SALT LAKE CITY — While in college, Tara Bench had a question that took her from Utah State University to Martha Stewart.
“Who are the people that make the food in these food magazines that I love so much?” she asked her professor.
Bench, who had transferred from Brigham Young University to USU to be a part of the school’s culinary program, soon learned the answer to her question: food stylists.
At 22, she landed an internship with Martha Stewart Living magazine in New York, where she worked in test kitchens assisting with recipe prepping and testing, and even flew on occasion with Stewart and her dogs in a private jet.
Bench earned a full-time job with Martha Stewart Living just months after finishing her internship, and worked with the magazine for six years as a food stylist and editor.
“It was a surreal experience, and I looked at it as kind of a temporary thing,” Bench said. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll do my internship and then I’ll move back West and get a job.’ I didn’t ever think I’d end up in New York this long.”
Now, Bench, who continues to work in New York as a food stylist, has another unique experience to add to her resume: competitor on a Food Network cooking show.
The network reached out to her about participating in the "Christmas Cookie Challenge," a series where five bakers show off their holiday cookie-making skills to a panel of judges in two rounds — with the winner of each episode receiving a $10,000 prize.
“I’d never done a cooking competition, but I thought, ‘Hey, I’ve made cookies for almost 20 years professionally. I have made thousands of Christmas cookies in my career, why not try it?’” she said.
And while Bench believes her career as a food stylist made her well prepared for the competition, she didn’t anticipate all of the drama and intensity that comes with being part of a televised competition.
“I work in all different kitchens, so I figured, ‘OK, I can acclimate myself to this kitchen pretty quickly,'" she said. "And as a food stylist you’re working with different equipment and different types of food and recipes, so I thought, ‘OK, I can improvise.’ But it was surprising. It was really hard to make beautiful award-winning cookies in such a short amount of time.”
It doesn’t make it easier that during each round, the judges throw curveballs and add challenges for the bakers to work around.
“You have to be creative on the spot and then also do your planning and your cooking all at once,” Bench said. “So that was more intense than I had anticipated. You have to kind of pull out your inner artist.”
Participating on “Christmas Cookie Challenge” has special meaning for Bench, who grew up in Orem with a family tradition of decorating cookies on Christmas Eve.
“It’s probably one of the only cooking competitions that I would ever do because I love Christmas, I love Christmas cookies. it was a big thing growing up,” she said. “I would always thumb through the cookbooks and make a list of the different Christmas cookies I wanted to make with my mom.”
And while Bench enjoyed competing on the show, she says she’ll stick to making Christmas cookies on her own time — for now.
“I mean, when there’s $10,000 on the line, it’s very exciting and that’s a pretty great day’s work,” she said. “So it’s hard to say I would never do it again, but yeah, it was such an intense experience that I think it’ll be a while.”
“Christmas Cookie Challenge,” Food Network, Monday, Nov. 13, 11 p.m. MT.