Being among the select few chosen to compete on a national food network show alongside premier dessert chefs is most astonishing to Middletown’s chocolatier, who did exactly that.
Rob Tschudin Lucheme, owner of on Main Street, says he’s not so far off from his days as an apprentice to this culinary trade.
“I’m only two and a half years into this and the fact that the Food Network even considered me and I made it through the first auditions is pretty much a miracle,” he says of appearing on tonight’s episode of “Sweet Genius.”
In a flash of humility, Lucheme wonders, “Why would you put somebody on who’s as inexperienced as I am?”
In fact, Lucheme hadn’t even seen the show when he received a call before Christmas from a casting agent scouting contestants — that’s because he’s often still working at 10 p.m. when it airs on the Food Network. The show, now in its second season, hosted by Ron Ben-Israel, chef-owner of the couture cake shop in New York City. In fact, the Glastonbury resident doesn’t even own a television and will likely watch tonight’s show at a local bar or his daughter’s home.
Like Ben-Israel, a former professional modern dancer with art training and a military background, Lucheme is a Renaissance man — an immigration lawyer and former chef at the five-star Cavey’s Italian and French restaurant in Manchester and now a veritable culinary scientist.
He still practices law part-time in Glastonbury but most of his time is spent at Tschudin Chocolates on Main Street. “I’m 900 percent here and 10 percent there,” Lucheme says. For nearly three years, he’s run with employees who are more like apprentices — almost a dozen have graduated culinary schools like the CIA and French Culinary Institute in New York and Johnson and Wales’ College of Culinary Arts — and have gotten jobs at major bakeries.
He’s a tough boss. “In training, they have to put in a lot of effort,” Lucheme says. “Half of them wash out on the first day.” He’s patient but firm with his apprentices, who range from high school to college-age and are paid minimum wage, but Lucheme says, reap far higher benefits.
“There’s got to be something in it for them,” he explains. “They have access to my complete library of molecular gastronomy texts, they can read the books, study whatever they want to study and use the computer here.”
In fact, Lucheme considers “Sweet Genius” an opportunity for a businessman with no advertising budget to speak of a sort of guerilla marketing technique. “The idea is to get us on the map, to make sure these kids are in demand by increasing our reputation. It’s a counterbalance,” Lucheme says, to minimum wages.
He runs Tschudin Chocolates like an orchestra. In the small, cramped quarters of the shop, where hundreds of confectionery molds are stocked ceiling high, shelves of supplies are housed in see-through plastic tubs, a cooler and secondary refrigerator crouch near the entrance, and three giant industrial chocolate tempering machines circulate dark, milk and white chocolate.
“Everybody keep an eye on the machine,” Lucheme tells his young employees, who move easily around tight corners to plug in a stick blender here or snap on the gas burner there. “Who has warm hands? I need someone to help with warming the butter.”
One salesgirl helps a father select Easter chocolates for his 13-year-old daughter as another dries strawberries for dipping and a third wipes away fingerprints from the glass display cases, then sweeps white chocolate bits from the floor.
“We had a very busy Easter,” Lucheme says.
The premise of “Sweet Genius” is, according to the Food Network: four of America’s premier pastry chefs compete against one another through three rounds of challenges judged by Ben-Israel, along the way testing their creativity, ingenuity and imagination.
“The chefs are given surprise ingredients, an inspiration and a limited amount of time … to create a chocolate, candy and cake dessert. The winners from each round will advance for a final test, with Ben-Israel crowning the remaining chef Sweet Genius and receiving a $10,000 cash prize.”
Naturally, Lucheme is sworn to secrecy on details of his experience and the outcome of the show. He did reveal the chocolate mousse cakes seemingly inspired by Damien Hirst’s spot paintings or Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots which are shown in the introduction to his episode. Lucheme has several of the decadent cakes ready for sale after customers see them on tonight’s show.
Lucheme and the three chef competitors are challenged to use plantains in their flamingo-inspired chocolate desserts for the first test, in the episode titled “Puzzle Genius,” according to the Food Network. Three advance onto the next challenge where they tackle a Rubik's Cube for inspiration by creating candy from sweet fruit chews and goat’s milk. “With a royal palace as the inspiration for the final round, the remaining two chefs must make cakes with jackfruit and galangal.”
Jackfruit is a large fibrous tree fruit found in Asia, Brazil, East Africa and the Caribbean similar in taste to a tart banana and galangal is from the ginger family but has more of a peppery taste. Both are popular ingredients in Thai food.
Lucheme’s competition is stiff: Lasheeda Perry, pastry cook at the Four Seasons, Philadelphia; Deborah Brown, pastry chef at Sixth Engine, Washington, D.C.; and Jason Hisley, lead pasry chef and designer at Flavor Cupcakery, Bel Air, Md.
Being called to audition for the show wasn’t surprising, Lucheme says, since he entered a three-minute tape to the Food Network years ago and has been contacted by other casting agencies for shows in the past.
Lucheme says several elements of the show, taped in January, were demanding.
First off, no cell phone or recipes are allowed, which was tough for a pastry chef who considers his cookbook his Bible.
Also, he says, “I’m not used to doing desserts for service” or “working on someone else’s clock.”
Nothing is scripted on the show, Lucheme says, and working with Ben-Israel was an experience. “He’s fair, he’s demanding, as he should be. His background in ballet helps make him a very good show person.”
The competition, Lucheme says, is vigorous but fair.
“They really do play by the rules that they say they will play by. Now, those rules may not always be rules you’d like them to be. You may not have all the ingredients you want or things might not be working perfectly or somebody else may have already gotten to something — a special herb or spice or whatever it was that you wanted to use.”
Lucheme says contestants find out about the pantry’s stock the day before and what tools are in the pantry and can choose up to four knives. They are given no advance warning about the challenge and the runway portion, where the ‘secret ingredient’ is revealed, is exactly how contestants learn of it.
Lucheme is remaining mum about who won, so tune in tonight to see how he and his three opponents fared.
“Puzzled Genius” premiers Thursday at 10 p.m. on the Food Network.