Two weeks after Danie Baker officially launched her food and recipe blog with an accompanying Instagram page, she received a DM that catapulted her new hobby from quarantine project to professional gig.
The message was from a casting agency for Bravo’s “Top Chef,” seeking competitors for a new pandemic-born show for “talented home cooks.”
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not ready for this,’” the accountant-by-day recalled in a video interview with The News Tribune earlier this month. “I can cook in my house; I don’t cook on TV. I’m super unrefined. ‘Oops! Spilled that, broke that.’ It’s very much Julia Child-style, where it’s not perfect — it’s just delicious.”
“Top Chef Amateurs” is a spinoff of the original hit show, which aired its 18th season this spring. The brand also recently introduced “Top Chef Next Gen,” featuring under-30 chefs, including another South Sounder, Elise Landry of the year-old Olympia restaurant Chicory. Rather than a full season, both new shows run in standalone episodes.
Over 30 minutes, the newest show pits two home cooks against one another — with a previous Top Chef finalist, frontrunner or fan-favorite by their side.
“The whole time, I was so incredibly nervous,” said Baker, who was paired with Tiffany Derry, a Texas-based chef, and competed against Steven DeCarlo, a hair stylist-turned-cook from New York City partnered with Chicago chef Joe Flamm. “Everything is larger than life. The whole production was so well-oiled.”
She described herself as “starstruck” throughout filming last fall in Portland, Oregon, but she also felt a calming sense of serendipity being back in her college town, where she met her husband.
Though she hesitated at first to say yes, her sister convinced her the opportunity was too good to pass up.
Reflecting on the experience, she said that despite feeling like a home cook in the moment — “I was like, ‘“Oh my god, Danie, what are you doing?!’” — she gained confidence from the challenge.
FROM ACCOUNTANT TO HEY DANIE BAKES
A Tacoma local and Bellarmine Preparatory School graduate, Baker dabbled in food and travel blogging in the past, and she’d rather forget the memories of those first attempts. Instagram was brand-new in 2010, and the notion of a “food influencer” was yet to be defined.
“I’m not really sure what clicked for me, but this time, I really focused on presentation, on eye-capturing images,” said Baker, who captures and edits all of the photography for her website Hey Danie Bakes.
She dove into the project in the early days of the pandemic. Working from her home in Seattle meant she was cooking every meal in her own kitchen. Casually sharing those recipes and homebound culinary moments on Instagram, her followers — old friends and new strangers alike — told her it was time to take it to the web.
The resulting collection feels airy and fresh, relying on neutral backgrounds to allow the food’s natural colors to pop off the page, luring visitors to discover recipes for strawberry ricotta cookie pizza, an avocado caprese salad and cornbread pudding. She even makes green bean casserole look enticing.
Top Chef must have appreciated her style, which doesn’t draw a line at merely pretty pictures of smashed garlic potatoes and sweet potatoes stuffed with harissa-spiced lamb, cucumbers, yellow peppers and red onion.
“My audience likes me to throw in personal pictures,” said Baker, though admittedly they usually connect to food in some capacity.
Focused on approachable scratch cooking and baking — brioche dinner rolls, ricotta, marshmallows — she hopes her recipes and words encourage others to embrace that cooking good food at home from raw ingredients doesn’t have to be intimidating.
“I want to present it to people so that they’re not afraid to try and to just get into their kitchen,” she said. “Things look more challenging than they actually are. It’s OK if we mess up — it’s all about how you recover from that.”
In addition to creating content and developing recipes for a few brands, Baker’s experience on “Top Chef Amateurs” has given her the confidence to push her own concept forward. She will soon launch a YouTube channel with the goal of eventually having her own cooking show, whether on television or another platform.
“I have such a different mindset,” she said. “It’s easier for me to cook spontaneously now.”
For those following along, she added, “I want everyone to be able to come to my blog and find something that works well for them. Maybe it’ll take a good part of your day, but it’s a skill you have forever.”
Take her brioche dinner rolls, for instance. “They’re so amazing and I’ll never buy a roll from the grocery store again!”
Watch Baker on “Top Chef Amateurs” on Bravo, July 22 at 6 p.m. Pacific Time, streaming on BravoTV.com after that time.