In a delightful twist of fate, 18-year-old Joseph Mongillo couldn’t believe his ears when he got home from school and heard a phone message from a Food Network casting director saying they had seen his cookies on Instagram at One Smart Cookie and wanted to talk to him about auditioning to be a contestant on the show “Christmas Cookie Challenge.”
“I was shocked,” declares Mongillo. “There was one problem, though—I was 17 then, and you had to be 18 to be on the show.”
Mongillo waited patiently for his eighteenth birthday to roll around, and as soon as it did, the producers finally called him back in May to get the interview process rolling. With several video interviews and baking competitions later, Mongillo discovered he would be flown down to Los Angeles in June to film for the show. “It was an unreal experience,” says Mongillo.
“There was a driver waiting for us at the airport and we were given a tour of the studio where we would be filming.” The whole experience blew away Mongillo, and he couldn’t believe that this was happening.
Mongillo makes history as the youngest contestant in the Christmas Cookie Challenge
But wait, it gets better. Mongillo made history by becoming the youngest contestant in the Christmas Cookie Challenge. He competed on Episode 6 of Season 7, titled “Christmas on the Road” which aired in December on the Food Network.
“There were two challenges in the episode,” explains Joseph. “The first was we had to make a two-sided postcard cookie.” His inspiration for the postcard was Scotland because his sister is currently studying there. On one side, I made the image of the mythical creature, the Loch Ness Monster. On the other side I penned the address as if my sister was sending the card to me.
3D Camper Cookie
The second challenge was making a free-standing, 3D cookie structure resembling a camper. Mongillo made a retro camper with a hockey theme. Mongillo says, “I have played hockey for 14 years, so I feel this adds a personal touch to my cookie.” The camper includes a hockey themed background, dangling Christmas lights, Christmas trees, hockey sticks and so much more.
The challenge consisted of each contestant needing to make two different cookies for their cookie designs. Mongillo chose to make his classic gingerbread cookie that everyone knows and loves. The second cookie was a strawberry lemon cookie where he used his secret ingredient, strawberry fruit leather, in replace of the strawberries.
And the winner is…
Mongillo had finished the cookie and was waiting in suspense as the judges tried and examined all the cookies. The moment had come for the judges to announce the champion, and suspense was in the air. And then came that special moment when the judges announced the winner of the Christmas Cookie Challenge…Joseph Mongillo.
“I couldn’t believe it when the judges called my name as the winner! I won the “Christmas Cookie Challenge Champion” title and the ” golden ornament” as well as $10,000! It was a crazy experience. I was just happy to be there, but to win was surreal! I never fathomed that I would win or be recognized for doing something that brings me so much joy.”
Mongillo plans to use the prize money for his tuition at George Brown College in Toronto, where he is studying for an Honours Bachelor of Commerce Degree in Culinary Management. He is in the first year of the four-year program. “My goal is to work in the industry and gain some knowledge from some chefs, but the end goal is to open my own bakery.”
How Mongillo got started baking
Mongillo started baking at age 14 after spending time watching his mom bake all sorts of sweets in the kitchen.
“One day, I decided to make some Valentine’s Day cookies, and my mom posted a photo of them on Instagram. Then, a friend called and asked if I could make some custom Lego themed cookies for her son’s birthday, and it just snowballed from there. I am still in school, so I make a few orders each weekend, but during the Christmas season, I have made and decorated about 1,000 custom sugar cookies.”
Entirely self-taught, Joseph says practice makes perfect. “It’s meticulous work which takes time and lots of practice,” he explains. “I have watched many YouTube videos to learn how to decorate cookies. I still have lots to learn and want to continue developing my craft.”
Challenges and rewards
Mongillo talks about both from his experiences on the show. “Time is the biggest challenge. Ninety minutes go by quickly. You are baking, discussing what you are doing and having conversations with the judges—you have to multitask. In terms of rewards, that came at the end of the episode—after several hours of filming, to see the end product and hearing my name called and being told that the judges loved my cookies. It just confirms that I am on the right path. It pushed me out of my comfort zone. The biggest lesson I learned from this experience was that anything is possible. I started making cookies for fun, but if you keep at something you love doing, you never know what might happen.”
Season 7 of the Food Network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge streams on STACK TV and Discovery Plus.
by Laurie Wallace-Lynch