The Watering Mouth was honored with the opportunity to interview Chef Alon Gontowski, Pastry Chef of the Seminole Hard Rock Cafe Hotel and Casino in Tampa, FL. You may recognize Chef Alon Gontowski from his victory on Food Network’s show “Sweet Genius.” I’ll tell you, that reality chef game show is no joke — I’ve watched that episode and this man can work under pressure!
Probably one of my favorite of Chef Gontowski’s accomplishments is actually holding a record in the Guinness Book of World Records for the “World’s Largest Wedding Cake”! Why bake a regular, old cake when you can bake the WORLD’S LARGEST CAKE?!
All told, Gontowski possesses more than 20 years in the pastry business. Prior to his Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino appointment, he was a pastry chef at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut. He developed and executed the menu selections for 29 restaurants, including Todd English’s Tuscany and Michael Jordan’s Steak House. He has even been awarded with a silver medal in the American Culinary Federation Pastry Competition.
Gontowski’s experience has taken him all over the United States, where he has held various pastry chef positions at Hilton Hotel & Casino (Reno, Nevada), Four Seasons Hotel (San Francisco), Caesar’s Hotel & Casino (Atlantic City, New Jersey) and the following restaurants in Las Vegas: JW Marriott Spa & Resort and Desert Inn Hotel & Casino.
So he’s got the chops, this much is obviously true. Now let’s take a little more in-depth look straight from the man himself:
TWM: Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
Chef Alon: Born in Philly and raised in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
TWM: What is your fondest food memory from childhood?
Chef Alon: Every summer going to the Jersey shore, Atlantic City and Wildwood, walking the boardwalks absorbing all the sights/smells of waffles and ice cream, pizza, fried dough and salt water taffies. I love that smell!
TWM: How did you develop your passion for pastries?
Chef Alon: You could say it was bred in me. My father was kind of a pioneer in cooking when he started the idea of somehow taking the turkey breast from the bird and making it into a roll. Thus the turkey roll lunchmeat was developed. That is another interview. With that and my own interest of cakes, cookies and brownies pushed my creativity to go to a vocational high school, then Johnson and Wales College.
TWM: Do you love to eat pastries as much as you love to make them?
Chef Alon: Absolutely! You might think I would have high blood sugar. LOL.
TWM: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Chef Alon: I knew I wanted to be someone who was creative and someone who could not sit still. Being a Pastry Chef is all that and more.
TWM: So, you’ve been making pastries for over 20 years now. What was your first job in food?
Chef Alon: During my teen years I worked in a local bakery starting off doing dishes and setting up pans. When the bakery thought I was ready he then allowed me to start greasing, coating the sticky bun pans and rolling out some doughs. Look at me now!
TWM: What was the biggest lesson that you learned when you were starting out in the food industry?
Chef Alon: Things are given to you when you have earned them.
TWM: What is your favorite guilty pleasure (food-related or not)?
Chef Alon: I have a hard time relaxing, so when I do I feel most guilty.
TWM: What is your favorite type of pastry to make?
Chef Alon: I really do not have one favorite type of pastry. The love of bringing together a vision of flavors and beauty into a cake, tart, ice cream or showpiece is why I love my craft.
TWM: How many pastries do you make per day at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino?
Chef Alon: In the Casino with being open 24/7 we are constantly working on thousands of items daily. Anything from individual tarts, mousses to loaves of breads and danish.
TWM: So, you’re a Guinness Book of World Records titleholder for participating in the creation of the world’s largest wedding cake in 2005. Was that experience more fun or work? Can you give a little recap of how you go about making a cake that large?
Chef Alon: I have learned to make work fun. The process was a 6 month long process that took all aspects of planning. My role was planning the product of cakes, icing and
assembly. We started by designing the cake and figuring the right cake type and shape for such a large structure. The structure was designed to hold the weight. Sheet cakes were baked, iced, stacked and stored on pallets in refrigerators. So with that said, I had to coordinate the bakers in baking the cake, the pastry cooks who stacked, then at the time of assembly coordinate the decorators.
TWM: What happened to the cake after it was made and broke the record? Did you get to eat any of it? Did you want to?
Chef Alon: The cake was showcased at our Bridal show and slices were passed out. A very small dent was made and the rest given to the local pig farm for consumption. Those pigs must have produced some sweet pork!
TWM: In April of this year, you competed on the Food Network’s “Sweet Genius” TV show and won. Congratulations! What was the TV competition experience like for you?
Chef Alon: It was a total adrenalin rush!
TWM: What moment on the show made you worry the most?
Chef Alon: When Chef Ron bit into a seed that was found in the Tamarind fruit.
TWM: Has your work or outside life changed at all because of your success? How so?
Chef Alon: Somewhat! Many co-workers continuously congratulate me while walking the hotel. I have been stopped by customers who have seen the show and ask to take a picture with me.
TWM: The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino just unveiled its $75 million dollar expansion, which includes the new Rise Kitchen & Bakery Restaurant. Would you tell us a little bit about it?
Chef Alon: Rise has been an exciting new project that I have been involved in personally, from the design of the open bakery to the 60 + new desserts in our Café. This new restaurant is an upscale deli style café with fresh breads and rolls being baked daily in full view. The aromas of these breads baking are enticing – itʼs like aromatherapy. The breads are used on the delicious sandwiches served. The Café part has 2 dessert cases with a delectable array of both local favorites and trendy pastries with a touch of Sweet Genius.
TWM: Where do you want to be in 10 years?
Chef Alon: My ultimate goal is to have my own Food Network show focusing on local bakeries around the country while teaching the craft of pastry. There are so many people out there who love to bake! I havenʼt seen a show like this yet, so I would love to be the one to break it into the mainstream.
We wish you the best of luck, Chef Alon, and hope to see you on the Food Network really soon!
Learn more about the new Rise Kitchen & Bakery by visiting their website or the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino!