Denver Baker Thoa Nguyen Showed Her Skills on Food Network's Holiday Baking Championship | Westword

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Banh & Butter Owner Showed Her Skills on Food Network's Holiday Baking Championship

“I came in to really try to represent Colorado."
Thoa Nguyen made it to the finale of Holiday Baking Championship.
Thoa Nguyen made it to the finale of Holiday Baking Championship. Food Network
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That’s a wrap for season ten of Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship, which featured competitor Thoa Nguyen, owner of Banh & Butter Bakery in Aurora.

After eight weeks of creating showstopping holiday bakes, including a turkey-shaped pistachio dome and a larger-than-life Ferrero Rocher pastry ornament, Nguyen appeared in the final episode of the series, which aired on December 19. While she won the Pre-Heat challenge with her peppermint bark macaron wreath, she ultimately lost the championship title to Texas baker Ashley Landerman.

Nguyen’s final bake was a Penguin Holiday Party complete with a hand-painted mountainscape, cute penguins acting out scenes, and a multi-tiered spiced caramel apple cake, which the judges criticized for not packing enough of a flavor punch. “I’m not going to lie; I feel really disappointed," Nguyen says. "Being that close to winning it, it was heartbreaking.”  But despite missing the win, she is proud of her efforts throughout the series.

Before opening Banh & Butter in 2022, Nguyen and her sisters worked at the popular New Saigon Vietnamese restaurant, which her parents owned until 2017. “You kind of have this double identity growing up, balancing school with the family business,” she explains. “Although parents tell you that it’s important to make sure you have a great education, when you’re in the moment and it’s a busy Friday, Saturday, Sunday night, the priority is the business.”
click to enlarge white brick storefront
Banh & Butter Bakery opened on East Colfax in 2022.
Linnea Covington
From an early age, Nguyen knew she would forge her own path, “and for me, it was definitely not in culinary," she says. "It wasn’t even pastry. I was going into chiropractic."

That is, until her senior year humanities teacher, Mr. Sherman, sparked an epiphany. “One of his teachings was about doing what you want to do and not what society wants you to do,” Nguyen remembers. With only two months to go before graduation, she changed her life plans to pursue pastry. She attended Johnson & Wales University and went to France to study in a pastry program there. When she returned to Colorado, her parents had built her a bakery attached to the restaurant as a welcome-home gift.

While the gesture was supportive and sweet, the realities of the job didn’t allow Nguyen to realize her passion for pastry. At the time, her parents' banh mi sandwiches had become extremely popular. “I felt like I needed assistance. I needed help, but the savory side was more of a focus point,” Nguyen says. “I started to just lose my passion for pastry working at the family business."

So in 2018, she decided to strike out on her own, launching a dessert pastry catering business. She remembers one weekend when “I just overworked myself, and I was just kind of desperate to make money to pay the bills. I sat down at my dining room table at 3 a.m., and I [hadn’t] slept for three days straight because I was doing orders and sleeping in between bake times. I just sat there and just started crying, and I was just upset because how did I get to this point?”

After a year, she shut down the catering business and took a bakery team leader role at Whole Foods. She enjoyed the mentorship aspect of the role, which led to a remote pastry instructor position at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder. There she was surrounded by young, passionate students hungry to make their mark on the world; it inspired her and rekindled her desire to open her own shop.

Now, at Banh & Butter, she creates products that showcase her traditional French techniques while using Asian ingredients and flavors in popular items such as strawberry croissants and crepe cakes.
click to enlarge Woman holding a pastry bag
Thoa Nguyen combines her Vietnamese heritage and her French pastry skills to create delicious baked goods.
Food Network
Last December, she posted a photo of a popular holiday dessert, a Yule log, and decided to experiment with boosting the post for $5 on Instagram. A week later, a casting agent phoned the bakery and asked Nguyen if she would be interested in appearing on Holiday Baking Championship. “And I was like, I am absolutely interested. I’m not going to turn this down,” she recalls.

Nguyen went through multiple interviews to evaluate her public-speaking skills, her personality, and her ability to bake on a timeline, ultimately landing a spot on the show, which was filmed this spring in California.

Each episode of Holiday Baking Championship is separated into two parts: a Pre-Heat and a Main Heat. For both, contestants are surprised with a holiday-themed bake, which Nguyen confirms is a complete and total surprise for all the bakers. Contestants are provided with ingredients, equipment, and a deadline to complete the prompt. During the Main Heat, the host throws in a twist such as needing to use a specific technique or ingredient.

There are three judges: Duff Goldman, Nancy Fuller and Carla Hall. The winner of the Pre-Heat is awarded an advantage (such as choosing their cake flavor), and the winner of the entire competition is awarded $25,000.

There is a confessional camera, but the vibes on Holiday Baking Championship are closer to Great British Bake-Off than Chopped. All of the contestants come off as genuinely likable, and they often help each other out. There’s a lot of downtime in the filming schedule, which means the contestants have had ample time to bond. “Every day is very scheduled out. It’s extremely well-organized, [but we always had] time between interviews and baking, and that was the time we got to really sit with other contestants to get to know them and become really good friends,” says Nguyen. Many of the contestants have even come to Colorado to visit Nguyen and Banh & Butter since filming wrapped.

The support is invaluable as the contestants go through an emotional roller coaster week to week. Nguyen’s lowest moment in the process happened the first week. In a bid to impress the judges, she went all out in decorating her chocolate-cranberry Swiss Roll Yule log, but the judges said her flavor combination clashed, which put her in the bottom two. “It was the longest thirty seconds of my life,” she remembers. “[Food Network] surprisingly didn’t show as much emotion on that first episode as I actually felt. I was ugly-crying. I was a mess."
click to enlarge A woman standing and holding pastry boxes
Thoa Nguyen inside Banh & Butter.
Linnea Covington
Nguyen made it through episode one, but “I felt like that created this first impression to viewers that I was the weakest link, and I think that followed me through, even though I was doing well,” she says. But what viewers saw on television is “who I am. And I made mistakes, and I showed that vulnerability for people to see on national television. ... I’ll do anything to continue to put the name and the business out there so that I can ensure my team’s livelihood and their job security.”

Her favorite bakes from the show were her peppermint bark macarons and puff pastry cinnamon roll pull-apart Christmas tree. “At the bakery, we specialize in laminated doughs, which include puff pastry and croissants. If I wasn’t going to do that one right, then that was big trouble with my team,” laughs Nguyen. “And for macarons, it’s one of the hardest things to make. Being a French-trained pastry chef, I better have gotten that right, too.”

Her bakes deliberately drew inspiration from Colorado’s landscape. “I came in to really try to represent Colorado," she says. “I just really wanted to do Colorado really proud. Most of my bakes were all reflections of Colorado, like leaves and aspens and Breckenridge and the mountains.”

Nguyen had plans for the $25,000 she hoped to win, including purchasing a catering van. But while she didn't ultimately win, the publicity has already helped grow Banh & Butter’s customer base. “Being on local news stations and local media, I think Colorado is just such a local state that I feel like there’s more impact with the local media attention,” she says.

For the last two weeks, Banh & Butter has been selling out, and many fans have asked for selfies with Nguyen, though being a local celebrity hasn’t fazed her. “My parents are just really well known within the Asian community and the Vietnamese community, so that for me, I always felt like we were always under some type of light,” she explains. “Being on television now, it's just to a bigger community, and it hasn't changed me in any way, I just hope that I can really leverage this to my advantage to continue to grow the business.”
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