A Chef With Passion, Muscle, and a Winning Streak
Growing up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Alina was inspired to cook by her mother, a dedicated farm-to-table cook who took pride in baking from scratch for her family. "She never bought anything commercially prepared, everything always had a healthy push." Along with building an appreciation for local ingredients and cooking with love, her mother’s approach to food gave her a hunger for something else. "I was always looking for something with sugar!" Finding an ally in her Dad, who also had a sweet tooth, Alina started experimenting with sweets and desserts. Her search for sugar has led her to be successful dessert bar owner and entrepreneur, Food Network cooking show Chopped and Cupcake Wars competitor and Sweet Genius winner.
Alina’s first memories are of eating are born out of curiosity. "I wanted to know what everything tasted like. My mother says I couldn’t walk past anything without wanting to try it, flowers, plants – everything.” Putting her interest to task, Alina started working in kitchens when she was 13. "My neighbors owned a breakfast place and I started helping to cook breakfast."
Not long after, New York’s SoHo restaurant Whole Wheat & Wild Berries opened a location in the Berkshires. Alina heard they didn’t have a dessert menu, and pluckily approached the owner with an offer to make desserts for them – sweetening the deal with a tray of no-bake cheesecake and a chocolate cake. The owner was impressed by the 16-year-old’s courage and talent, and gave her a chance. "I worked there throughout high school, and ended up putting both desserts on the menu as well as a few vegan and macrobiotic desserts. Now, in my business, I try to return the favor. When I get approached by someone really serious who shows potential, I work them into the schedule, first as interns, and eventually as staff."
A Competitive Streak
Alina was encouraged to go to college for TV and Film, and never considering culinary school, "It was my passion, and stress relief – I didn’t want to ruin it by turning it into a job. But, cooking was never far away. My mother said, when I came home from college, the first thing I would do was turn the oven on – I missed having a kitchen!" Looking for a way to keep her weight in check at school, she found a new passion and path in fitness. "I met people who were into it competitively." This led her to a ten-year fitness career, and in 1996, she competed in Miss Fitness America Pageant, Miss Fitness USA Pageant and the Miss Galaxy Pageant, and placed in the finals in all three.
Being the Bread Maker
Alina found the competitive aspect appealing, but there was something missing. "I wasn’t passionate about it. It wasn’t creative. It wasn’t fulfilling - or filling. I was dieting all the time." When Alina was pregnant with her son in 2003, her husband turned her back to the baking path. "He came home and said, ‘I cannot find a good loaf of bread’. That was it. I had never worked in a bakery before, but it felt right. I decided to open the Sturbridge Baking Company. I planned it throughout my pregnancy, and when my son was six months old, we opened." Over the next five years, the menu extended well past bread and cookies to tarts, pies, scones and cakes as well as breakfast and lunch - and earned a "Best Bread" award courtesy of Worcester magazine.
Finding her Calling
In 2008, she sold the bakery, and moved onto her next venture, Sweet. "I wanted more. We moved closer to Boston – right on the street with 20 other restaurants, the perfect location for a dessert bar." Serving up cakes and cupcakes during the day, and cocktails and desserts in the evening earned Alina many accolades including a "Worcester’s most Creative Chef" award by Pulse magazine in 2009, Worcester Magazine’s Best Dessert award 2009, 2010 and 2011, Worcester Living’s Best Dessert award 2009, 2010, 2011 and City Living’s Best Dessert award in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
Putting it all Together
Taking advantage of her competitive nature and her film and TV education, Alina tested her mettle on national television, competing in several Food Network shows. "I made it through Chopped and Cupcake Wars and by the time I got to Sweet Genius, I was ready." The "mystery ingredient" Alina needed to incorporate into her winning dessert was something not all competitors were familiar with. "Like when I was a kid – I still want to know what everything tastes like. I regularly go to Chinatown and buy everything that looks interesting. When the host introduced rambutan, I knew how to use it. The theme was "Darkness", and dicing the exotic fruit and adding it to a spiced blackberry sauce, with chocolate ice-cream and a chocolate cookie is what got me over the line."
In addition to being a familiar face on the food show circuit - Alina’s custom cakes have earned her a celebrity following. "Cake decorating is much less about cooking skill and much more about artistic ability. I’ve made cakes for the top 13 American Idols, comedian Jeff Dunham, Kid Cudi, and The Cake Boss himself, Buddy Valastro!"
While desserts are her area of expertise, Alina is quick to quash any beliefs that pastry chefs can’t operate outside the realm of sugar and frosting. "I have a small savory menu at my place, and one of my greatest achievements is a dinner I held at the James Beard house in 2010. It was sold out, a real highlight and an honor. The only thing that would top that would be my own cooking show someday."Follow Alina on Twitter »