Battle of the Bakers

Regional pastry chefs to compete against each other in the Valley Chef Showdown Bake-Off at The Historic McFarland House in March.

by Meghan Burket, Platinum PR

Last fall, The Historic McFarland House wowed us with the debut of the Valley Chef Showdown, a culinary cook-off styled after nationally televised cooking competitions like “Top Chef” and “Chopped.” The sizzling three-round competition was held at the downtown Martinsburg wedding and special-event venue in September. Chef ML Carroll, owner of Canapés Catering in Frederick, Md., emerged victorious over runners-up Chef Ed Matthews, owner of One Block West in Winchester, Va., and Chef Alyson Zimmerman, then-executive chef at Domestic in Shepherdstown, W.Va., to become the first-ever Valley Chef Showdown Champion.

In March, the Valley Chef Showdown is returning, but this time, the pie’s the limit. Brad Spates, executive chef at The Historic McFarland House, has announced the next showdown will be a bake-off pitting some of the region’s top pastry chefs against each other. The competition will take place from 2 to 5 p.m., March 7 at The Historic McFarland House.

Chef Spates, who’s no stranger to cooking in culinary competitions, couldn’t be happier that The Historic McFarland House is hosting the event. “I absolutely love baking,” he says. “Pastry is where my interest in the culinary arts began so I’m really looking forward to this event.”

A Culinary Competition of a Sweeter Flavor

Baking isn’t an improvised art, according to Chef Spates. It’s a calculated science. It’s all about the preparation work. Unlike last year’s Valley Chef Showdown, where chefs were challenged to chop, season and cook nearly everything from start to finish right in front of the audience, the competitors will be baking their cakes before the competition actually starts.

Since the cakes will already be baked, the contest really kicks off when the competitors begin the process of stacking and decorating their cakes. Attendees will get to watch with bated breath as the bakers move their masterpieces from preparation area to display area, a challenge in itself. At that point, they’ll have two hours to decorate their cakes to perfection while keeping in mind the following rules:

  • Cakes must have a spring theme.
  • Creations must be three tiers or higher.
  • Cakes may not be pre-stacked.
  • Any type of fondant, pastillage, marzipan, pulled-sugar or frosting work must be done during the competition.
  • Contestants’ creations will be judged on appearance, taste and skill, according to Chef Spates.

Rising to the Occasion

While the process of choosing competitors was still under way at the time of this writing, Chef Spates says two local pastry chefs have been selected to compete in the Valley Chef Showdown Bake-Off so far. Additional competitors will be announced as they are selected.

Christal Miller, Sweet Inspirations Bakery

Christal Miller, owner of Sweet Inspirations Bakery in Martinsburg, is a self-taught cake artist who’s been decorating cakes for 18 years. She opened Sweet Inspirations in 2003 and has been providing Martinsburg with fresh-baked goodies ever since.

Miller may not have a traditional culinary background, but she has always recognized her artistic capabilities. Her interest in cake decorating was sparked during a 4- H project in her youth. “I’ve always been an artist,” she says. “I was always drawing and painting, so it was an easy transition to cakes.” Recognizing her love for art inspired her to become involved in an industry where she could do what she loved and earn a living.

Over the years, Miller has perfected her art. She specializes in decorating with buttercream. “A lot of people these days have jumped on the fondant train and put away a lot of those basic techniques,” she says. “But I’m able to take the old school buttercream and do a lot with it that most people think can only be done with fondant.” In addition to the appearance of her cakes, Miller also focuses on taste. “It needs to taste as good as it looks,” she says. “In the end, if you can’t eat it, it’s kind of missing the point.”

There’s no doubt that Miller has some surprises up her sleeve for the audience at the Valley Chef Showdown Bake-Off. “My style tends to be a bit bold and big,” she says. “I tend to lean toward the fantasy cakes, so it will probably fantasy related.”

Miller says she’s also eager for attendees to see the complexity of cake decorating in action. “A lot of what we see on TV is edited, so we can have the misconception that cake decorating is easy when it’s actually time consuming and difficult,” she says. “I hope by people seeing it done live, they will gain an appreciation for the art.”

Learn more about Miller and Sweet Inspirations Bakery online at

Shannon Spiker-Torres, Frosted Fantasies

Shannon Spiker-Torres is a self proclaimed cake diva who owns Frosted Fantasies, a boutique-style bakery based in Martinsburg. Since 2011, Spiker-Torres, on the side of her full-time job as a legal instruments examiner for the Department of Homeland Security/U.S. Coast Guard, has specialized in custom cake art and 3D fondant cakes. Spiker-Torres makes each cake unique to each clients’ specific requests.

Spiker-Torres’ interest in cake decorating began after taking her first class on the subject at Michaels craft store years ago. It wasn’t long, though, before she started teaching the classes herself. Since then, her passion for baking has kept rising. Spiker-Torres has learned from professionals like Susan Carberry and Wayne Steinkopf, whose work has been featured on TV shows like TLC’s “Ultimate Cake Off” and “Fabulous Cakes.” And her learning hasn’t stopped there. “Every year I take a new class with a leading sugar artist in the industry, which keeps me up to date on new ideas and style,” she says.

“It’s easy to get stagnant in the cake world because it’s constantly changing, so it’s important to keep up with what’s going on around the world and new techniques.” The audience at the Valley Chef Showdown Bake-Off can definitely expect something unique from Spiker-Torres. “My style is creating something that doesn’t look like a cake,” she says. “It’s more of a centerpiece on the table with neat and clean lines. And I love to use bright colors.”

Spiker-Torres admits that decorating under pressure and a time limit could be a challenge for her. “It’s usually just me in the kitchen, so this will be a new adventure,” she says. “Also, my cake designs normally take 4 to 6 hours at the very least, so designing something beautiful in half the time will be an exciting challenge for me.”

Despite the challenges, Spiker-Torres says she’s looking forward to meeting other pastry chefs and cake artists who share her enthusiasm for cake decorating at the competition. “As an artist, I constantly look for new challenges, so I am excited for this opportunity to share my art with others,” she says. Learn more about Frosted Fantasies online at

Even More Tasty Fun

Watching the competitors in action isn’t the only highlight of this baking-themed bash. While the artisans prepare their cakes from 2 to 4 p.m., attendees will have plenty of sweet treats and activities to keep them occupied. The Historic McFarland House will be providing dessert appetizers like petit fours, cookies, brownies, pastries, cupcakes and, of course, the event venue’s famous Hot Damn Donuts, so let the sugar rush commence! Attendees also will be able to browse wares on display from local vendors and enjoy several exhibitions and demonstrations by local culinary professionals.

Steve Weiss, an accomplished chef and current chef instructor and program coordinator at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College in Martinsburg, will be hosting a live pulled sugar demonstration. There also will be a hands-on cupcake decorating class in The Historic McFarland House ballroom throughout the day.

Who Takes the Cake?

At 4 p.m., the competitors will have to put their pastry bags and decorating tools down and put their fates in the hands of the audience and guest judges, Chef ML Carroll and Chef Steve Weiss. Audience members will judge cakes based on appearance, while the judges will judge the cakes based on appearance as well as taste and skill.

After the judges have sampled the cakes, voting will take place from 4 to 5 p.m. The winner will be revealed at 5 p.m. At that point, attendees will be able to sample cakes made by the competitors.

Several determined chefs will enter the kitchen, but only one will emerge victorious as the Valley Chef Showdown Bake-Off Champion. So who will take the cake? And who will leave half-baked? You’ll have to attend to find out!

Tickets cost $25 per person. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Visit or call 304-263-1890 to learn more about The Historic McFarland House.

Author: Brian

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