The three celebrity judges examined the healthy food assembled on the plate: asparagus spears with a rubber band around them, along with a cauliflower and an orange horned melon. Except it wasn’t actually healthy food at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“What’s tripping me out are the details in the asparagus,” actor and comedian Finesse Mitchell marveled. “Like, I’m this close, and I still can’t tell that that is a cake.”
“This looks more like cauliflower the closer up I am to it than when I was further away from it,” added Courtney Parchman, a social media star with more than 1 million TikTok followers.
This concoction — an almond cake with almond paste and milk chocolate–orange ganache — was designed by Ashburn’s Steve Weiss for the fourth episode of Netflix’s game show Is It Cake? The premise: Across eight episodes, professional bakers from around the country have only eight hours to design hyperrealistic cakes that look like everyday objects, from handbags to red Solo cups to rubber ducks.
The cakes are then presented in a five-item lineup alongside four examples of the real object. A panel of three celebrity judges, a different trio in each episode, try to select which one of the five objects they believe is actually cake, based on looking at them from a few feet away. (Don’t worry, they’re not mistakenly biting into an actual rubber duck.) If a contestant fools the judges into picking one of the real objects instead of their cake, they advance to the next round. The grand-prize winner receives $50,000.
The show has become one of the biggest streaming hits of 2022. The week it premiered in mid-March, it ranked as the No. 2 show on Netflix globally, second only to the phenomenon Bridgerton, and it ranked in Netflix’s daily top-10 “most viewed” for 24 days.
In that particular episode, Weiss fooled the judges and survived another day. But that outcome was hardly guaranteed.
Indeed, several decades earlier, he almost didn’t become a chef at all.
Beginning of the recipe
“When I was in high school, I weighed 300 pounds when I graduated [high school] and had a size 50 waist,” Weiss says of his upstate New York adolescence. He wanted to attend culinary school, but he stopped himself from doing so “because of the ‘big kid going into culinary school’ jokes,” he explains.
Then, at age 18, he became fanatical about his health and lost 145 pounds in nine months. “I went to a fair a few months after high school, walking by people I’d gone to school with for the last 12 years,” Weiss remembers, “and they didn’t recognize me, even though I had just graduated.”
He enrolled in art school, earned a degree in graphic design, and began freelancing after graduation, primarily designing logos for local companies. “But I didn’t want to sit at a desk the rest of my life, so I decided to go to culinary school after all. I’d lost all the weight, so I didn’t need to worry about people teasing me,” Weiss says. “So, I did that, and I’ve been in the industry ever since.”
While he makes all types of foods, it was in the late 1990s that he discovered his true calling card, combining his twin passions of food and art.
“In art school, I didn’t really know how I was going to make it in the art field. I just knew I wanted to be in it,” Weiss says. “It took me transitioning into culinary arts to work with the mediums of that particular art form. Once I was introduced to the mediums of sugar and chocolate, that’s what really got me going.”
He worked in the food service industry for a long time, including 14 years in Atlantic City with a stint at the Trump Taj Mahal casino.
“It’s kind of like being an athlete,” Weiss says. “You’re conditioned to work seven days straight or more. I once worked at a job where I had to work a month without a day off. And those aren’t eight-hour days; they can be 10-, 12-, 14-hour days. You’re constantly working weekends, Saturdays and Sundays, because people go out on Saturdays and Sundays. You’re constantly working on holidays. A normal person just can’t do that forever.”
So, he found a job in education in 2008. Today, he’s the associate dean of hospitality and culinary arts at West Virginia’s Blue Ridge Community and Technical College.
Wait a minute … West Virginia? While he used to live in the Mountain State, he moved to Ashburn in January 2020, even though that elongated his commute to an hour each way. The reason: “I guess the slogan is true: Virginia is for lovers!” Weiss laughs. His fiancée, Bhavna, is a financial analyst for the Loudoun County government.
On Is It Cake?, host Mikey Day nicknamed Weiss “the silent assassin.” Fittingly, Weiss’ personality came across as much more circumspect than the ostentatious personalities of some fellow contestants, exemplified by the multicolored hair and long beard of Andrew from Iowa and the crazy shoes sported by Nina from Louisiana.
Weiss got back at Day for the nickname. Because Day is a Saturday Night Live cast member and comedian rather than a food or baking expert, the contestant Jonny from California suggested the bakers make up a fictitious phrase and start using it a lot, to fool Day into thinking it was a real thing. While April from Toronto suggested “flumbé,” the contestants ultimately went with Weiss’ suggestion: “tiltscape.”
