In the Danville kitchen of their grandmother, Amy Lehman, Eric and Scott Keppler learned the art of mixing a cup of this and a pinch of that to create wholesome, tasty meals and desserts. None of them could have guessed that one day Eric would be on television competing against top bakers in the nation.
Eric Keppler, 46, is one of nine contestants on the Food Network vying for the title of Best Baker in America. Already whittled to seven contestants after the first three episodes, Keppler continues to use a lifetime of baking experience to try to win the coveted title.
“For me the preparation has been my whole career,” he said shortly before the competition began. “I have been baking for a long time and worked in many different aspects of the pastry world. So going into a competition like this, where everything is unfamiliar for me, I am going to need to rely on my instincts, the skills I have spent years mastering, and just be myself, and have fun.”
The son of Danville residents Joseph and Gail Keppler, Eric worked at other jobs before pursuing a career in baking. Even before his formal training, he was often asked to bake something for employee parties.
“People always seemed to enjoy what I made, which always made me feel good,” he said.
“We spent a lot of time with our grandmother,” Scott Keppler, 50, said. “She taught us both how to cook. Eric kind of took to the baking side of it.”
One day a friend and co-worker told Eric he should go to school for baking and do it for a living.
“It was mind blowing to me,” Eric said. “It had never occurred to me that there were schools that taught baking and that I could make a living doing it.”
Culinary school at Johnson and Wales University took him far beyond cakes, pies and cookies.
“Being a pastry chef, a true pastry chef, requires time and patience. There is no fast track – you either have the skills and knowledge or you don’t, and there is only one way to learn those things, through practice and actual doing,” he said. “It was lots of hard work for low pay, moving around the country to gain as many different skills as I could. I wanted to take my time to find my place so I worked in resorts, country clubs, restaurants, wholesale bakeries, hotels and retail pastry shops. They all are different in some way and force you to strengthen different skills.”
In fact, in the May 20th episode of Best Baker in America, Eric won the Master Challenge for his dome cake – a dessert in a dessert that is revealed by smashing the chocolate, sugar or meringue shell around it.
“Kudos to Eric for using the balloon method,” said Cristine Struble in www.foodsided.com. “That option is always a fun one to watch (and luckily his balloon didn’t pop) … Additionally, his revealed inside dessert was a contrast to the dome, which made the reveal an even bigger moment. Eric’s dessert had wonderful flavors and a perfect mousse.”
Throughout Danville, many residents watch Best Baker in America with a proud sense of connection.
“We’re pleased for him,” said Judi Hickey, who graduated from Danville High School with Eric’s father and lives a block from Joseph and Gail.
Hickey is one of the administrators of the Facebook page, “Danville, Pennsylvania, Present, Past & Future,” where dozens of encouraging comments are posted after each Best Baker episode.
“We’re excited that something like this is developing people’s interest,” Hickey said. “It’s nice to see the encouragement. So many people are rooting for him.”
Today, Eric is an executive pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in Silicon Valley, Palo Alto, California. His grandmother would be proud to see how far he’s come.
“My Nana was an incredible woman,” he said. “I swear she could make anything from scratch. I think she really sparked my passion. If I saw something in a store that I wanted, she was always the one to say let’s go home and make it. That mind set, that we could do anything, make anything, is a gift I still use every day.”
Scott Keppler likes to ask Eric to bake a key lime pie when he’s home. For now, though, he’s enjoying watching his brother on TV.
“I’m excited for him,” Scott said. “He worked hard to get where he’s been. My whole family’s excited about it.”
“There is always a piece of Danville in everything I do. It is still in the heart of who I am,” Eric said. “Food is an expression of my love and caring for others, and that is something I learned in Danville, from my family and community. So that is always in my desserts.”