Carmel Valley native and cake decorator Lisa Altfest appears on Netflix’s “Sugar Rush,” a Christmas-themed spin on the competitive baking show, creating cookies, cupcakes and a stunner of a Christmas tree cake on a time crunch with Roanna Canete of Coronado’s Gluten Free Baking Company.
Altfest herself has celiac disease and the women competed as “the gluten-free goddesses,” which added an extra layer of challenge.
“We went through to every round and competed completely gluten-free. I can’t say there are a lot of other shows featuring gluten-free competitors and a contestant with celiac disease,” Altfest said. “We made it to the end…we were working with a disadvantage but we still held our own.”
“I feel so cliche saying it’s ok not to win and the experience was great. But, it’s ok not to win and the experience was really great,” Altfest said on the show.
Altfest née Gorodzinsky grew up in Carmel Valley and graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2007. Her husband, Eric, grew up in Del Mar and is a fellow Torrey Pines alum. They currently live in Orange County but with their second child due any day now, the couple plans to move back to San Diego next year where Altfest will join the Gluten Free Baking Company full time.
Artfully sculpting and frosting cakes is a long way from where Altfest started out—she went to the University of Southern California and got a degree in psychology with a minor in marketing.
“After I graduated I went into marketing and was absolutely miserable,” said Altfest, who used to watch Duff Goldman’s “Ace of Cakes” on her breaks. “I quit my job and moved myself to Canada for three months to attend the Bonnie Gordon College of Confectionery Arts. I’ve been a cake decorator ever since.”
She worked as a cake decorator at different bakeries in Orange County before landing her dream job—going to work for Duff Goldman at Charm City Cakes as a cake designer.
“It was absolutely insane,” Altfest said. “The first time I met him I’m pretty sure I did not say one coherent sentence.”
Altfest has been working as a freelance cake designer since she got pregnant with her first daughter.
A month before beginning pastry school in 2015, Altfest was diagnosed with celiac disease, an immune disease in which eating gluten damages the small intestine. The diagnosis was a huge blow—she was a cake designer who couldn’t eat anything that came out of her own kitchen.
Hoping to learn more about what would be her new lifestyle, she attended The Gluten Free & Allergen Friendly Expo (now named The Nourished Festival) at the Del Mar Fairgrounds and met Canete. She was impressed by Canete’s gluten-free baking style that she had developed after discovering her son’s food allergies.
Both women regrettably lost each other’s contact information but connected again a year later at the San Diego Cake Show in Del Mar and have been close friends ever since. Altfest started working for The Gluten Baking Company as a consultant and designer, ensuring that everyone is able to enjoy a beautiful and tasty treat to celebrate any occasion.
Altfest was contacted by “Sugar Rush” after the show found her Instagram page @cakesbylisag, filled with extravagant and creative cakes shaped like mermaid tails and ballerinas, athletic shoes, a storm trooper and even a Millennium Falcon. Her feed also includes her gluten-free goodies like cinnamon rolls, banana bread, cream puffs and glazed donuts sprinkled with Fruity Pebbles (the cereal is gluten-free, who knew?).
“It took me three seconds to call and say yes,” Altfest said of the opportunity that seemed unbelievable. “I started getting into cake decorating because of a cake show so getting to be on one was my dream.”
All she needed was a partner to go on the show with: “I instantly knew that I could take down a competition with my cake decorating and for gluten-free baking couldn’t compete without Roanna because her stuff is amazing.”
The gluten-free goddesses taped their festive episode in the beginning of 2019, decked out in matching red shirts, green bandannas in their hair and red-striped socks. Altfest, who is Jewish, pinned a menorah to her apron.
Each episode has four teams competing in three rounds: cupcakes, confections and cakes. A team is eliminated each round.
For the cupcake round, they made a gluten-free spice cupcake with fresh blackberry compote topped with cream cheese frosting. Canete explained that to make the cake, they used a combination of white rice flour and sweet rice flour to add elasticity or else the cake would taste like “a dry sponge.”
As a surprise, “Sugar Rush” host Hunter March revealed he is gluten intolerant and said their cupcake was the first cupcake he could actually take a bite of on the show.
In the cookie round, the women rallied despite a 25-minute delay due to an ingredient messing up a whole batch. They luckily had extra batter and whipped up a coconut and almond French dacquoise, with a tropical fruit pastry cream with passion fruit seeds and crunchy cacao nibs stuffed between the two meringue cookies. The tropical take was a nod to Canete’s Hawaiian family.
“Not the entire world celebrates Christmas with wintry flavors,” she said.
Making it to the cake round, the theme was “Oh Christmas Tree” and Altfest got to show off her skills, building a three-foot Christmas tree cake with five tiers, sugar lights, snowflakes and a cake topper sculpted to look like one of the judges, Adriano Zumbo.
“That’s my forte 100 percent so getting to the cake round was a win for me no matter what happened,” Altfest said. “That’s my passion, that’s what I do.”
The tree cake was a “gooey” gluten-free chocolate fudge cake with layers of whipped white chocolate peppermint ganache that Altfest said was “like Christmas in your mouth.”
“Our chocolate cake that we made is my absolute favorite,” she said. “When the weather gets a little cold, a slice of chocolate cake is kind of everything you need,”
Altfest has had three viewing parties since the episodes first launched on Nov. 29 on Netflix and she is amazed how a six-hour day for her was interpreted to a bite-size 45-minute episode. She describes the show as “silly, awesome and so fun” and her bubbly personality stood out on her episode, her excitement to be there shining through.
One of the best parts of the whole experience has been the feedback she has received since the show started streaming. People who are gluten-intolerant or have children with celiac disease said it was cool to see someone from the gluten-free community on a baking show, raising awareness and even inspiring a young baker.
“I know I’ve never seen anyone like me on TV. You see the creations that Duff makes and you automatically assume you will never be able to eat things like that. But we’re breaking that wall,” said Altfest. “If a kid wants to have a truck cake, they don’t have to be limited by their food restrictions.”
Altfest believes everyone should be able to have their cake and eat it too—after all, she made her own gluten-free, nine-tiered wedding cake.
Find “Sugar Rush Christmas” on Netflix. To learn more about The Gluten Free Baking Company, visit thegfbakingco.com