Al and Lia"s final competition cake, a red pagoda in the style of a sculpture they spotted at the Venetian in Las Vegas
The amazing roulette cake at the finals watch party at Yacovelli"s--made by Wedding Wonderland (including Al).
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In last night"s season finale of TLC"s “Next Great Baker,” it came down to the meatheads, the hotties and the St. Louisans.
The meatheads, as some of their competitors literally referred to them, were the musclebound New Jersey team, Manny and Al. The hotties were Utahns of Hawaiian descent Kai and Rox. And the St. Louisans (not as easily stereotyped) were Al Watson and Lia Weber.
Watson works at Florissant"s Wedding Wonderland. Weber, a protege of Cupcake Wars champ and culinary prof Casey Shiller, worked with Watson for four years at the same bakery. She is now the pastry chef at Florissant"s Hendel"s Market Cafe. (Her budding, one-woman baking business is called Made by Lia.)
For the past several months, their adventures and misadventures on the show have riveted St. Louisans, who have gathered for weekly watch parties at both Hendel"s and at Yacovelli"s Italian restaurant, which shares a parking lot with Wedding Wonderland.
A few weeks ago, Al and Lia"s “gravity-defying” cake (built in concert with the Jersey boys) failed to defy gravity, toppling onto the floor during the critical transfer to the judging table. It was a heart-stopping reality-TV moment. The St. Louisans survived a number of tense elimination challenges, creating cakes both massive and intricate along the way.
On Tuesday night"s season finale, our guy and gal faced a daunting three-part, seven-hour challenge to whittle down the field from three teams to two. They were tasked with constructing a molded-chocolate centerpiece, the popular giant-cupcake cake, plus a piped, three-tier cake. Al and Lia made a vanilla cupcake-cake with berry jam filling and strawberry buttercream icing and two other handsome desserts. All three teams did an excellent job, but the Utah team erred in their cupcake-cake batter: it came out “rubbery,” as one judge put it. They also couldn"t pipe icing onto their three-tier cake attractively. (How does a team with these weaknesses manage to come so far in this sort of catholic dessert competition?)
Al and Lia won, and headed to Vegas for the final showdown against elimination-challenge winners Manny and Al.
The pre-finals dinner offered a highly entertaining round of jawing between Lia and Manny. He called her work boring, and she reminded him that his work occasionally sucked. It was the kind of smack-talk that is the backbone of reality-TV.
The final challenge was to make a cake to be displayed in the window of Carlo"s Bakery"s new outpost at the Venetian hotel and casino, for the bakery"s very first week of business. Al and Lia created a towering red Japanese pagoda and a tree branch lined with cherry blossoms; it was a strangely serene choice for a bakery owned by NGB judge Buddy “Stripper Cake” Valastro, but then again, they apparently sculpted an object they saw on the Venetian property. Al"s work with buttercream was praised as so “clean” it looked like fondant. It was a gorgeous cake.
Al and Manny had difficulties making their cake symmetrical and, ominously, wound up starting over in the middle of the contest. Their final cake was a multi-tiered abomination of garish color combinations (again). There was just no way they could be allowed to win the whole enchilada with that cake – and they didn"t.
The announcement that our kids in blue were the winners was greeted with roars of euphoria at Yacovelli"s. Amidst the cheering, Al took off his blue “Next Great Baker” chef"s smock and put on a white one that read “Carlo"s Bakery.” The prizes for the show"s winning pair include jobs managing the Vegas bakery for Valastro (and splitting $100,000).
The weekly gatherings at Yacovelli"s have been a blast. On Tuesday night the banquet room was packed with about 700 people, many of them in blue “#BlueNGB” shirts made to support Al and Lia. A huge cake, reflective of the finale in Vegas, resembled a roulette wheel and betting board. (It was delicious.) During the show"s 90-minute season-ender, the crowd was hushed during the tense moments, roared as Al and Lia won each challenge, and jeered their competition.
At Hendel"s, about 1,000 people did the same for their gal Lia at an outdoor block party. The show was projected onto a giant inflatable screen as revelers ate at tables set up in the street.
In the end, the pair from St. Louis complemented one another well enough to best nine other pairs. Lia is classically trained, doggedly competitive and occasionally cried on Al"s shoulder. Al is more taciturn, except for the odd talkativeness he exhibits under stress. (Lia called him “Chatty Cathy” at one point.) Their efforts were punctuated by occasional bickering, but in one on-camera interview, they recognized that it"s only natural for people in such close quarters.
At Al"s watch party, Jack Yacovelli announced a Sept. 3 thank-you party for Wedding Wonderland and Al with a DJ, food, drinks, and NGB trivia with prizes. Incredibly, Yacovelli"s celebrates its 95th anniversary this year. Four generations of the same family have run the restaurant.
Watson said he has not yet decided whether he will relocate to Vegas to help manage Carlo"s. He"s still savoring his victory, and not yet committing to his next move.
Ditto, said Weber.
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“I am excited and nervous about meeting with Buddy
Al and Lia will be featured in an article in the issue of People magazine that comes out this Friday.