The kind of benevolent silence you might expect in a friary — especially on a late Friday afternoon — has settled over the warren of dim hallways and jigsaw puzzle of rooms. Sunlight streams in through the windows, and a gray cat pads around stealthily as if it, too, is afraid to disrupt the hush.
And there, in the back kitchen of the 103-year-old Capuchin College in Northeast Washington, stands Brother Andrew Corriente, hacking away at a Napoleon that we just carefully assembled, each strike a brief staccato in the otherwise staid environment. Shards of puff pastry explode off the plate, and whipped cream splotches out with every impact.
If all play, even with your food, is educational, then clearly Corriente, 31, is learning. A lot. Today he’s analyzing the bake on his puff pastry, a fundamental element of desserts that requires a deft hand at incorporating flour and butter to achieve those signature flaky layers. Corriente, who is also studying at Catholic University to become a priest, has been working to master it, and analyzing the results is just one step in the process.
Creating and then destroying in the name of better baking may sound familiar to fans of “The Great British Baking Show,” and there’s a reason for that: Corriente is the most recent winner of its nearly identical spinoff, “The Great American Baking Show: Holiday Edition.”
A ‘ball of energy’
Corriente moves around the kitchen with such speed and alacrity, he acts as though he’s still in the airy, sort-of-open-to-the-elements big white tent in rural England where both the British and American versions of the show are filmed.
“The brothers are so concerned, because I’m always moving,” he says. “Ball of energy” and “nonstop” is how his sister, Theresa Corriente Sajonas, describes him, something she says he gets from their mother.
If he pauses, it’s usually to greet one of the friary’s 30 brothers or to cross himself before popping a bake in the oven, an instinctive move he realized he did so often only after watching the show, which aired on ABC over four weeks in December and January.
Almost any baker can relate to the act of murmuring a silent prayer to the pastry gods for breads that rise, cheesecakes that set and pies with crispy, dry crusts (the dreaded soggy bottom is a constant fear in the tent). But Corriente takes it to another level.
As he said in the first episode of the season, “My baking is always a conversation with God.”
Corriente’s faith was on full display as soon as he appeared on the show wearing a habit — in his case, the plain, brown hooded robe associated with the Capuchin friars.
“I don’t have to wear this,” although it’s encouraged, he says. But he wanted to show that “my faith and my baking are so intimately connected. I can’t do one without the other.”
The two are inextricably linked in his personal history, too. Corriente, a son of Catholic Filipino immigrants, did not delve deeper into his faith until college, when he was floundering at New York University, far from his California home and friends. Even then, he had no idea where religion would take him until he went to Nashville for a ceremony in which a college friend took her first vows as a nun and met a friar.
“He was so authentic, sincere, incredibly smart,” Corriente recalls. The friar invited him to meet other men who were in their first years, and he recalls being struck by how the friars could just be themselves.
“The more I visited the friars, the more I prayed about it. It was bizarre because it all felt right,” he says. “It really freaked me out because this was never part of the plan. But then I decided to take the leap.”
Next came the baking. “I didn’t know I could bake until I became a friar,” Corriente says. The thought came to him while meditating in the chapel during his first year as a friar: “Why don’t you cook something?”
Not that Corriente didn’t have plenty of exposure to food as a child. Corriente Sajonas says their mother is an avid cook, unsurprising since her parents were also great cooks who would host feast day meals at their home in the Philippines. When Corriente’s parents, dad Rodel and mom Elna, immigrated, they were not ones to stick to the Filipino staples. Italian was a favorite cuisine, and Corriente Sajonas remembers numerous meals out for everything from steaks to croissants. She says her brother’s palate ended up growing more than anyone else in their family. “I don’t know what set him off,” she says. Then again, “When he wants something to make him happy, he goes to McDonald’s,” she laughs. “He can eat so much, it’s crazy.” As if his constant energy didn’t burn off enough, the 5-foot-6 Corriente also likes to bike to counteract the fruits of his labor.
Before Corriente started baking as a friar, the most food-adjacent part of his adult life had been a stint as a manager at Georgetown Cupcake in Los Angeles and helping book celebrity chefs on TV segments during a stint at a talent agency (he graduated from NYU in 2009 with a degree in film studies). He rarely cooked while living on his own.
