Meet a baker with more than a sweet tooth, Ashley Holt!
Words by Nick Fierro Photographs by Stephanie Rachel Guttenplan
What is a Sugar Monster? Close your eyes and think about it… seriously, we’ll wait. Did you picture a pudgy, snaggle-toothed imp? Did you envision a barrage of sticky-sweet saccharine tentacles bulging out of a three-tiered cake? How about a skeletal monstrosity with crystalline fangs and a cloudy eye? Congratulations! Everybody wins, because when model-turned-chef (then turned model/chef) Ashley Holt is at the helm, anything is possible, from the sickly sweet to the downright ghoulish. Founder and chef of Sugar Monster in Brooklyn, New York, Holt bailed from the speeding locomotive that was modelling back in 2009, did a tuck and roll, and landed on her feet at the top of the charts in the culinary world, and has since been awarded top honours from TLC and Food Network, not to mention praise from her most unlikely of heroes, the mighty Martha Stewart. So when this stampeding beauty of confections pauses for a moment to sprinkle a few words of advice into our ear cavities, imagine our delight when the first words out of her mouth are: “If you hate your job, quit!”
So, only a few years back, when a freshly inked Holt went toe-to-toe with her agency over her tattoos, she knew it was time to take a walk. “I quit modelling in 2009,” Holt tells us. “I realised how unhealthy I was, how unhappy I was, and when I got my tattoos they told me that I couldn’t come back and work under their agency anymore.” At the age of 18 Ashley was plucked from a small town in Georgia, told to dye her hair a single shade, sew up her gauged out lobes and shed 10 kilograms off of her already slight frame. By the late 2000s, the young model was a seasoned vet, and felt that she had sacrificed enough of her identity for her job. So, instead of seeking out a new agency, she sought out a new life. “I totally understand that they have their rules, but to me I was like, Alright, I’m fucking done with this.”
Luckily, Ashley had a backup plan bubbling under the surface: a sweet, sweet backup plan. “I always baked as a hobby, it’s something that always made me happy,” she says fuelled by a sugar rush and unable to sit still, Holt fell back on the one thing that kept her head straight during her modelling days. “When I quit modelling I realised that I had to do something with my life, and what I wanted to do was bake.” That’s a bit of an understatement on Ashley’s part, she didn’t just start baking, she rampaged through the culinary world with the voracity that her moniker “Sugar Monster” implies. Bigger, sweeter, cuter, scarier. From over-the-top cutesy birthday cakes, to hyper realistic zombie chocolate sculptures, Holt was on a mission to climb to the top of Sugar Mountain with a knife in her teeth.
Her competitive spirit and excruciating attention to detail inevitably caught the eye of Next Great Baker, but her rise to stardom was no (brace yourselves) cake walk, as Chef Ashley explains, “Being on Next Great Baker opened so many other doors for me and introduced me to all these new avenues that I could take. I tried out for the two seasons of Next Great Baker, and I didn’t get picked. When I got accepted for Season 3, I ended up winning the entire show. I just could not believe it was actually happening.” Whether Chef knew it or not, her soufflé had not yet begun to rise. “Going from Next Great Baker to Cake Boss was crazy, it’s a show that I’ve watched forever,” Holt recalls. “And from there I was asked to be a culinary producer on a spin off show called Bakery Boss, and then I was asked to be a producer on Season 4 of Next Great Baker. It was absolutely insane. I went from a competitor to a cast member to producing a show that I had previously won.”
As we pause for a moment to catch our breath, it might be a good time to explain that despite her drive, determination and intensity, Ashley Holt is in fact, cool as a cucumber. There’s a serene quality to Holt’s mentality and approach, something she has recently been able to display to the world through her tattoos, most notably, one on her forearm that reads “eat dessert first”.
