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“Halloween Wars” and Jason Reaves

“Halloween Wars” and Jason Reaves

Salamander Resort chef featured on Food Network show

By Morgan Hensley

     Perhaps you’ve seen pastry chef Jason Reaves strolling around Salamander Resort & Spa dressed as Superman this time of year or even attended one of his culinary workshops. Maybe you’ve watched this season of Food Network’s “Halloween Wars,” a series dedicated to taking “trick or treat” to the nth degree. If you’ve tuned in, well, then you’ve seen Jason. 

“Halloween Wars” pits six teams of three — each consisting of a pumpkin carver, candy maker and cake decorator — against one another in an elimination-style contest to see which team can create the most horrifying, devilishly delicious concoction for a grand prize of $50,000. Jonathan Bennett, “Mean Girls” heartthrob and “Dancing with the Stars” fan favorite, hosts the sixth season. The panel of judges boasts a mixture of culinary virtuosos and celebrities, such as horror legend Sid Haig, “scream queen” Carlson Young and spooktacular seductress Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. 

Candy artist Teresa Argeris and pumpkin carver Lenny Calvin join Reaves to form the “Crypt Cookers.” Each of the five episodes per season feature two competitions with different themes. The Crypt Cookers started the season off by baking, carving and cooking a “Selfie from Hell.” 

“We made a pumpkin coming to life, with vicious teeth,” Reaves said. “Then there was this arm reaching from inside snapping a selfie.” 

Cakes that don’t look like cakes are kind of my specialty. You name it, I’ve made it.

— Jason Reaves, executive pastry chef, Salamander Resort & Spa

In the following round, the team mixed in a dash of political parody into their masterful interpretation of the theme “Witches and Warlocks.” A warlock half-transformed into the GOP’s elephant mascot faced off against a hybrid of a witch and a Democratic donkey. 

The end result was fun, frightening and, perhaps most impressively, bipartisan. If it’s true that horror reflects society’s deepest fears, what does that say about social media and this year’s presidential election? 

Reaves’ and his Crypt Cookers’ designs, equal parts “tongue in cheek” and “hang to the edge of your seat,” helped the team make it through the first round. Aside from his culinary prowess, Reaves offered his team another advantage: This was his fourth Food Network appearance. On “Sugar Dome,” he baked and pieced together a cake shaped like an amusement park. 

“Cakes that don’t look like cakes are kind of my specialty,” he said. “You name it, I’ve made it.”

Jason Reaves at Salamander Resort & Spa. Photo courtesy of Salamander Resort & Spa.
Jason Reaves at Salamander Resort & Spa. Photo courtesy of Salamander Resort & Spa.

However, his most important Food Network moment was his first appearance, which was on “Lego Cakes” in 2011. He was crowned champion after a grueling eight-
hour competition. 

Immediately after his coronation, he proposed to Nicole, his longtime girlfriend. In 2013, the couple was the first to walk down the aisle at Salamander, an appropriate honor given Reaves’ long history with the resort.

Reaves, a Purcellville native, loved baking and cooking from an early age, so much so, he said, that he struggles to pinpoint a time when his hobby turned professional. He graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, in 2004, an achievement that helped him land a job as a chef on Norwegian Cruise Line. 

During that time, his mother included newspaper clippings about the Salamander Resort, then under construction, with her letters to him. He decided to leave Hawaii and return to Loudoun County at the end of 2005.

“I started at Market Salamander, working there until the resort opened,” Reaves said. As part of the opening team, he was instrumental in writing the menus and choosing the staff. During that time, he made his Food Network debut and marriage proposal. 

Jason Reaves at Salamander Resort & Spa. Photo courtesy of the Food Network.
Jason Reaves at Salamander Resort & Spa. Photo courtesy of the Food Network.

Reaves’ familiarity with the network’s contests was a definite contribution to his team’s success, as neither of his teammates had yet experienced the thrill and challenge of a televised cooking competition. “Having been on the channel a few times definitely calmed my nerves,” he said. “Going on is still nerve-wracking, and I still get the jitters, but once the competition starts, adrenaline takes over and I forget the camera is even there.”

The period of deliberation, when the judges sample, discuss and rank the contestants’ creations, is no less anxious even after a few network appearances. “We let out a big sigh of relief after we passed the first round,” Reaves says. 

Since then, the Crypt Cookers have baked, sculpted, carved, and decorated all sorts of horror tropes: a severed, snakeless Medusa head; a motel guest blissfully unaware of the terrifying creature lurking beside her; an evil chef with some “special” ingredients; and a vampire-rabbit-rat hybrid that earned top accolades from the judges, with Don Mancini — creator of the demonic doll Chucky — saying, “It’s really demented … threatening.”

“That was a little gory,” Reaves admitted, “but it was edible gore, and that makes it better. It’s a family show, after all.” 

Reaves' team for
Reaves’ team for “Halloween Wars.” Photo courtesy of the Food Network.

Reaves may be slightly desensitized as well, having made creepy cakes off-screen long before his “Halloween Wars” appearance. A few years ago, he designed a cake for a Leesburg family that was shaped like a bat pinned to a cutting board with a butcher’s cleaver. 

“I even made it so you could make the wings flap with a remote control,” Reaves said. “That really freaked people out.” 

As the Halloween season comes to a close, Reaves is revving up for two seasonal, hands-on workshops he leads at Harrimans Cooking Studio. In November, he’ll share his knowledge of pies and tarts with attendees. Then, in December, Reaves will guide a workshop on gingerbread and cookie decorating. Guests can be certain that they won’t leave empty-handed. 

Until then, don’t worry if you see a creepy clown schlepping a gorgeous wedding cake around Salamander. Chances are that’s Jason. ML

The judges for
The judges for “Halloween Wars.” Photo courtesy of the Food Network.
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