West Chicago pastry chef answers call from Food Network's 'Holiday Baking Championship'

  • Pastry chef Marilyn Santos-McNabb has come a long way from the fishing village of Malabon, Philippines, to the Food Network's "Holiday Baking Championship."

    Pastry chef Marilyn Santos-McNabb has come a long way from the fishing village of Malabon, Philippines, to the Food Network's "Holiday Baking Championship." Courtesy of Food Network

  • Animated and talented, West Chicago's Marilyn Santos-McNabb has become a fan favorite on the Food Network's "Holiday Baking Championship."

    Animated and talented, West Chicago's Marilyn Santos-McNabb has become a fan favorite on the Food Network's "Holiday Baking Championship." Courtesy of Food Network

 
 
Updated 12/2/2021 11:43 AM

The Food Network had called her before.

This time, Marilyn Santos-McNabb honored the offer.

 

A semiretired executive pastry chef staying on at the Hilton Chicago/Northbrook for the holidays, Santos-McNabb is a fan favorite on Season 8 of the Food Network's "Holiday Baking Championship," hosted by former NFL player and future host of "The Bachelor," Jesse Palmer.

If she outlasts 11 other competitors in the reality series, she plans to put the $25,000 winnings toward her retirement.

If retirement ever truly happens.

"My friends say I'm busier than ever," said Santos-McNabb, married and living on a wooded lot in West Chicago with chickens, fruit trees, a perennial shade garden and a large vegetable garden.

"You name it, I have it. I'm kind of like a plant collector," she said.

A native of Malabon near Manilla in the Philippines, she was a pastry chef instructor for nearly 11 years at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago's Le Cordon Bleu Program.

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While there, she created an 8-foot-long cake for President Barack Obama of his family dog, Bo. Her gingerbread White House creations were displayed in the Museum of Science and Industry's annual "Christmas Around the World" exhibit.

Things like this, specialties in petit fours and cake decoration and the use of colorful ingredients in her baking, drew notice from the Food Network.

"When I was working at Le Cordon Bleu, I'd been asked a few times and I always said no because I just didn't feel like I was special, you know? I just thought I do what I do," Santos-McNabb said.

"But because I was retiring and then because it was kind of slow during the pandemic, I told them initially, 'Let me think about it.'

"A week later someone checked in again. I said, 'OK, I'll do it.' I thought, I really wanted to experience it, and I really just wanted to have fun."

Though she estimated she's about 20 years older than the next-oldest competitor and 40 years older than the rest, she's struck a chord on the show, which airs locally at 7 p.m. Monday and streams on discovery+.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Santos-McNabb is good television.

"My face cannot lie, so I have so many facial expressions and people think I am funny," she said.

In one episode, she got serious with a cranky butter churner, the only option remaining after swifter contestants chose less balky means to make their butter.

"You should see my face when I have to churn butter," she said.

In an early episode Santos-McNabb avoided a doomsday moment with "Holiday Baking Championship" judges Nancy Fuller, Duff Goldman and Carla Hall when she confused the container of apple cider vinegar for straight apple cider while making doughnuts. She sniffed out the faux pas and, in a pro move, neutralized the vinegar with baking soda.

It worked. The judges loved her doughnuts, and were none-the-wiser to the apple cider/apple cider vinegar mix-up.

In fact, the judges have complimented her flavors, with Goldman telling her at one point "You know flavors, OK?"

"If somebody wants to do it, you really have to know your stuff, you really have to know your recipes, and you really should be physically well-equipped because you do a lot of running," Santos-McNabb said.

"The clock does not stop. If you have two hours to do it, you have two hours to do it. The camera is always on you and you run for your ingredients, you run for the oven. By like the fourth week my legs were cramping, because I'm old and short."

What satisfies her the most is the joy she's brought to a worldwide audience. Friendly fans send her Instagram messages, tell her about their show watch parties. Her recipe for green tomato mincemeat pie is a hit on social media, she said.

"I got a message from my cousin in Texas," she said. "He was saying, 'Do you know you're on the ad for discovery+?'"

Such acclaim caps a decades-long career and interest in food since she was a little girl in Malabon, playing with fire and crude creations.

"I would cut up hibiscus leaves and cook them in the clay pots. Not realizing what fate is about," Santos-McNabb said.

Though she studied marine biology in college and later worked for a pharmacological company in the Philippines, her heart was always in the kitchen. At 22 Santos-McNabb owned her own bakery, Marilyn's, and in 1983 at age 27, left home to study food service at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.

After a brief stint as pastry chef at the Lisle Hilton, Santos-McNabb ran her own place in Glendale Heights, Plain & Fancy Bakeshop, for 10 years until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She's been cancer-free for 21 years.

She's baked in corporate kitchens, including Mesón Sabika in Naperville and at Wheaton College's Café Bon Appétit.

Santos-McNabb joined Hilton Northbrook in 2014, and though she technically retired in August, she's stayed on during the holidays and makes desserts and wedding cakes for both its restaurants, Allgauer's and Frank's Place. She will also work "Breakfast with Santa" on the first three Saturdays in December, and Christmas and New Year's brunches.

It's a long way from Malabon.

"I really think that if you do something you have to follow through," Santos-McNabb said. "If you're easily disappointed, then you're not going to succeed. But if you follow through, then you will succeed."

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