“It’s my motto,” Holt explains, “don’t take life too seriously, do whatever you want. Eat dessert before dinner, no one’s stopping you.” After years of saying the phrase out loud, Chef decided to let her skin do the talking. “I finally got it tattooed about two years ago. Bert Krak from Smith Street Tattoo did it. I walked into his shop, it’s crazy, he’s one of the most renowned artists in the industry, and I’m asking him to do some shitty text work on me.” The humble Holt recalls Krak’s reaction. “He was like, ‘this isn’t really my style’, but of course I question everything, and I tell all my artists that I start small and then work up to larger pieces, and he was like, ‘ok whatever, sit down’, and he did it, and it’s beautiful.”
Another piece, just as visible and equally memorable, is the text across Holt’s collarbone that reads “without form”. Chef recalls the text that inspired her to get the tattoo. “I was in this really rebellious stage of my life when I left modelling,” as evidenced by the dynamic placement of the ink. “I felt like it was really suppressing me, suppressing my individuality, I started reading a lot, got really into spirituality. I remember reading Be Here Now by Ram Dass,” Holt says. “There was this page that I turned to, and it just resonated with me. It said that you have to be without form to set yourself free, it meant so much to me when I read it that I got it tattooed.” Holt reflects on her newly liberated self. “Just live your life, be yourself, go where you want to go, do things that feel right to you.”
Doing what didn’t feel right may have brought Ashley Holt around the world, but her passion for cooking, the fire that never quite went out, has now engulfed her life, in a good way, like how an oven makes a cake. It has propelled her into the stratosphere of celebrity chefs, including that culinary neutron star from Nutley, New Jersey: Martha fricking Stewart.
“Martha Stewart, her brand is just incredible. Everything that she and her team come out with is so beautiful, and pristine and cute. It’s completely manageable for the home chef to do.” Holt recalls the hours spent in disbelief pouring over the minutia of Stewarts recipes, tips and anecdotes, “I’m just like ‘who is this woman? She doesn’t have time for all of this?’ To see the organisation that was put into her work, and her magazine, the attention to detail, I respect it so much, I mean, she’s frickin’ Martha Stewart.” So when the art department of Chopped Junior called and wanted to get Chef Holt’s cake on the set, they informed her that Martha Stewart would be a judge. “Pressure’s on, it had to be perfect,” Holt’s voice begins to shake with excitement. “How many people in the world can say that Martha Stewart saw their cake in person? I made this really pretty Thanksgiving-themed cake. I did it in her style completely too. It had a braided cornucopia made out of pizza dough. It was just so golden and beautiful and shiny with raw sugar. All these fall fruits just overflowing out of the basket around the cake, there was nothing as intensely decorated on set. My friend behind the scenes called and told me ‘Martha’s like, crazy over it.’”
At the risk of embarrassing Chef Ashley, we will not be publishing her reaction to this wonderful news verbatim. Instead, we will merely state that she was moved, touched, and emitted an enthusiastic verbal confirmation of this acknowledgment.
So what’s next for Ashley Holt, where has this path that she alone cleared led her to? After leaving behind an industry that afforded her little comfort, pioneering a sugar empire in the heart of Brooklyn, and gracing the airwaves of our idiot boxes, where does Chef Holt find herself? Back to square one, but on her terms, as she returns to the world of professional modelling.
“I’ve asked myself, ‘am I selling myself out?’” Holt questions her situation briefly before showing us a glimpse of the bigger picture, “I’ve preached so much against this industry, am I just being a total hypocrite?” No, she states with a crystal clear assertion, “I’m in a much different mindset, I’m stronger now, I’m more confident, and I’m in New York. If the work is there for me, why not make the money? I have the talent that comes with it. It’s not just a pretty face. It’s all the other stuff that I do. I felt like if I could get out there and be partnered with certain brands, different endorsement deals, then that would just do better things for me, my brand, and Sugar Monster.”
It’s hard to argue with the logic of someone who’s self-made, someone who has dodged bullets, survived risk and become a success, but it’s especially difficult to question the stone cold calculations of a Sugar Monster, poised and ready to strike.