Being on a Food Network baking show is a baker’s ultimate dream. It’s a chance to show the world your talent and skill, and how you can create beautifully delicious masterpieces under stressful time constraints. Jonah Gershon from West Hartford, Connecticut is one of the lucky, extraordinary bakers. At 20 years old, he is the youngest contestant to ever appear on “Christmas Cookie Challenge” — and he’s Jewish!
Though competing against professionals, Jonah’s creations are on their level. Just look at a few highlights from his resume: He’s taught virtual baking classes, baked treats for events from baby showers to graduations to bat mitzvahs, worked as head of pastry production at a bakery — and he even ran a small sourdough delivery business called “love, bread” at the height of the pandemic! It is now his turn to share his passion with baking’s biggest audience.
Hey Alma chatted with Jonah about his love of baking, how he prepared for Food Network and what it’s like to be a Jewish baker on a Christmas show.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
Could you tell me about your Jewish identity and background?
I grew up in West Hartford, which has a fairly large Jewish population. I went to Jewish day school and grew up in a kosher home. I’ve always been really involved in the Jewish community with many Jewish friends. We celebrate all the holidays. It’s been a big part of my life, and I’m still really involved in the Jewish community in college at Cornell. I guess that’s part of the irony in being on “Christmas Cookie Challenge.” It felt kind of weird seeing my Orthodox synagogue sending out emails inviting people to watch me on a Christmas show.
How did you discover your love of baking?
As a child, I was always really in love with food. At restaurants, I would ask for the adult menu. I was also really creative. Cooking and baking kind of seemed like the best of both worlds — it was both food and a culinary art. I was able to find it as an outlet of creativity in expressing myself through food and trying new combinations. It really excited me. There is also the aspect of hospitality, as I really like to host people and make others happy. I would bring food to events, like my swim meets and races, and seeing people so happy with the results of my baking moved me to keep doing it.
I had baked for others a lot before, so I started my sourdough business “love, bread” because of my love of baking — especially baking sourdough — and because I wanted to pass the time during my long, COVID-extended winter break. 23 people reached out via Facebook, and I baked a loaf of bread and a treat for each person and delivered it to their home. This was during the heart of the pandemic, and I could tell people were really looking forward to their delivery each week. We were able to create a connection in a time when it was really difficult. I was working over 40 hours a week to make bread — I only have one stand mixer! I definitely learned what it is like to be a full-time baker.
What inspired you to audition for the show?
I didn’t directly apply! A company that recruits for Food Network reached out to me two years ago through Instagram direct messaging about the “Christmas Cookie Challenge.” You know, when you get a DM on Instagram from someone telling you to apply to this Food Network show, you think it’s a scam. That’s what I thought for the first few days, but I figured I should just text him back to see what would happen. It then seemed a bit more serious, but I was still wary. I went through one interview and never heard back, so I forgot about it and moved on.
This past January, I received another similar message on Instagram inviting me to apply again to “Christmas Cookie Challenge.” I figured I had already done this and never heard back, but they wanted me to try again. This time, I did the first interview and then two more. I was actually out picking up pizza when they called me telling me I would be on the Food Network. It was crazy! So, I never actually directly auditioned. I guess if you ever get a DM on Instagram telling you to apply to Food Network, it’s legit.
What was the most challenging and rewarding part of this experience?
The most challenging part was everything leading up to being on the show. A bit of background: I love baking, but I honestly hate decorating cookies. The first time the recruiter asked me to apply, I’d never really done it before, and I only practiced it for the interview. Before the second time they asked me, I’d only done it like two or three more times, making 100 baby rattle cookies for a baby shower and 250 personalized tennis ball cookies for a bat mitzvah. I realized I don’t really like decorating cookies because they are not always edible and they take so much time. I’d rather just bake something that tastes good — make a nice cake — than spend hours decorating a cookie. It was so draining that I never wanted to decorate that many cookies again.
But then they contacted me to be on the show. So, my biggest fear was going on this show having only decorated cookies a few times before. I didn’t want to look like a total fool. I tried to balance practicing decorating in my college dorm kitchen with studying for all my classes. It was stressful!
The most rewarding part of the show was just being there. I had an amazing time! I am 20 years old and the youngest person to ever be on “Christmas Cookie Challenge.” The four other contestants with me are all professional cookie decorators and do this every single day. I knew going in just to have a positive attitude and have a blast in this kitchen on a nationally-watched TV show. It was also great getting to know everyone on the show. I feel like I should have been more stressed, but I really just had a great time taking full advantage of the opportunity to be in this kitchen and have this experience.
What is it like being a Jewish baker on a Christmas show?
Through the entire interview process, I mentioned that I’m Jewish and don’t celebrate Christmas, and they’d always bring up that they didn’t have a religious affiliation requirement to be on the show. I thought it would prevent me from being on “Christmas Cookie Challenge,” but it didn’t. They would ask me about my Christmas traditions and how I celebrate, and I would just affirm what they said, like “yeah, I celebrate with friends.” I’m not sure if I’m the only Jewish person to be on this show, but it was definitely a weird experience. When we got there, I told the other contestants I had never celebrated Christmas in my life, but I was able to learn some new traditions. The themes of the cookies were obviously all Christmas related, and I didn’t really know what Christmas was besides Santa, red and green, so that’s the theme I went with.
I did consider making something Hanukkah-themed on “Christmas Cookie Challenge” and wearing a Hanukkah sweater. Unfortunately, it didn’t end up working out as I ended up on a more Christmas-focused episode — some of them are more generally winter-themed. I’ve never tried making Hanukkah cookies before, but I have made sufganiyot (Hanukkah jelly donuts) a few times.
Do you have a favorite Jewish dessert and/or meal to make?
I really love challah and matzah ball soup. The classics of Jewish food are just so good, and they remind me of my childhood.
Be sure to check out Jonah’s episode of “Christmas Cookie Challenge” on Sunday, December 4th at 8:00 PM EST. You can also see his cooking and baking creations on Instagram.