Every day at Temple University, pastry chef Dave “Baker Dave” Okapal and his team prepare thousands of cookies, cupcakes, brownies, and other desserts for the school’s hungry students. But next week on Food Network, he’ll bake off a few more treats for a shot at a $10,000 grand prize.
Okapal, 45, will appear on the network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge on Monday at 10 p.m., when he faces off against four other cookie masters to determine whose baking is the best. In the episode, Baker Dave will create a life-size Christmas stocking entirely from cookie dough. Judges Ree Drummond, Dan Langan, and Aarti Sequeira, meanwhile, decide which way the cookie crumbles.
The appearance is actually Okapal’s second on Food Network. In 2009, he took home a silver medal after competing on the channel’s Food Network Challenge: Extreme Wedding Cakes. But despite his prior TV experience, Okapal says, it has been his 15-plus years at Temple that have prepared him most for his appearance on Christmas Cookie Challenge.
“People don’t think of a university as being somewhere where you’d be able to be creative, but I have a lot of creative freedom here,” Okapal, who joined Temple’s staff in 2003, says. “I make things here that I wouldn’t be able to make if I was in a hotel or restaurant.”
Those items include Temple’s annual “TU Big Cake,” the largest of which consisted of 60 sheet cakes arranged to resemble an owl in flight, as well cheeseburger whoopie pies for National Cheeseburger Day, and rare desserts like cranberry pie for holiday celebrations at the university. Ditto for vegan desserts and other specialty items, which Okapal says help students expand their culinary horizons while they’re away at school.
Okapal’s professorial attitude has made him a popular figure at Temple, thanks to a healthy social media following on Twitter and Instagram, as well as Okapal’s weekly show on the university’s network, TUTV. Dubbed Baker Dave Presents, the show features local Philly notables creating a dish alongside Okapal, and telling the audience the story behind their dish. Previous guests across more than 50 episodes have included cheesesteak maven Tony Luke Jr., as well as 6ABC’s Karen Rogers and David Murphy.
“That’s important for us as culinarians, to help them grow,” he says. “I like interacting with the students. Not in a creepy way, obviously. I want them to experience new things, and they want to experience new things. I don’t think their learning stops in the classroom.”
A native of Findlay, Ohio, Okapal got his start in baking after graduating with a degree in pastry arts from Johnson & Wales University in South Carolina. From there, he worked gigs in Atlantic City, where he worked “for our now-President” at the Trump Taj Mahal and Castle. A job as a wedding cake decorator at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington followed, with Okapal pumping out 20 to 25 cakes weekly. By the early 2000s, his wife, a Philly native, brought him to town, where he worked with Aramark Higher Education, which services Temple.
Despite more than two decades as a pastry chef, there is one item Okapal doesn’t have a lot of experience working on, per se: Christmas cookies. Temple, he says, would “never do Christmas-specific cookies, because that would be inappropriate.” The school does, however, allow him to bake holiday-themed cookies, like gingerbread men and snowflakes, which will appear at an upcoming cookie decoration event. Otherwise, he says, his work as a cake decorator should translate well.
Whatever way the competition goes, though, Temple students can expect to see Okapal back on campus when they return from fall break. After all, seeing how he has been embraced at the school, he says he isn’t going anywhere.