Jai Xiong didn't expect to get emotional her first time on a national TV show. But there she was, in front of the cameras on the Food Network's "Spring Baking Championship," getting a little choked up — and not about her exquisite cakes.
Xiong is a Le Cordon Bleu graduate, accomplished pastry chef at hotels and country clubs, former cottage baker and now owner of her own St. Paul-based French-Korean bakery, Amour Patisserie (launched in 2021). She spoke of the hurdles to get to where she is now: hearing loss, which started when she was in kindergarten; her struggle to be confident in her gift for baking and cake decorating; and how others' ideas about her disability led them to underestimate her talent.
"It's emotional to talk about," she told host Jesse Palmer during the ninth season premiere, on March 6. "I struggle a lot with being myself and just making sure that nobody judges me for my hearing."
Instead, Xiong, 28, was judged purely for her baking, winning the first two challenges of the season and bringing her a couple of steps closer to the grand prize of $25,000. Only two weeks into the championship, Xiong has positioned herself as the baker to beat.
The first task was to make a cake that represented springtime and the special people with whom the bakers share their love of the season. For Xiong, it was all about family. Creating a lemon cake with strawberry mousse, and an almost 3-D field of buttercream wildflowers, she sailed to the top spot by telling the story of her family's love of walking in nature and taking photos.
Among the raves for Xiong's cake was from judge Nancy Fuller, who said, "You can just see that your talent is just embraced by the love of what you do."
She wowed the judges again the following week in a challenge to make a spicy dessert. Xiong used that opportunity to showcase flavors from her Hmong culture, sprinkling ancho chile on top of passionfruit for a coconut tart that led judge Duff Goldman to exclaim, "Shazam!"
That win was especially significant to Xiong, of Savage. "Sharing a part of my culture with the judges to win this, it means so much to me," she said.
As she advances in the competition, which was filmed in Nashville last summer, Xiong spoke to the Star Tribune about how she landed on the show, what it was like to open up on TV, and where the exposure may take her next. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you wind up on the show?
A: I received an email from them and I did not respond until a month or so later. I honestly wasn't thinking about being in the competition because there was a lot of things going on and I felt like I needed more time. But after talking it over multiple times with my friends and family, I decided I don't have anything to lose, and it'll be a really fun and challenging experience for myself. So I decided to take a leap and applied.
Q: What went through your mind when you found out you were cast?
A: I did not think I was going to get it because I was so nervous when I was in my interview with them. Like, oh my gosh, I think I blew it. And then when they sent me an email, that was like, Hey, you're in, you got this, I went, "Is this really happening?" I had to pinch myself and confirm, this is not a dream. I'm awake.
Q: Once you got to filming, what was it like to bake under pressure?
A: To be honest, I bake under pressure all the time. But baking under pressure in front of a camera, that's completely different. A lot of that has to do with the mental game that goes on with it, and just knowing that you're not just baking for somebody, but you're getting compared to all the contestants, too. You just have to not get intimidated and do the work you know best.
Q: How did you approach your bakes for the first challenges?
A: For me, my baking philosophy is baking with love. Everything that you make just turns out so much better because you're putting in your dedication, you're putting in your knowledge, your expertise, the technique that you have learned and that you have spent hours on into your product. It's making sure that what you're making, you put everything and all of your heart into it.
Q: You spoke in the episode about the hurdles you had overcome to get to where you are now. What are some of those hurdles?
A: A lot of the hurdles I had to go through were getting that constant comparison. It's been really hard to be the advocate that I need to make sure people aren't underestimating me. I'm not young now, but I was really young when I started, so a lot of that comes with 'Oh, is she good enough?' And then with my hearing, people think, 'Well, she has a disability, so she might not be capable enough to do all of that.' And then going through all the constant, toxic work culture, just because I love baking, I love what I do.
Q: What is it like to share that with a national audience?
A: I was really nervous to talk about all that. I've never really talked about it out loud to people, never mind on national TV. So I was overcome with a huge amount of emotion, and just talking to Jesse really made it seem so real. I'm now putting a voice to everything I've been going through. It's just not an internal struggle anymore. Now I'm taking a sample of my own experiences, what I've been through, and letting people know that despite all of this, I'm standing strong.
Q: What goes on in your mind when you are decorating cakes?
A: I get lost in decorating all the time. When I start decorating cakes, it's like the whole entire world just melts away and all I see in front of me is this beautiful blank slate — that I can turn it into anything. It is an artistic expression of everything that I stand for. That, to me, is just so peaceful. I think it's just because it centers me and is an escape in this busy, chaotic world.
Q: The season has only just begun, but how do you expect being on this show is going to affect your career?
A: My notifications have blown up. I know I'm going to get really busy soon. I am excited about that but I'm definitely nervous as well. It's a mixture of emotions, not believing that this is actually happening, but at the same time, this is exactly what I wanted and it's now happening.
Q: Are you ready for all the cake orders you're going to get?
A: Oh, my goodness, I want to say yes, but at the same time, not really!
Q: Anything else you want to share?
A: I love being on this show. It is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I've learned so much from it. If anybody is ever thinking about going on a show, even if you feel like you're not ready — because I definitely did not feel ready — just do it. You'll have so much fun, the connections that you make and the memories that you create, it's extraordinary.
Watch Jai Xiong
New episodes of "Spring Baking Championship" air Mondays at 7 p.m. on the Food Network and stream on foodnetwork.com and Discovery Plus.
Amour Patisserie does not have a storefront, but you can order Xiong's cakes online at amourpatisseriemn.com or follow her on Instagram @amourpatisseriemn.