Welcome to Cooking Up Change, a series in which BuzzFeed food writers sit down with some of our favorite cooks to talk about how they are using food to ignite change.
In 2017, Vallery Lomas, an attorney living in Harlem, New York City, received an email that would change her life. A casting agent stumbled across her Instagram page and wanted to see if she would be interested in auditioning for the third season of The Great American Baking Show, the American adaptation of the cult-favorite baking competition hailing from the UK, Great British Bake Off. As someone who dreamed of pursuing a career in food, Lomas jumped at the opportunity.
After multiple phone calls and an in-person interview, she was selected as one of the contestants. She watched every episode she could, packed up two suitcases full of her favorite baking tools, and flew to England (where the American version is also shot) for her TV debut. Winning was only part of the equation for Lomas; she was thinking ahead, imagining what she could do with the priceless exposure that would come from competing on national television.
After four grueling weeks of filming, Lomas made it to the final and did, in fact, win. She took home the coveted title of America's Best Amateur Baker and was excited for the world to see her triumphant debut.
After only one episode aired, judge Johnny Iuzzini was accused of sexual misconduct and ABC cancelled the rest of the season. There was no prize money awarded, no winning episode to celebrate, and no cookbook agent knocking on Lomas's door. The only publicity she received was a short video posted to the show's Facebook page condensing an entire season's worth of victories into one quickly edited clip.
BuzzFeed reached out to ABC for comments regarding the network’s decision, and we received the following statement, which is word-for-word the same statement ABC released when the allegations against Iuzzini first came out in 2017: "In light of allegations that recently came to our attention, ABC has ended its relationship with Johnny Iuzzini and will not be airing the remainder of The Great American Baking Show episodes. ABC takes matters such as those described in the allegations very seriously and has come to the conclusion that they violate our standards of conduct."
So what happens when you win one of television's biggest baking competitions but nobody can watch it? Now, a little over a year after ABC decided to pull the season, BuzzFeed sat down with Lomas to discuss the impact the show has had on her life and what she's been working on since then.
First of all, congratulations on winning. I can only imagine how difficult competing on a show like that must be.
Vallery Lomas: It's crazy, because I went in with the intention to do my best, and I was just hoping that would be enough. Going into it I didn't think I had a chance, especially after filming the first episode. Time was up, and I looked around the tent and thought, Oh my gosh, there are people in here that really know how to bake.
Did you always love to bake?
VL: Yes, but I didn’t always recognize the extent of it. I remember baking my grandmother’s recipes with my mom, but that seemed different because it was something we did together. I recently found my old American Girl doll cookbook and I must have been eight or nine at the time, but I had all of these notes on the recipes I liked. And I was like, wow.
I think as we get older, we become more self-aware. I didn’t put all of the pieces together until my last year of law school. It was a really uncertain, turbulent time in my life, and something inside of me just had an impulse to bake.
What was filming like? Is baking in 'The Tent' as pleasant as it seems on television?
VL: Yes and no. It is very pleasant in the sense that there were genuine moments of real camaraderie among the contestants — but that being said, it's a pressure cooker. When we were filming, the next season of The Great British Bake Off was airing. We had the same handlers as they did — it's the same crew and everything. I remember saying to the producers, "They're so calm. Were they not running around and freaking out as much as we are?" And I was informed that they were just as stressed during the challenges as we were. It just tells me that it's all about perspective.
It takes a lot of time out of your personal lives to do it, so you want to do your best. If something doesn't go according to plan, it feels like the end of the world in the sense that you're going home; you're getting eliminated.
When did you first learn about ABC's decision to pull the season? And how did you react to the news?
VL: I was at home. I received a phone call the day before the second night was supposed to air. It was an L.A. area code, so I had a feeling who it might be, and they were like, "ABC has decided to pull the show." As soon as I got off the phone, the news was online. I initially put my lawyer hat on and spent weeks trying to come up with ways that the situation could be made right. When they dumped the photos from the finale on the ABC press website, I knew there would be no reconsidering.
And what about Ayesha Curry and Spice Adams? This was both of their first times hosting a television show — that's a huge opportunity taken away from them, too.
