The Stony Brook University alumnus is one of nine amateur bakers to face off in the upcoming season.
Jonathan Gottfried ’11, who graduated from Stony Brook University with a bachelor’s degree in history, headed to the United Kingdom to compete in “The Great American Baking Show,” which is streaming on the Roku Channel.
Gottfried is the co-founder of Major League Hacking, a community of early career developers worldwide, with more than 250 weekend-long invention competitions (called hackathons) and a variety of other student events to help people start careers in tech. In 2017, he was named a Stony Brook 40 Under Forty honoree. The award program recognizes exceptional young alumni who have distinguished themselves as community leaders.
During the show’s filming in the United Kingdom, Gottfried and eight other contestants faced off in weekly baking challenges where they were tasked with making several American-style dishes. One of the biggest challenges – they were outside baking under a tent the entire competition.
Ellie Kemper (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “The Office”) and Zach Cherry (“Severance”) host the program with two original judges from “The Great British Bake Off,” Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith
“The Great American Baking Show” previously aired on ABC for five seasons, with the last being in 2019. Roku picked it up in May of last year. All six episodes are available to watch on Roku.
You were a history major at Stony Brook University. And you’re in the tech world. How did you end up on a baking show?
My dad was always the family baker growing up, and I was his assistant. I’ve been into it for a long time, and during the pandemic, I was baking constantly, as a way to kill time and have something to do while stuck at home. The show is a natural extension of that. I thought it would be a fun competition and a cool way to challenge myself. And I was a huge fan of “The Great British Bake Off.”
What was the experience like filming the show?
The show has a different format from a lot of other reality or competition shows. The whole thing is filmed in a tent in a field. You’re outdoors baking, which has interesting challenges. You have to deal with temperature and humidity, bugs and everything that you can imagine being outside, but you’re trying to bake something really quickly and in a complex way.
The experience was thoroughly intense. They tell you what the challenge is when you get there, and you have a really limited amount of time to do it. If you mess up, there are no do-overs, you can’t pre-prepare anything. You’re just there baking in this tent with cameras in your face. And then, you get judged. It’s really, really fast paced. And the distraction of cameras and judges, and all these other things going on around you, is definitely one of the more difficult things I’ve done in my life.
What did you find the hardest part of being on the show? And what was the most fun?
The actual hardest part was, because we filmed in the UK, British ingredients are different from American ones. You have all these recipes that you might be familiar with, and then suddenly your cream has a different fat percentage. I had to tweak everything to work with local ingredients, which was totally unexpected and surprisingly difficult.
I think the most enjoyable thing was the people. There were nine contestants, including myself, and we became a tight-knit family during filming. We still talk every day. Meeting all of these other people that the only thing we had in common was that we love baking, was just such a special experience.
The hosts of the show, Ellie and Zach, are also really nice people. They were very encouraging, and very uplifting even when something was going wrong. They really wanted us to succeed, which was nice to have someone there who was not really in it, cheering you on.
Switching to your career, Major League Hacking. You’ve run hackathons on campus at Stony Brook and around the country. What is a hackathon and what is that experience like?
I explain hackathons as invention marathons. Students brainstorm ideas. It could be a mobile app, a website, a robot, a homemade self-driving car. Literally whatever you can come up with. You spend from Friday to Sunday building a working prototype of that idea. On Sunday, you demo it for your friends, other participants and judges to win prizes. It’s really a low risk, dedicated time and space to build something of your own. You’re not being graded. It’s an experimentation format. And you see people doing a lot of things that are pretty far beyond what they’ve done in class. It is an environment where people want you to be successful, similar to the baking show, honestly. And that is just an incredible place to be from a creative and technical perspective.
I love hackathons and what students get out of them. When you go to a hackathon and you walk around, there’s all of these people potentially building the first creation of their own that they’ve ever done. And it is such a magical lightbulb moment for people. SBUHacks and Hack@CEWIT are the two main hackathons at Stony Brook. Students get to come up with their own ideas, and bring them to reality over a really short period of time. That’s the thing that inspires me and makes all of the difficult parts of having your own startup worth it. Getting to see students have that experience and, in many ways, change their total career trajectory and world view.
A lot of what Major League Hacking does with student groups is give them the resources, training and support to build these local communities and events on campus. I’m really proud to provide that support. And it’s great to see how every campus does it slightly differently and puts their own spin on it. We get to look at it from a global perspective of how everyone comes together.
What was your time like at Stony Brook?
I really enjoyed my time at Stony Brook. I actually started out in computer science, and then switched to history because I had a brief inclination of wanting to be a high school history teacher. I’ve always loved education, which has come full circle with Major League Hacking.
I got placed into a dorm with two other roommates. The three of us became very close friends that ended up living together the entire time we were at Stony Brook. I also got really involved with a lot of different things on campus. I was involved with the University Scholars. I was involved with Human vs. Zombies, which was a very popular game on campus for a while. I had a great experience.
I remember baking my friends a birthday cake in the Mendelsohn dorm kitchen. Which was a difficult challenge, maybe not as hard as being on the show, but it was not a facility designed for a big elaborate baking experience.
Back in 2017, you were a 40 Under Forty honoree. How did that feel?
I am proud to be associated with Stony Brook and to be an alum. It was really cool to be recognized for a lot of the work that I’ve done. Especially the work that I’ve done that is directly giving back to Stony Brook students. I have continued to be involved in a bunch of different ways. I’m on the Computer Science Department Industry Advisory Board. I talk to and help out a lot of students from the SBCS (Stony Brook Computing Society). I’ve really stayed connected to it. I felt like the 40 Under Forty was the recognition of that, but also encouragement to continue my involvement.
What advice would you give a Stony Brook student regarding achieving their goals – be it in their career or passion?
The advice I often give people is that you have to find like-minded people who you want to work with. And you also have to get a little bit out of your comfort zone to accomplish things that you may not think that you’re capable of. Hackathons are a really good environment for that because you’re kind of forced to do something a little weird and different. For some students, their first internship is a really scary thing. For other students, maybe they are just dealing with the difficulty of courses. Everyone has these different challenges. But if you have a good support network and get out of that comfort zone, then most people are able to accomplish a lot more than they expect.
What do you prefer? Tech, Baking, History? Do you want to go back and be a teacher?
I get to do a lot of teaching at Major League Hacking. Not directly in a classroom every day, but I do get to work with students and help them learn. I think that tech and baking are similar in some ways, but are also really different. Baking is a science as much as it is an art. And so is programming. When you’re building a piece of technology, you have to understand both the literal technical aspect of it as well as how people interact with it and their perspective on it. And that’s a creative thing. They both exercise that part of my brain. I don’t know if I prefer one or the other. I like that baking is a stress relief. And even with tech stuff, I still love building side projects.
See the trailer for “The Great American Baking Show” below.