POCATELLO — Nathan Chandler initially dismissed the instant message from a man claiming to be a Food Network executive as a scam.
The man offered to fly Chandler, a 28-year-old self-taught baker from Pocatello, to Los Angeles to participate in the network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge. Chandler is an avid viewer of the Food Network seasonal bake-off show, but he’d made no application to compete in it.
“I opened it up and said, ‘Ya, right,’ but then I stopped for a second and I thought, ‘How else would they contact you?’” Chandler recalled.
Chandler made the call, and then he made the cut. He’ll be among five top bakers vying for cookie glory when Christmas Cookie Challenge airs at 8 p.m. Dec. 16 on Food Network. He signed a contract promising not to offer any details about how he did on the show before it airs.
“I’ll say it was an incredible experience, and I’m really glad I went and did it, and I am happy with how things went,” Chandler said.
When Chandler first contacted the Food Network executive, he learned the mystery man had been following his posts on Instagram for several months. Apparently, the network was scouting for a self-taught baker from Idaho, and Chandler posted images of some of his cookies and cakes under the hashtag “Idaho baker.”
The network was especially impressed upon reading on Chandler’s Instagram posts that he is the preferred baker of NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher. Chandler is friends with Urlacher’s wife, Jennipher, who is a Pocatello native, and he baked the cake for their wedding. He’s also made sugar cookies for Urlacher’s birthdays and for his induction ceremony into the NFL’s Hall of Fame.
Before he was selected for the show, he underwent a series of interviews with the Food Network’s top brass, who grilled him on how he would handle potential challenges on the show. For example, if he were expected to incorporate sage into a shortbread cookie recipe, Chandler told them he’d chop it finely and pair it with lemon. He also offered an off-the-cuff recipe for French macaroons.
“I’ve baked my whole life with my parents and grandparents,” Chandler said.
Chandler, who moved to Pocatello from Idaho Falls about five years ago, was once the in-house baker for Flowers By L.D., 715 N. Main St. He frequently made baked goods for teachers when he worked as a special-needs aid in area schools. Nowadays, he’s a full-time barber, but he continues serving as the consult baker for Flowers by L.D., specializing in wedding cakes but also baking cupcakes, cookies, macaroons and confections.
Chandler filmed his episode during a five-day visit to LA in February. He enjoyed celebrity treatment during the trip and still keeps in touch with the other contestants who appeared in the episode.
During the challenge, he got to bake in his “dream kitchen.” It was immaculate and had top-of-the-line equipment. But he was also under extreme pressure and recalls “sweating like crazy.”
“You’re under hundreds of high-powered lights and you’ve got cameras all around you,” Chandler said. “It’s a little more stressful than baking with your apron in your kitchen.”
The show, in its third season, includes two rounds. During the “preheat” challenge, competitors are asked to bake according to a recipe; the top three bakers move on to the second round. Contestants must incorporate a “secret ingredient” into their baked goods — such as chia seeds, basil or coffee liqueur — during the second round.
Chandler admits he’s not an “adventurous” baker, and he described the overall experience as the “quintessential example of easier said than done.”