How Sweet It Is!
The duo of Nixon Dabalos and Cori Nakamoto proved to be the winning mix in the Netflix baking competition “Sugar Rush: Extra Sweet.”
Life just got a lot sweeter for bakers Nixon Dabalos and Cori Nakamoto, winners of the Netflix baking reality television competition Sugar Rush: Extra Sweet.
The talented duo proved to have the recipe for success, winning every round of the bake-off and bringing home the $10,000 grand prize.
In its third season, the TV series brought together four teams of bakers to battle it out in the kitchen, whipping up a variety of confections while racing against the clock.
Filming took place in Los Angeles in February, but Dabalos and Nakamoto had to keep the sweet ending a secret until the show finally aired July 31. Now, the friends have been celebrating their victory with those closest to them, along with fans old and new and everywhere.
“The reaction I got from the whole island — people were sending pictures of them screaming and videos saying congratulations,” says Nakamoto, noting that her mom was in tears when they watched the episode at a rented movie theater. “People in Africa and Brazil reached out to me. I feel like it’s only Hawai‘i, but it’s really nationwide and global. It’s pretty amazing.”
“It was chicken skin all the way, throughout the whole thing,” adds Dabalos of the experience. “I’m excited, happy … just good stuff.
“We’re overwhelmed. We can’t keep up. It’s sad that we can’t reply to everyone right now. It’s just overwhelming.”
Dabalos, co-owner of Madcakez, credits a food service class he took at Farrington High School (where he graduated in ’96) for stirring his interest toward a career in culinary arts. He went on to study at Gros Bonnet Culinary Academy, and worked in various kitchens, including at Boulevard Saimin, nursing homes, an airline company and Hyatt Regency.
“I applied at Hyatt for a cook position, but during that time I was doing cakes on the side, and they saw my work and asked if I wanted to be a pastry cook,” recalls Dabalos. “I was like, sure, and it took off from there.”
Later, he opened a lunchwagon called Paper Plate in the Nimitz area, using a community kitchen to prepare his dishes. That’s where he met cakelava owner Rick Reichart, whom he credits for inspiring him to start a cake company.
That was about 12 years ago, and since then Madcakez (a twist on the term “mad skills” from Dabalos’ background as a breakdancer), has grown to three shops at Hickam Air Force Base, Tripler Army Medical Center and soon Fort Shafter. Customers can find an assortment of cupcakes, as well as a variety of pastries and desserts, such as tiramisu, carrot cake, butter mochi and ube-flavored treats. Of course, he also continues to make custom cakes for all occasions.
“I try to be more fun, whimsical and colorful,” says Dabalos, a father of three girls (ages 14, 17 and 19). “I cater to a lot of first birthdays. I love doing kids cakes and wedding cakes.”
While the COVID-19 crisis and social distancing guidelines have greatly impacted the party industry, Dabalos says he’s been blessed to have his business remain open and busy. He recently added five staffers (three assistant bakers and two front-of-house/sales associates) and is still hiring. The company also earned first place in Honolulu Star-Advertiser‘s Hawai‘i’s Best awards in 2019 and 2020 for Best Custom Cakes.
Nakamoto, who met Dabalos through the cake industry, started Cori’s Cake Dreams 10 years ago as a side business to fulfill her passion. When she’s not working at her full-time job as a treatment coordinator at an orthodontic office, she can be found in the kitchen creating edible masterpieces.
“I took a cake-decorating class with my mom at Ben Franklin and just fell in love, and since then I’ve kept learning and learning about it,” says Nakamoto, a 1996 graduate of McKinley High School. “I like tall, large wedding cakes with details.
“Me and Nixon, we totally have two different styles, which I think is great in a competition because we complement each other so well. (Before Sugar Rush) we never really made a cake together. Also, we’re super easy going — we have no drama.”
Nakamoto, who lives in Waipahu, says she’s in the process of opening an online bakeshop, but the dream is to one day have a brick-and-mortar. She recalls being a baker most her life, creating treats a few times a week and giving them away to friends at school. But she never thought of it as a profession.
“It was like a prayer in my small group,” says Nakamoto, who attends Grace Bible Church Pearlside. “We were talking about passions and everybody had different passions. Mine was cake decorating, and it’s amazing what happened after.”
Prior to Sugar Rush, Nakamoto estimates she would make 150 cakes per year, primarily through word-of-mouth. In recent months, she’s been having to deal with cancellations of large wedding cakes due to the coronavirus pandemic, but says her business has been growing in other ways with more orders coming in for smaller 6-inch and single-tier cakes.
“I do cakes for all occasions — baby showers, graduations, birthdays — but I think my niche is wedding cakes,” she says. “I also do other treats — dessert bar things, macarons, banana parfaits, brownie pops — and I want to teach one day and open Cori’s Cake Dreams Academy. My dream is to educate. If I can help others grow and learn more skills, that would be so awesome.”
As Dabalos and Nakamoto continue to enjoy their Sugar Rush high, they say they’re just grateful for the opportunity to showcase their talents while representing their island roots, ending the show with these words:
“We’re going to bring this win back to Hawai‘i, our island, so we can share it with everyone there,” Nakamoto said.
“Cheehuu! To win one, two, three rounds, like what? What? Is that for real?” Dabalos added. “Hawai‘i, I hope we did you good.”