Genesis Winter has taken amateur baking in Chicago to a whole new level. She is the founder and organizer of Chicago’s Best Baker Contest on July 22 at 2 pm at the Wilson Abbey. Click here to purchase “tastings” in advance. All proceeds support CCO!
Genesis, thank you for creating a delicious, fun, and philanthropic event. And thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Can you give us a quick overview of the Chicago’s Best Baker Contest?
Chicago’s Best Baker is the only amateur baking competition in Chicago. On event day, bakers come to the Wilson Abbey in the early morning to drop off their bakes. Then the judges taste each bake before the event officially begins. They choose Chicago’s Best Baker and then the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place in each of the seven categories: bread, pastry, cake, cookie, pie, international, and gluten-free. Then, we open the doors for the public to admire the magnificent display of baked goods.
It’s exciting to see compelling flavor combinations or outrageous ingredients that taste great together. After that, the winners are recognized and celebrated at the Award Ceremony. Finally, we have the tastings, which is the thrilling part! Those of us who love baking shows don’t have to watch others eat and imagine the “light sponge” or the “citrus punch of flavor.” We can indulge in the winning bakes! And it’s guilt-free because it’s all for a good cause.
Tell us about the origins of the event. Where did this idea come from?
I love the Great British Baking Show, although my true inspiration came from state or county fairs. I wanted to offer a place where locals could compete with other locals and share food. It’s for amateurs. For many competitors, this is the first time they are publicly declaring themselves a “baker.” Even though they are bakers, they will get recognition if they win! It attracts people who love to bake at home. So far this year, we have 180 items in the competition from 70 bakers. All the proceeds for the event go to Cornerstone Community Outreach.
Chicago’s Best Baker Contest is a fun fundraising event. It’s not a fundraising event where you spend $95 to sit at a table, listen to loud music, and eat dry chicken. Spend $10 and try 40 cakes! If you love pie and only pie, get the pie pass for $10. At this time, we have 33 pies entered in the competition. People move around the space, selecting their bakes and genuinely connecting. Each contest year, as I walked around, I could hear people having great conversations, laughing, tasting, and genuinely enjoying themselves. I love that aspect of it. It’s a way to create community while raising money for Cornerstone.
Do you have a personal connection with Cornerstone?
When I was a kid, Chicago didn’t have a lot of homeless services. My parents were part of a mission organization based in Uptown. I remember one day, the building beside ours caught on fire, and suddenly the people who lived there had nowhere to go. They ended up staying in our dining room. Back then, Uptown was a very impoverished neighborhood. I mean, abandoned buildings, burned-out cars, open fire hydrants, you get the idea. Early on, city workers would pick up people who were homeless and drop them off to stay in our dining room. Cornerstone Shelter started in our home. I witnessed the need and desperation even as a kid.
Our dining room was ok as a short-term solution but we quickly realized that we needed a facility and staff that could really help people long-term. That was the beginning of Cornerstone Community Outreach. The very first shelter was for women with children. Since then, it has grown and grown. Today, Cornerstone has two family shelters, a shelter for men and a shelter for women. There is always a need for shelter.
Over the years, I have volunteered within the programs, distributed food bags to our neighbors, wrapped and given out Christmas presents. You name it! My husband has worked there for over 25 years. He’s the Executive Director.
It’s inspiring that this event allows you to bake a cake, bring it to the competition, and help people in poverty and experiencing homelessness. I am deeply aware of the need and glad to be part of fundraising for such an important cause.
Have you learned any valuable lessons from organizing the event?
The first year, we only had three judges and over 140 items for them to taste! By the end, they were as sick as dogs. God bless them! It was terrible! They did a great job, but that was rough! After that, I realized I needed a lot of judges! I’ve been in contact with well-known bakeries in Chicago and baking schools. These judges are highly trained and fantastic bakers. This year, I have ten judges. I’d love to have more because this is a lot of food to get through.
How does the judging work?
The judging is completely blind. The bakers drop off their bakes and each item is assigned a number. No name is on the label. After the bakers leave, the judges enter and start tasting everything. First, we judge the Best Baker category. Each competitor hoping to be named Best Baker should bring 5 – 7 baked goods from the different categories. Last time, the winner of Chicago’s Best Baker did not take 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place in any of the individual categories but her grouping was strong. All 7 of her bakes were satisfactory to outstanding. A person could compete for Best Baker with seven bakes but two may be terrible and five may be fabulous. Those two bad bakes could make them ineligible for the Best Baker.
Once the judges select the Best Baker, all those bakes are placed in the appropriate category, bread with the breads, pies with the pies, etc. Then, those bakes get rejudged. The winners are announced 1st, 2nd, 3rd place in each of the seven categories.
What are some bakes that really surprised you?
Last time, the 1st place winner was Kevin Rak, whose Belgian waffles were so stunning that he beat out a table just loaded with unusual and delicious items- one of which was a pie-sized sausage roll made with homemade sausage by a British competitor and some European-style cheesecakes. I mean, those waffles were a surprise! The judges just melted when they tasted them.
We’ve had delicious gluten-free entries such as apple tart (which won first place), a massive flourless chocolate cake with berries and cream, a tomato pie, and gluten-free bread that was surprisingly good.
The Chicago’s Best Baker Contest has so many benefits. Can you think of any that haven’t been mentioned?
Unless a person goes to school for baking and enters a professional competition, they are unlikely to get recognition for their baking skills. The Chicago’s Best Baker Contest wants to bring a bit of public appreciation to private bakers. Do you think your angel food cake is amazing? Well, so do all these other people!
Eating is its reward. Bakers love to feed people. There is something so beautiful about sharing food with strangers and having them be excited because your cookies are fantastic. It is very fulfilling.
Can bakers still register?
People who wish to register for the competition can still do so over the next few weeks. Registration will end about one week before the event. I hope to see you there!
Genesis, Thanks for creating and sustaining this exceptional event! We’re grateful to learn more about Chicago’s Best Baker Contest. Your creativity and generosity have meant so much to the amateur baking community and people experiencing homelessness.
Click here to register at Chicago’s Best Baker Contest.