“Now is a great time for people to try and bake,” said Alex Willis, who was born in Tokyo, grew up in Sunnyvale, and lives in Los Angeles. “Have fun. Don’t be afraid to start baking.”
Willis came to baking renown as one of 10 contestants vying for the title of “Best Amateur Baker in America” on the fifth season of The Great American Baking Show: Holiday Edition, which premiered on television Dec. 12, 2019.
He baked his way to the semi-finals over four-and-a-half weeks of filming in Great Britain. The judges named him “Star Baker” for the cake episode and the spice episode, when he made his mom’s cinnamon buns.
“I decided on a whim to apply for the show, to go for it,” said Willis.
He had pretty much given up on being chosen when, about five or six months later, he got a cold call inviting him for a first interview via Skype. After extensive screening, he was selected from, he recalls hearing, about 9,000 applicants.
Nothing from Willis’s school days predicted his interest in baking. He is a 2010 graduate of Wilcox High School in Santa Clara, where he was involved in theater and government rather than the culinary, hospitality and management program.
He earned a BA degree in chemistry and physics from Harvard and an MS degree in chemistry from Northwestern University. He now works as a business strategy and analytics manager for IHOP restaurants, running the numbers, determining, for example, what items are selling.
Growing up, Willis loved cooking and watching food networks with his mom, Yuko Rabbitt, now living in Scotts Valley.
“My mom is always worried about seeing me now,” said Willis, “because she gains weight every time she sees me.”
In pre-pandemic times, Willis threw monthly brunches in his apartment for 10 to 25 friends. He did all the cooking, preparing everything from roast beef to biscuits, Victoria sponge cakes and cinnamon buns.
“I make a lot of food!” he said. “I enjoy cooking and spending time with friends. Being at home all the time now, I’m baking a lot.”
“People are afraid of baking,” he continued. ” Precision is very important — weighing the flour. The precision scares them.”
Willis advises having a kitchen scale and a stand mixer.
“They’re pretty key and missing from most people’s kitchens,” he said. “A scale will really change the game in terms of being precise and consistent.”
Willis’s dream is to open his own brick and mortar bakery someday. In the meantime, look for his classic cinnamon bun and other recipes on his website www.alexwillisbakes.com. Send him photos of your own baking creations via Instagram (@alexiswillisbakes) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
“I’d love to see what people are baking,” he said.
“Experiment. That’s the way to get better. Everyone has had a bad bake, but the more you bake, the better you get at it. Once you get better, you can be more experimental.”