The Hard Rock’s pastry chef wins a reality TV crown

Chef Alon shows his Genius

click to enlarge HAVE PASTRY TUBE, WILL TRAVEL: Alon Gontowski in action. - Food Network
Food Network
HAVE PASTRY TUBE, WILL TRAVEL: Alon Gontowski in action.

If a dessert-inspired competition gives you a sugar rush, Food Network’s Sweet Genius will definitely satisfy your sweet tooth. It's a competition series in which four pastry chefs from around the U.S. battle it out through three rounds of challenges, all judged by the ultimate “sweet genius,” master pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel.

This week's episode brings a win to Tampa Bay: the $10,000 "sweet genius" prize goes to Alon Gontowski, lead pastry chef at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa. (Watch it Thurs., April 12 at 11 p.m. and Sat., April 14 at 3 p.m.)

Each episode of Sweet Genius is enough to kick your sweets craving into overload, but Thursday’s show is especially sweet because of Gontowski. Chef Alon is a New Jersey native who received his culinary degree from renowned culinary institution Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. Most recently, he was a pastry chef at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut, before heading south and working at Seminole Hard Rock in Tampa for the last five years.

In this week’s episode, "Electrifying Genius," the contestants are “struck by a bolt of inspiration.” First, they need to incorporate pasta and spicy candy into their chocolate creations. Next, in the candy competition, mystery ingredients must be integrated into an origami-inspired challenge. Finally, Ben-Israel motivates them to create cakes that honor his own personal inspiration. Chef Alon rises to the occasion in winning fashion.

I interviewed Chef Alon via email, and he gave me the inside scoop on what it’s like to compete on a reality TV show.

CL: How did you end up on Sweet Genius?

Chef Alon: With Food Network being my favorite channel to watch, I grew to love Sweet Genius during its first season. Seminole Hard Rock’s public relations manager, Gina Morales, and I spoke about getting me on the show, so she got me an interview.

Was this your first time competing on TV?

Yes, but in 1986, I competed in an American Culinary Federation pastry competition, and took the silver prize for my individual dessert display.

Were any of the other chefs hotel pastry chefs?

They were all experienced in cake and pastries. I believe some may have their own businesses and others were from hotels or restaurants.

What was the experience of being on Sweet Genius like?

It was a total adrenaline rush. I’m very energetic, so the excitement of a Food Network competition took me to the next level. The entire experience was like a roller coaster.

What was it like meeting Ron Ben-Israel?

The Ben-Israel from last season was much more secretive and mysterious. And he is known for that intense stare! At times we had a stare-down which would end with us both laughing hysterically. This season he is a bit more supportive. He’s still direct in his likes and dislikes, but it seems that he is loosening up a bit. I never knew where I stood with my creations, but in the end we cultivated an amazing new friendship.

What types of sweets were you asked to create?

We had three items to prepare: something chocolate, a candy and a cake. The cake was the toughest because Ben-Israel is an astounding leader and cake expert. No pressure there!

What is your favorite type of dessert to make?

Ice cream. Some examples would be goat cheese, chocolate chipotle and caramel apple, to name a few.

What are some of your techniques?

Old School with a touch of contemporary. Every chef should have a foundation of experience to build upon, adding new and current flavor profiles to create a sweet memory.

For more with Chef Alon, check out cltampa.com/food for his Fat Elvis Chocolate Bread Pudding recipe.

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