STAFFORD TOWNSHIP - Jess Bartlett never had any formal training in cooking and baking. But customer reaction to her specialty cupcake business here gave her the confidence to try her talents on the national stage.
Bartlett and her assistant, Allie Sillitoe, appear tonight on the Food Network competition "Cupcake Wars." And while Bartlett is banned from revealing how her team did in the sweet smackdown, she makes it clear she thought the whole experience was a blast.
"It was fun, but it was stressful. It's intense," Bartlett said. "It's funny, you sit back in your living room watching the show and say 'I can do that,' but then you get out there and it's really serious."
Bartlett has been in the cupcake business for close to two years. She opened her shop, Cake That!, on Bay Avenue in the Manahawkin section of town on Memorial Day weekend 2011. She also operates a kiosk on the Ocean City Boardwalk located near the Ocean City Music Pier.
Prior to that, the 34-year-old mother of two worked as a professional makeup artist.
"I have been a kitchen magician for years and years - just playing around and seeing what I could make," Bartlett said. "Makeup made me money, but I wanted to follow my dream and see what I could do."
Bartlett's shop soon established a reputation for its tasty and unusual creations.
"Everyone does normal things, so how do you set yourself apart? We do these crazy things. People scratch their heads, but then they try it and they come back," she said.
Sure, the shop offers plain vanilla cupcakes, but they sit alongside offerings such as The Irish Car Bomb (made with Irish whiskey, Guinness stout and Baileys Irish Cream) and the Elvis (made with bananas, peanut butter and bacon).
"It's pretty fierce and it's pretty awesome," Bartlett said of her Kingly creation. "Anything with bacon tastes great. We also make a maple bacon donut, which flies off the shelves."
Bartlett said she and her six-member staff usually start off with an idea for a new flavor and then work to perfect it.
"It's all trial-and-error. We go into the test kitchen until we get it right." she said.
It was probably her reputation for the unusual that prompted a customer to recommend Bartlett take a shot at "Cupcake Wars." It was good advice. She created the required two-minute audition video and posted it on YouTube on a Saturday night. By Monday morning, producers from the Food Network were calling. In July, she and Sillitoe headed to California for the competition.
Going up against three other teams of bakers, the Cake That! team had to create confections that could be served at a party at the San Diego Zoo. In three rounds of competition, the contestants were given ingredients and required first to bake one cupcake, then three, then 1,000. The winning team receives $10,000.
"There were some exotic ingredients - things I had never worked with before and things you would never expect to be in a cupcake. It was definitely a challenge," Bartlett said. "The New Jersey shore has never been represented there. We went in there and we represented it pretty well."
Like many at the New Jersey shore, Bartlett has seen life change dramatically in the months since she recorded the "Cupcake Wars" episode.
Her home in the Mystic Islands section of Little Egg Harbor was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Now she, husband Bob and their family are living in a townhouse.
Bartlett is hoping her appearance on "Cupcake Wars" can help her give back a little to the storm-damaged community. She's created a Hurricane Sandy cupcake that she'll unveil during a private viewing party at her shop tonight. A dollar from each cupcake sold will go to hurricane relief efforts, she said.
And while Bartlett hopes her appearance on the Food Network show raises awareness for her shop and the area, she's in no rush to enter another cooking competition.
"Would I do it again? Nope - it's one and done. I got my hour of fame," she said.
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
657 Bay Ave., Stafford Township
Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, 7 a.m. to
8 p.m. weekends Boardwalk kiosk in Ocean City opens at the end of April.