Now, Corriente has embraced a love of baking and cooking in general, devouring cookbooks and YouTube videos and speaking in terms of ratios, flour protein content and flavors. He peppers his conversation with wisdom culled from some of the food world’s biggest luminaries, such as Samin Nosrat, Dorie Greenspan and J. Kenji López-Alt. He meticulously tracks his recipes and testing in an Excel spreadsheet.
He bakes. All the time. “I live with 30 guys,” he says. He also cooks for the community, particularly a weekly Sunday meal at a local hardware store. “Beans and weenies” won’t cut it. Instead he makes dozens of spatchcocked (a la López-Alt) buttermilk-marinated (a la Nosrat) roasted chickens.
“He has seen so often how soup kitchens serve up gruel, essentially,” says Father Paul Dressler, the guardian — “coach” is the analogy he likes — at Capuchin College. “He makes a point to really cook.”
Unlike on the show, where he could get away with more esoteric flavors, at home he typically sticks to the crowd-pleasing favorites, which include a granola-inspired oatmeal cookie, apple pie and chocolate cake.
“His love of baking is really his love of other people, his love of serving,” Dressler says. “It’s really other-centered. … It’s not about him.”
Learning with each challenge
Corriente’s personal- and religious-driven service ethos may seem at odds with the decision to apply for a hugely popular baking competition series.
In part, Dressler saw the show as a chance to have Corriente represent his faith and spirituality. Dispelling myths about friars (no, they’re not like cloistered monks) was a bonus to his primary goal of becoming a better baker, as far as Corriente was concerned.
The decision made perfect sense to his sister. This was the time for him to learn as much as he could from the other bakers and judges Paul Hollywood, an original from the British series, and Sherry Yard, the James Beard award-winning American pastry chef and cookbook author.
Corriente sums up his big sister’s advice like this: “Your whole life is about taking care of other people. This is for you to nurture your love of baking.”
At times, the month-long experience of taping the show felt anything but nurturing. Corriente recalls sobbing in his apartment, exhausted and unsure whether he even wanted to go back into the tent. Among the lows: A collapsing cheesecake tower. The highs: Hollywood praising his bread sculpture (“I don’t like that. [Dramatic pause.] I love it.”) and Yard raving about his canapes.
Then, of course, there was the triumphant finale, the result of which he had managed to keep a secret from the brothers at the friary, although Dressler and others had their suspicions. Corriente’s sister and parents were there for the filming. In the end, his array of three mini desserts (chocolate sandwich cookies with lime buttercream and blackberry jam; berry and cream cakes with white chocolate frosting; and rosemary apple pies with salted caramel) helped him surge to the finish line over the other two finalists.
“Brother Andrew deserved to win because we watched him grow week after week,” Yard said in the finale. “He learned with each challenge, and that’s what baking is all about — experience.”
An expression of faith
Back in the secondary kitchen of the friary, a quiet, cooler spot where Corriente focuses on assembly and decorating, he continues to scrutinize his pastry, after teaching me how to make rough puff pastry (made with pieces, rather than one giant block, of butter) and sour-cream-stabilized whipped cream. And because that’s not enough, he’s also decided to try to figure out my palate, foisting spoons of pistachio buttercream and a slice of layer cake on my perfectly willing appetite.
That doesn’t surprise his sister. “He’s always been the type of person to dissect things,” she says.
Part of figuring things out now involves adjusting to life in the national spotlight. Corriente has suddenly found himself receiving all kinds of requests — media, speaking and charity.
“I still feel like everything’s so surreal,” he says. “I’m doing the same things. I’m praying. I’m serving the poor. I’m going to school, I’m studying, but I don’t know — I feel different. Yeah, I feel very different.”
And yet, similar, according to those who know him best. “He’s very much the same guy,” Dressler says. “He hasn’t let it get to his head.”
His sister thinks he came back from the show with even more patience than he left with, as well as a willingness to make mistakes (hard for a perfectionist like him) and learn from them.
There’s been plenty of introspection as well, he says. “Part of the reason why I went to the show was because I’ve always had trouble finding my voice as a cook. Like, what are Andrew Corriente’s flavors? I took the show as an opportunity to explore.”
And that, of course, ties back into his calling. “When you’re able to fully express yourself as a person,” his sister says, “then you can really be able to give yourself to your faith.”
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