STAMFORD, CT — When Casey Hallen, a Stamford resident, auditioned for Food Network Canada's "Great Chocolate Showdown" show about three years ago, she was sure she wouldn't make the cut.
Hallen, who is a film teacher at nearby Rye Country Day School (RCDS) in Rye, N.Y., had been baking as a hobby for years, and was urged by a friend to apply to one of the many popular baking competition TV shows to test her skills.
Hallen stumbled upon a new show, "Great Chocolate Showdown", which challenged amateur bakers to create baked goods using chocolate as the star ingredient for the chance to win $50,000.
Hallen applied on a whim.
"Every step of the process, through the interview, through the audition, literally every step of the way I kept saying, 'This is really cool but I'm not going to get on the show,'" Hallen said.
She was traveling to Toronto by herself, leaving her husband and daughter at home, sure she was going to be back soon.
"And it just kind of kept going," Hallen said, who was chosen as one of the 10 contestants.
Filming began in the summer of 2019, and all eight episodes aired in Canada in 2020.
Now, Hallen can relive the show all over again, as Season 1 will premiere on The CW Network in the United States on Jan. 29 at 8 p.m. and run every Saturday. Check local listings.
"We've been really waiting to share it with the people here at home. It's super, super exciting," Hallen said. "I now have two children. Being on the show was hands down the hardest, most difficult thing I've ever done in my life, and I'm going through potty training with my 3-and-a-half-year-old now. The show was harder."
When Hallen first started baking in middle school as a hobby, she focused primarily on chocolate chip cookies. Through the years, although her cookies tasted great, she said they didn't look too good.
"I was known for not letting my cookies cool separately so it would be this cookie mountain you'd have to claw at," she said.
Eventually, Hallen started making birthday cakes and cupcakes for her young cousins. About eight years ago, she watched YouTube videos to learn how to decorate cakes, and the aesthetics of her baked goods improved greatly.
At birthday parties, people who weren't friends or family asked if they could hire her to make cakes for other events.
"I always said no. I said it was because I didn't want my hobby to be a career. But I really lacked the confidence to sell my baked goods for money. I thought once I accepted money for it, all of a sudden I just wouldn't be good enough for that," Hallen said.
But appearing on "Great Chocolate Showdown" changed everything. Hallen learned from baking experts like Anna Olson and Steven Hodge, who are well-known in Canada and served as judges in Season 1.
"Being on the show and going through that experience helped show me that I am good enough, that I do have what it takes to do that kind of work," Hallen said, describing the show as "baking bootcamp."
Hallen started her own custom cake business, Casey H. Bakes, almost three years ago, which she operates when she's not teaching filmmaking or putting together costumes for plays at RCDS.
With a background in art, having gone to Rhode Island School of Design and Manhattanville College, Hallen said she relies on her experience while in the kitchen.
"When it comes to the actual cake decorating, decorating a cake is really no different than painting on a canvas. It's just the canvas happens to be 3D, round and edible," she said.
"In terms of being on the show, there are so many moments of needing to think creatively and problem solve, and all the sort of things you learn as an artist," Hallen added. "That definitely came in handy when you're on a time limit and given a task right then and there, and you have to meet these goals you don't get to think about ahead of time."
Hallen's even been able to combine her two worlds, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. She's helped run virtual baking classes and clubs for students at RCDS. She hopes to teach more baking classes in-person when the pandemic wanes.
As for future baking competition shows, Hallen said she's open to doing more. But for now, she's excited to relive her first experience and have her oldest daughter see her mother on TV.
"The whole thing still feels crazy that it happened," Hallen said. "I'm excited that it's airing again and I can relive it and remind myself that this was actually a thing that happened and I was a part of."