A sweet television debut for SAIT Instructor Chef Kevin Conniff
For more than 15 years, SAIT Instructor Chef Kevin Conniff has taught Baking and Pastry Arts students at the School of Hospitality and Tourism how to whip, sift and pipe to success. This winter, he’ll get the opportunity to test his own mettle – and his meringue – as he competes against 11 other pastry chefs in the Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship.
“It’s the Super Bowl of baking — at least, for me, it is,” he laughs. “It really tested my skills. I always kind of second-guess myself. I didn’t think I was going to get picked for the show, that I even had a chance. My goal was to just get there and not be the first one out.”
While Conniff is sworn to secrecy on competition results, his excitement is palpable, and he’s proud to be part of the show.
“When I got there, I relied on my strengths. I’ve been teaching at SAIT for a long time and on a daily basis. I’ve trained myself to fix mistakes very quickly.”
His years of experience baking and teaching professionally gave him a solid foundation of skills to pull from. He was comfortable in his own skin. “Some of the bakers on the show were really just starting out in their careers. Being able to rely on my experience was calming.”
The middle child of three boys, Conniff grew up in the hamlet of Hopewell Junction, New York and was often found in the kitchen. “My mom used to bake tons of pies and tarts and all kinds of stuff throughout the year. I was always underfoot, looking for cookies and things like that.”
Inspired by his mother, he split his last two years of high school between core classes like English, science and math, and classes at a trade school learning to cook and bake. From there, he landed his first job at a local bakery.
“The only way you could get into this bakery was starting as a dishwasher. My friend Matt was a dishwasher and for him to get promoted, he had to recruit a dishwasher — that was me.”
Eventually, Conniff recruited another friend to take his place and moved up from there. “Since then, I’ve been hooked. Baking came easily to me. It was the first thing in my life that truly spoke my language.”
He studied at the Culinary Institute of America while apprenticing at different retail bakeries in the Hudson Valley. He loved it but work in the area was seasonal and he recognized the need for a change.
Relocating down the Hudson River, Conniff applied to the Hilton hotel and discovered a completely different realm of large-scale baking in year-round production. Working alongside a master pastry chef, he developed a close relationship with his mentor.
Conniff moved from New York to Hawaii, working in hotels and resorts — finally landing in Alberta, where he changed trajectories once again. In late 2008, he started teaching at SAIT, and shortly thereafter, he and his wife Melissa welcomed their first child in the following year.
The shift to education offered a better work-life balance, and teaching allowed him to give young people the same opportunities he had — chances to learn and try different things. And it’s helped nurture his passion, too.
“I’d never had the opportunity to work with a team of a dozen pastry chefs before coming to SAIT. If I don’t know the answer to a question, I can ask someone right away. When you’re an executive pastry chef in industry, you’re the boss. You’re supposed to know all the answers.
“SAIT is a place where you can build on and elevate your skills and learn from others — even us instructors. You can grow and really explore and try things,” he adds. “It’s a pretty special place.”
Watch new episodes of Holiday Baking Championship Mondays at 7 pm on Food Network Canada or stream Food Network Canada on STACKTV.