The exchange was captured in an episode. Adopting a deadpan facial expression, Weiss tells Day: “With fondant, you don’t have to worry about it, but with chocolate, you have to worry about something called tiltscape. When you finally mount your piece on a piece of cardboard for presentation, if there’s not enough of an air gap, then you have a horrible tiltscape.”
The contestant Hemu from Texas added, “Everyone worries about tiltscape.”
Day looked on thoughtfully: “Interesting …”
Weiss was ultimately eliminated in the sixth episode. He baked a devil’s-food cake with raspberries and passion fruit plus white chocolate crispy pearls, meant to resemble a bowling pin. Alas, the three judges — comedian Tony Rock (Chris Rock’s brother), singer King Princess, and American Barbecue Showdown host Lyric Lewis — successfully detected Weiss’ item as the cake among the five-bowling-pin lineup.
Don’t feel bad — Weiss still has a decent win-loss record on televised cooking competitions. In 2020, he won season 10 of Food Network’s Halloween Wars as part of the three-baker team “Mummies Rejects.” And when it comes to nontelevised competitions, he also once won a baking competition in Hershey, Pennsylvania, with the grand prize of a trip for two to Switzerland. Alas, Weiss never took the trip: “I asked my boss to give me off that weekend by promising, ‘If I win, I’ll give you the prize.’”
Is It Cake?, though, is by far the biggest stage on which he’s appeared.
“This show, unlike a lot of shows, has had legs,” Weiss says. “And there’s a lot of families that watch it. If I’m at the supermarket or at the store, I actually get recognized by children more than by adults.”
To what does he attribute the show’s virality and family-friendly nature?
“The format is different because there wasn’t a lot of drama. We genuinely all just really liked each other and gelled together,” Weiss says. Indeed, contestants have subsequently posted group selfies to their social media depicting them all smiling together outside.
Compare that dynamic to the expletive-laden rants of Gordon Ramsay on Hell’s Kitchen or Kitchen Nightmares, or TBS’ Rat in the Kitchen, in which one member of each cooking team tries to sabotage the dish. “To this day, we all continue to chat with each other in a group text,” Weiss says. “It was by far the best experience I’ve had on a show.”
For his most memorable moment competing on a show, though, he cites a scene from Food Network’s Pastry Daredevils, in which he had to make a 6-foot-tall edible sugar sculpture — and carry it through an obstacle course.
A four-course meal
Is It Cake? was Weiss’ big break into television fame, emulating the path of his idol.
“Julia Child is the reason I got into the industry,” Weiss recalls. “I used to watch all those cooking shows on PBS back in the day because there was no Food Network or big YouTube channels.” He and Child were both born on August 15, and he hopes the similarities don’t stop there. “She didn’t really get famous until she was about 57, and my 57th birthday is coming up in August.”
Asked to name his favorite fictional chef from pop culture — with options including Monica from Friends, Pixar’s Ratatouille, and even Lunchlady Doris from The Simpsons — Weiss selects Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show. “He reminds me of some chefs I’ve worked with in the past. You’ll work with these European chefs, they’ll mumble, and they already have the accent, so you have no idea what they’re saying.”
What’s next for Weiss? On TikTok and Instagram, where he has thousands of followers, he posts videos in which he cuts into his hyperrealistic cakes to reveal the dessert inside, with recent installments showcasing cakes resembling an Etch A Sketch and an Amazon box. On April 1, he also posted a video showing a hat, then he takes out his knife and cuts to reveal that it’s actually … a hat.
For another thing, he has a wedding to plan. “Bhavna wants me to make our wedding cake. Right now, I’m trying to figure out which kind,” Weiss says. There are high expectations on that front; a mistake would be like a professional musician picking a bad song for their own first dance. (Weiss has a son, Charles, and a daughter, Emilia, from a previous marriage.)
But if you want to order a cake from Weiss yourself, be aware in advance of price considerations.
“A simple round 8-inch cake, 6 inches high, if it has some decoration done or is sculpted in some way, that could easily cost between $400 and $450. And that’s a small cake!” Weiss exclaims. “Someone recently reached out to me and said they wanted a replication of a guitar. For me, that starting price would be like $750. I told them, ‘You can buy a guitar for $130!’” he laughs. “If your budget is under $200, it’s better for you to go get a cake from a supermarket.”
He isn’t opposed to such lower-priced food options himself. Guess where the professional chef took his now-fiancée on their first date? The sandwich chain Potbelly.
This story originally ran in our July issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.