Cooking Up Creativity in the Kids Baking Championship Kitchen, Part 1

Last week, my television baking obsession The Great British Bake-Off* aired its latest finale across the pond, and I’m anxiously awaiting its arrival to Netflix in a few weeks, by finding some Americans to watch bake. My sister alerted me to the presence of Food Network’s Kids Baking Championship, a show I’d watched one season of and then promptly forgotten about. The mere existence of this post should let you know: I’m re-hooked.

In addition to filling the outdoor-tent sized hole in my heart, these competitions have stoked my creativity in a time when I’ve needed a push in a few different ways. As it happens, watching people up to a third your age routinely outbake you is a highly motivating force. But it’s more than just a competitive streak that allows the show to provide inspiration- it’s the manner in which it so completely embodies the principles of the Cultivating Creativity manifesto. This week and next, I’ll dig a bit deeper into precisely how it does that. And if it all piques your curiosity? Seasons 1-3 are streaming now on Hulu, and the full series run to date is streaming on the Food Network app.

Duff Goldman taking a big bite of cake.

It’s all online, so go ahead and dig in. Really, go nuts. (This cake is pistachio flavored.) IMAGE CREDIT: GIPHY

Principle 1: Allies, Advocates, and Activators

To be able to cook on a national stage, you need someone of influence or capital to take a chance on you. This is even more true for kids, who often don’t have the legal influence or capital to do this for themselves. At the very least, these bakers need a parent or guardian to sign on the dotted line to afford them the opportunity to cook onscreen. But their influence is clearly far deeper than that.

As these tiny culinary cyclones whir around the kitchen, they’re able to articulate the inspiration for their dishes- and more often than not, they prominently feature family. They’re bringing to life a recipe taught to them by a parent or a grandparent, or they’re recreating something they’ve tasted with family or friends. These stories reveal that they’re getting more than just nominal support from these pillars of their families. They’re getting support, and inspiration.

Speaking of support and inspiration, I am such a fan of the sort of support that Kids’ Baking Championship affords their bakers. Hosts Duff Goldman and Valerie Bertinelli have a great rapport with the bakers, admiring and acknowledging their talent while also making note of where they can improve and doing so with a caring hand. I also really appreciate how they address points of struggle during the baking period itself. There have been more than a few meltdowns over a plan gone awry (more on that in a moment), a falling cake or a crumbling cookie. In those moments, they’re expertly able to provide encouragement and a small bit of guidance—without hurting the integrity of the competition.

I think the sort of support these bakers get, particularly from Duff and Valerie, embodies how I think about the concept of Allies, Advocates, and Activators:

  • Allies believe in the work you’re doing, and support it at least nominally. Duff and Valerie aim to do this with the young bakers, even if they truly don’t understand the idea.
  • Advocates pitch in for efforts that may improve the final product. While the competitive element of the show prevents them from getting too involved here, they try to sneakily and fairly redirect efforts that seem ill-fated or dangerous.
  • Activators afford concrete opportunities for their protégés to demonstrate their creativity. By presenting the challenges to the bakers that stretch their understanding of their own abilities, they’re activating their talents and expertise in an environment well suited to highlight them.

A NOTE FOR YOUR PLAYBOOK: Want to be an ally, advocate, or activator for someone in your life? Take note of where they’re strong and skillful, and let them know. Further, if you know of an opportunity for them to effectively exercise these skills and strengths—a committee, an internship, or even a new job—put them up for it!

Principle 2: Broadmindedness

If there is a point of criticism I have to levy against the show, it is this: it doesn’t effectively stop kids from pandering. I’ll explain.

Host and judge Valerie Bertinelli famously loves all things lemon-flavored. Similarly, Duff Goldman has a well-known affinity for bacon. And there is a frequent refrain that goes around the kitchen during bake time as a result: “Well, Valerie loves lemon, so [insert proclamation of a lemon based treat]”, or “I’m making [insert baconated confection], which I know Duff is going to love.” This is a natural instinct, to want to make something that those “in power” will love. But I do wish the judges would discourage this. Why? Because creativity tied to what people have seen before, has considerable limits.

With that said, Kids Baking Championship does many other things to effectively free contestants from their comfort zones. My favorite way? The mid-challenge twist. As the bakers have started to execute on their plans, Duff and Valerie will re-enter the kitchen with something additional for the challenge. They’ll have to incorporate an additional flavor, or create a companion for their dessert already in progress. Most bakers hate it. But I’d also argue that the bakers who most hate it are the ones who most need it. These twists wrest the kids from their plans and force them to use the resources around them to solve an additional challenge. This seems cruel in the moment, but in a larger sense is immensely valuable. And I wish more of us got the opportunity to do so, outside the kitchen and in our daily lives.

Duff Goldman shaking a colorful unicorn

When you’re not afraid to dream big. IMAGE CREDIT: GIPHY

A NOTE FOR YOUR PLAYBOOK: If you sense statis is overtaking your work or the work of your team, look for opportunities to bring in new inspiration. Incorporate the perspective of those who need your work to improve or look different. Explore new tools that can supplement or elevate your projects. Or start to think about how telling the story of your work, could earnestly help others improve at theirs. Rethinking your story through a lens of learning can offer a new perspective on what you do, how you do it, and why.

Principle 3: Collaboration

Somewhere there’s a larger premise for a joke that surrounds my tag, “helping others on cooking shows is for British adults and American children.” But it is a trait that Kids Baking Championship shares with British Baking Show: the understanding that helping others on the same journey as you, even in competition, has its own reward.

I’m a strong believer in collaboration as a principle for effective creativity. It’s incredibly rare that creation is a wholly solitary endeavor. But I will cede to the idea that if ever there was a place for it to be solitary, it would be in the competitive culinary kitchen. This is not universally true (see: Iron Chef, Top Chef “Restaurant Wars”, even Duff’s own Ace of Cakes and Duff After Dark), but it is more likely here than anywhere else. Yet contestants still find ways to work together. They inquire about one another’s creations, offering earnest praise at the good ideas they hear. They “borrow” ideas from one another if they’re stuck but a fellow baker is moving forward. And, most heartwarmingly, those who are done will often lend a hand to those struggling with time. All of these are wholly viable forms of collaboration amid an environment that feels competitive.

There’s a lesson here for those of us who want to be collaborative, but work in environments that seem siloed. Collaboration can be cross-functional meetings and interdepartmental initiatives…or, it can be slipping a relevant article to a coworker in another department, shouting out another department who cracked a tough problem that affected your work. And of course, it can be pitching in enthusiastically when a colleague is overloaded or needs an extra hand.

A NOTE FOR YOUR PLAYBOOK: If outright collaboration feels inappropriate or ill-fitting for your organization, take some time to figure out where other departments or prospective collaborators’ values, align. Not just the big ones in the mission, vision, and strategic plan either. What do you value in good workers? What common constituencies do you share? What resources do you have that could also help them? Knowing these things could help direct future efforts to make their work easier, better, and more emblematic of what you all value.

Next week: I’ll be back with my thoughts on how Kids’ Baking Championship reminds me to stick with tough problems, and work through the fallen cakes and crumbled cookies.

*We’re the only one who calls it Baking Show. Everyone else gets Bake-Off. Why? Blame Pillsbury, they’ve trademarked the term “Bake-Off” in the US.