Chef Vanessa Greeley takes on life and baking with determination

Chef Vanessa Greeley takes on life and baking with determination

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  • Provided photos Vanessa Greeley is flanked by two judges from the Food Network - Carla Hall from The Chew, and Chef Nicolas Lodge, the head judge for the gingerbread contest.

  • Vanessa Greeley helps her daughter, who modeled for her, get dressed in a chocolate dress Greeley created for a show.

  • Vanessa Greeley placed first in one competition with this jewelry box cake.

By Linda Smith Hancharick

— Chef Vanessa Greeley likes a challenge. Although this classically trained French pastry chef has won several national baking titles, she set an ambitious goal for herself this past fall: make her first ever gingerbread house and take it to the National Gingerbread House Competition.

Greeley did just that, all under the watchful cameras of the Food Network, which followed her journey. Her showpiece, entitled “Dare to Dream,” took 500 hours to design, bake and build and captured a top 10 prize, an incredible feat for someone who never worked with gingerbread before.

Stage 4 cancerBut Greeley’s baking prowess grew from a place of deep despair, a time in her life when she wasn’t even expected to live another year.

“I was diagnosed with stage 4 uterine cancer,” said Greeley, 52, who moved to Warwick in August 2017. The diagnosis came in 2000. At the time, she was a systems analyst for a French bank living in Queens. She wasn’t expected to live a year. After numerous surgeries and countless treatments, including experimental ones, she did indeed survive.

But her life had been forever changed. Her memory suffered and her body was compromised from the surgeries and treatments.

“I was so depressed. The treatments caused so much stress to my body,” said Greeley. “I felt like I lost myself.”

One day in 2005, while recovering from yet another surgery, Greeley was lying on her couch watching the Food Network. “It was a birthday cake competition. I was amazed that people could do so much with cake.”

It was also inspiring to her.

“Something ignited inside of me,” said Greeley. “I wanted to do this. It jumpstarted my life.”

Greeley decided to take a cake decorating class at a local craft store in New York. She did so well, she decided to take a class at the International Culinary Center (ICC) in lower Manhattan. She went from taking one class to signing up for the entire program. Still working nine-to-five at the bank, she attended ICC classes at night, never missing a single one.

She had her challenges; she had to memorize recipes and techniques. It was often a struggle. But she worked hard and succeeded.

“I loved it! It made me feel alive. It was like I was reinventing myself,” said Greeley, a native of Peru.

She attributes that to her cancer. “Whatever brain cells died in my treatment, my creative side was born,” Greeley said.

No one at ICC knew of her cancer struggle. “I didn’t want pity.”

First winAfter completing her studies in 2006, Greeley began entering baking competitions. “To my shock and surprise, I was winning,” she said.

Her first big win came at the National Capital Area Cake Show in Virginia. She created a work of art really – a cake based on a jewelry box she owned. She won in the semi-pro division and then best in show.

“I was so intimidated,” she said. “My cake was small and there were so many beautiful, large cakes.”

This win very quickly put her on the map. When you win best in show, everyone wants to know who you are, said Greeley. Food Network recruited her for its Food network Challenge. She and her team finished in second place.

She’s been on other Food Network shows since and opened Vanessa’s Cake Designs after moving to Glen Rock, New Jersey, and now to Warwick. Greeley creates specialty cakes and wedding cakes and also teaches baking and decorating techniques at her home studio to children, teens and adults. She also judges many baking competitions.

Royal icingWhich brings us to her latest competition – the National Gingerbread House Competition in Asheville, North Carolina.

“I love learning and thought ‘let’s see if what I know from cakes transfers over to gingerbread’,” Greeley said.

The house was made with 90 percent gingerbread and decorated with royal icing, fondant, modeling chocolate and isomalt. It showcased several techniques, including piping, hand modeling and painting. The process took about 500 hours to develop recipes, design the structure, construct and decorate it.

She received a call from the Food Network, asking if she would be one of five contestants in the gingerbread competition to allow them to follow her. She agreed. But she still doesn’t know how they knew she was going to this national competition. “I didn’t tell anyone.”

Greeley maintains a busy schedule between her teaching and judging, not to mention baking and designing her cakes. She continues to have many health issues but her baking and competing help her through it.

“My health issues – they are what challenge me to do new things,” said Greeley. “I like the challenge.”

The showThe show, Gingerbread Giants Season 2, aired on Dec. 23. To watch the show, click her or go to

“I loved it! It made me feel alive. It was like I was reinventing myself .... Whatever brain cells died in my treatment, my creative side was born .... I didn’t want pity.”
Vanessa Greeley

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