had professionally-trained pastry chefs tasting and judging my stuff,” Jung said. “The judging takes way longer than the one minute they show on TV. There’s a lot of silence when they’re first putting it into their mouths and they’re actually trying to taste everything that I made. My mind is literally going everywhere because they have no expression on their faces and I have no clue what to think.”
Luckily, the judges gave her mostly positive reviews, enough to move her on to the next show, which airs Monday at 8 p.m. Judge Nancy Fuller said Jung’s apple cinnamon quick bread was one of the “best bites” she’d taken all day. While her cardamom cake with spiced pear yuzu filling didn’t make for the best-looking winter hat cake, judge Duff Goldman remarked that it was “delicious on the inside and not cute on the outside.”
While she couldn’t reveal how far she made it, Jung said she became more comfortable on camera as the show went along. She hopes the show opens up avenues where she can work part time in the culinary field, whether that’s on camera or off. No matter how far she makes it, the show was simply the continuation of a passion that began as a hobby.
“It’s not just food,” she said. “It’s also a form of art, where you can taste and see and use all of your senses to really express.”