VL: It was a huge loss for them as well. They spent time away from their homes and families and worked the same long hours as everyone else. I think it’s great that ABC invited Spice back to host the most recent season. And I read that Ayesha Curry was going to host a new show for ABC as well. It feels like the network acknowledged that they lost something, and offered them other opportunities. I think us contestants would have felt better if something compensatory were done for us as well.
Did you take time off work to compete? And did you face any financial burdens because of it?
VL: I took five weeks off of work unpaid. It was definitely a sacrifice financially.
And just practicing cost money. They did give us $500 for that, but several of us still had to ask family members to pitch in to help. My thought process was that I wanted to give myself the best chance to win, so I invested in things so I could practice — like using the chocolate I was going to use on the show, because what am I supposed to do? Serve world-class culinary professionals low-quality chocolate?
I kept telling myself, "Give yourself the best chance to win." I saw it as an investment, and I knew it was a risk — but I was betting on myself.
You gave up a lot to be on the show.
VL: Yeah, all of us contestants did. It’s hard to step away from your life for five weeks. You miss out on a lot. I missed my grandmother's one-hundredth birthday while filming, but I knew she would have wanted me to take this opportunity. She passed away in February. Some of her recipes are my most prized — her strawberry delight is probably the first thing I remember baking growing up. I wanted her to see me win. She only got to see the premiere.
Do you still think these sacrifices were worth it?
VL: I do. Because if I had a chance to bet on myself again, I would.
This has been a real life lesson that some things are just out of your control. And it's so funny, because the lawyer in me was always looking for something that could go wrong. I was just really hoping that nothing disrupted filming. When the premiere aired, it was such a relief. It was like this is real; this is happening.
It's no secret that both the food industry and television have a long way to go in terms of inclusiveness. What impact do you think you had on viewers and your peers by being on the show?
VL: Oh gosh, yes. During those short six days, I had a lot of people, a lot of black women especially, tell me, "My daughter loves that you have natural hair — that there's someone that looks like her that she can root for."
That was really touching, because I thought back to my younger days. You do yearn to see yourself in those spaces. You want to know that there really is a seat at the table for you.
What have you been doing since the show came to an end?
VL: I went back to work the day after. I just kept blogging and marketing myself— and that lasted until late spring when I realized I couldn't progress if I stayed at my job. I quit in the middle of summer. Since then I've filmed a segment with Extra Crispy where I made one of the winning desserts that didn't get aired — which was awesome because it was my first time in front of the camera again. After that, someone from Home & Family invited me out to L.A. to shoot a segment with them. It's been kind of a snowball effect. I do one thing, and then get asked to do more. I was also on The Chew and co-hosted a couple of shows on Fox's Top 30.
And let's not forget that you presented at The 2018 James Beard Awards and recently became a board member for The International Association of Culinary Professionals. Those are two of the most influential organizations within the food world.
VL: When I heard that IACP was planning for next year's conference, I was going to reach out and see if there was any way I could be part of it. But they ended up reaching out to me to ask if I would be interested in joining the board.
In regard to The James Beard Awards, I received an email inviting me to present the Outstanding Baker Award during their Chicago awards ceremony. It's so weird because sometimes things happen and it's like, did you dial the right number? I went to Chicago and that was an epic weekend. It was all of these people who I admire — some of whom I had been following for years — all in one place, and I was right there with them. It was really special.
But the thing is, you are one of them.
VL: With the show being canceled, I feel like it happened in a way that didn't sit right with me. That kind of put a fire under me. When I sit back and think about 2018, I'm like Wow, that was an awesome year. I was in the middle of a mess I didn't create, and was able to rise out of it and move onto some pretty kickass things.
So now that you're entering a position of power within the culinary industry, what changes do you want to see within the food world?
VL: I think a reasonable goal would be that food awards reflect what the industry actually looks like. We all know who's doing the work that doesn't get praise. From the farmers, to the back-of-house restaurant employees, to the little league bloggers like myself. It's such a wide range of people that all deserve to be recognized and celebrated.
These stories of bad behavior within the food industry continue to come to light. What advice would you give to people, like yourself, who are paying for the wrongdoings of others?
VL: I mean, being collateral damage is never fun. I would just say, do whatever you can to make the most out of what's happened. When life gives you lemons, make lemon curd.
What can we expect to see from you in the upcoming years?
VL: I'm not going anywhere, and I feel like I'm really just getting started. I feel really, really good about the future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.