Although Lexington baker James Brown only made it as far as two episodes on Next Great Baker, he has been the heart and soul of TLC’s season three. Instantly popular, he owned up when he made mistakes, and resurrected catch phrases from his childhood like “tell the truth, shame the devil.” (He explains that his mother taught him “every time you lie, the devil dances, so when you tell the truth, you shame the devil.”)
In episode 2, he made the tearful announcement that he wasn’t physically and emotionally up to this season’s challenge. On the same day that he found out he was going to be a contestant, a doctor was giving him MRI results: that he had a benign brain tumor, and would need surgery. His doctors cleared him to compete, but once he got to New Jersey, he found his head and heart weren’t in the game. His mind was on his family, and the three kids that he and his wife Bridget want to watch grow up.
Cake Boss and Next Great Baker host Buddy Velastro, fellow Season 3 competitors, and fans were crushed to learn about his diagnosis. Viewers called and emailed and facebooked to express their concern, and a little girl insisted on bringing her mom in the weekend before Christmas to shop for cupcakes and let him know they were pulling for his full recovery.
He characterized his time in Jersey as a delight. He loved getting to know his competitors — they bonded instantly, at least partly, he suspects, because the producers take away all means of communication (no tweeting, no facebook, no phone calls). So they come to rely on each other.
As for the celebrity guest judges, he was thrilled to meet Lou Ferrigno during the comic book challenge. After getting a good gander at Ferrigno’s gun show, he found it charming that the Incredible Hulk took out his reading glasses while judging some of the finer details on the cakes.
Back home at Brown’s Bakery in Lexington, and manning the counter in the days after Christmas, Brown is busy serving up his famous bourbon pecan cupcakes. As two customers arrive on this snowy afternoon to pick up the specialty cakes they’ve ordered, he pauses to assist a bride on the phone, patiently explaining options that would fit within her budget and debating the merits of fondant vs. airbrushing for the effects she wanted to see on her big day. He is a one-man show. There’s no extra baker, no cashier. Your change might be dusted with a little extra flour when you pay for your cupcakes.
The shop, tucked away in a small strip center on Versailles Road a quick skip from downtown (next door to the Subway sandwich shop) is the second incarnation of Brown’s Bakery which was originally located in the Meadowthorpe neighborhood on Leestown. It’s a specialty bakery — cupcakes, cakes, sculpted cakes (like those seen on Next Great Baker). They are priced a bit above Costco and Walmart, but considerably below some of the chain bakeries in town. The cupcakes are big — a commitment — and they are lush.
He was candid with viewers in the season premiere, “We’ve been in operation for a little over five and a half years. The recession really hit us hard.”
He plans to work until January 9, the day before his surgery is scheduled on January 10, 2013 at the University of Kentucky medical center. (He and wife Bridget both earned their bachelor’s degree at the University of Kentucky, and she is also a graduate of UK Law School.)
He’s optimistic that he won’t be away from his beloved baking for too long. “The doctors say it’ll take two weeks of down time…and about six to eight weeks before you feel like yourself.” The degree of hearing loss already caused by the tumor is expected to be permanent.
He describes the outpouring of support from fans and viewers as “a little overwhelming.” He says, “I am not just my tumor. I have a business…I have a family…I’m a baker.”
Asked what he would do if he was unable to continue in his chosen field — he has been a chef; his degree is in hospitality management; he opened the artisan center in Berea — he answers simply, “I don’t know. This is my passion.”
Perhaps the down time he spends recuperating will at least allow more time for Date Nights with his wife, a new tradition — one that recently dragged him into dance lessons, which he ultimately loved, but he admits he had to be won over. Already a veteran of Cupcake Wars and Next Great Baker, can Dancing with the Stars be far behind?
Lexington Locals who want to support local businesses will find an easy (and delicious) path: call up and order a dozen cupcakes.Browse his site and see what you like, or just stop by.
TLC will air a special Season 3 “Behind the Scenes” episode of Next Great Baker on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2012. Brown appears in the previews. Check local listings.
Next Great Baker contestant
Letty Alvarez sets up
“Help James Brown” Fund
Reality TV needs drama to compete, and competitive cooking is certainly not immune. As Next Great Baker contestant James Brown acknowledges, “they’re not here to sing kumbaya.” But he is visibly distressed by internet reaction to fellow contestant Letty Alvarez, who was cast as the season “villain” in Episode 1.
He says he’s seen fan forums and sites where “Letty has been called every name but a child of God,” when, in reality, “she is the sweetest person you’ll ever know.”
He says he remains in almost daily contact with his fellow contestants from Season 3, and Letty has been especially supportive. As a fellow small bakery owner, she’s aware of the financial challenges the Brown family will face when he has to be off his feet (and out of Brown’s Bakery) for weeks while he recuperates from brain surgery.
So she set up a “Help James Brown” crowd funding page on gofundme, called “The James Brown Hope Fund.” Crowd funding platforms, like KickStarter and IndieGoGo, are a popular method of allowing friends and family to help out a friend or a cause in need, simplifying the process to a few clicks, with minimal bureaucracy.
Alvarez says, “James, he is a very special man … it breaks my heart to know that he has to worry about money when he has such a serious surgery coming up…. I really do hope we can meet our goal before he goes in for surgery, so he can go in having one less worry in his life.”
Brown is surprised that perfect strangers would want to help him and his family through this difficult time. His wife wonders why he would be shocked at such kindness, reminding him that he is the guy who is always the first to stop in the rain to help someone push a stalled car, but he shrugs that off. “That’s just physical labor,” he laughs. But, he adds, when he sees someone who needs a little help, he puts himself in their place. What if that were his wife and kids, stranded? He’d want someone to stop and help them.
And that’s really what crowd funding, in its purest form, is meant to be. It’s a simple way to stop and help someone who needs a hand, with just a click (it’s inside work, no heavy lifting).
Click for Letty Alvarez’s “Hope Fund” fundraising page for James Brown.
The bakery specializes in cupcakes, individual desserts, and special occasion/ sculpted cakes. To order, call 859.225.8400, or visit the site.