‘Tis the season for comfort food and elaborate desserts, and Grosse Pointe native Jonny Manganello is serving them with style on the second season of Food Network’s “Holiday Wars,” which airs Sundays at 8 p.m.
The cake artist, who owns Jonnycakes in West Hollywood, California, was tapped by the network to be part of the Hashtag Elfies team for the Christmas-themed baking competition.
“I actually got into baking rather late,” said the Grosse Pointe South grad, 29. “I’ve only been baking for 2 1/2 years now. Though I’m pretty new, I’ve made up for it in the sheer amount of time I spend in my kitchen working. I do it every single day, all the time, and built a business for myself.”
Despite being a relative newcomer to baking, it seems Manganello was destined to land on a cooking series.
“I was always one of those kids (for whom) everything had to be for a nonexistent camera. Like if I was making something in the kitchen, I would pretend I was on the Food Network, hosting my own show. There was a time or two, even, where I had my mom bust out the old ’90s camera and record me.”
In this season’s first episode, which aired Nov. 1, Manganello showed a childhood photo of himself posing with his first cake, which was made to look like a giant cheeseburger. It was an impressive effort for a baker of any age, yet he didn’t bake again for years.
Jonnycakes, a custom-order cake shop as opposed to a bakery, has thrived even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m very grateful,” he said. “I think what’s happening is that a lot of people are unable to celebrate with big parties or festivals, so friends and family have been making up for that with cakes. I think people want to make their friends and family feel extra special, and that’s what I really like about cakes. They’re celebratory. You don’t eat cake at a funeral; you eat cake at a birthday party or some time in someone’s life where people are there to have a good time. I like to be a part of that by taking it to the next level and making the cake itself over-the-top and fun.
“I think it was Julia Child,” he recalled, “who said, ‘A party without a cake is just a meeting.’”
Manganello’s family remains in the region, and he returns home regularly for visits.
“Growing up in Michigan was the best. I absolutely love Michigan; it’s truly my favorite place to visit. I have a massive, massive Lebanese family – 30 first cousins, 20 aunts and uncles – and that’s just my mom’s side! It’s like ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding,’ but Lebanese. So we grew up in the kitchen, eating lots of Middle Eastern food. My dad lives in Royal Oak and my mom’s in Harper Woods. So when I go back, I visit them. It pains me to be far away from my family because I’m so close with them.”
“Holiday Wars” was taped in August, and Manganello relished the opportunity to learn from master cake artists Shinmin Li and Erin Acevedo, and to work with host Raven-Symoné.
“I’m a child of the ’90s,” he said, “so when I walked in the first day and saw Raven, I was totally starstruck. She’s hilarious. And the judges are hard on us, and I really appreciate that. I appreciate when someone says, ‘This is what you need to do to be better,’ and then you come out of the experience a better artist. They really pushed me, and I have a lot of respect for both of them. It’s cool that it’s a female-powered show.”
Manganello had never met his Hashtag Elfies teammates before filming, but the group works together like old friends.
“It’s crazy how quickly we had to mesh styles and personalities to work together,” he said. “When I’m baking alone in my house, I can do whatever I want, so it was a great experience working with other cake artists and having their styles influence mine. We have to remove ego and say, ‘That’s maybe not what I would do, but it’s what’s best for the team.’ That was a cool learning experience.”
A team-based cooking show recorded as coronavirus raged through the country seems like a high-risk idea, but Food Network production staff quickly calmed any concerns about the issue.
“Truly, the production team took every single precaution,” he said. “I’ve never felt more safe in my life.”
“It was a master class in cake decorating,” he said of the experience, which sees teams attempting to outdo one another with increasingly elaborate baked scenes based on challenge directives. “We were working long, long days. I was elbow deep in buttercream, sweating profusely, but the best thing to come out of it was getting judged by excellent cake artists and getting to work with excellent cake artists. I feel like I gained years of experience in such a short time.
“I love the idea of sharing food with people, and this is doing that on a national or maybe even international level,” he said. “It’s crazy that these weird things I think up in my brain can be seen across the country. That’s really cool.”
8 p.m. Sun.
The show can be streamed at foodnetwork.com.