LANSING, Ill. (May 24, 2023) – Back in the 1980s, when Harry Bielawski was a young man still living at home with his mother Mary Ann Bielawski in Lansing, he was invited to a party where guests were asked to bring a dish or dessert to share.
His friends fore-warned him, “Harry, you can’t just show up with a bag of chips and beer,” so Harry asked his Mom what he should bring. “Everybody always likes cookies,” she replied. “Bring some cookies!”
Taking his mother’s advice, Harry went to the store to buy the ingredients. Following the recipe on the back of a chocolate chip package, he baked some cookies and brought them to the party. His friends were impressed. “Harry, we didn’t know you could make these cookies. Where’d you get the recipe?”
In his best imitation of a grandmother from the Old Country, he replied, “Oh, eets-ah Grandma Harry’s recipe!” And his baking persona was born.
“Grandma Harry” on Silos Baking Competition
Fast forward through the decades to this Sunday, May 28, when Harry Bielawski (aka “Grandma Harry”) is planning a party of his own — a viewing party in which he, his wife Beth, and their family and friends will be sitting in his St. John, IN, family room watching his TV appearance as a baking contestant on the premiere episode of Joanna Gaines’ Silos Baking Competition series.
The new six-episode series is hosted by Joanna Gaines and her husband Chip, both stars of the reality television series Fixer Upper and curators of the Magnolia Network. In each of the Silos Baking episodes, five contestants bake in an open-air kitchen while filming in front of a live audience on the grounds of the Silos property in Waco, Texas, where Gaines’ Magnolia Market and Silos Baking Co. are located. A finalist is chosen at the end of each baking competition episode, and in the sixth and final episode, the five finalists from the previous five episodes compete and a winner is announced.
The Silos Baking Competition series arrives after two successful Silos Baking Competition Specials aired last year — one in June and the other during the holidays. Last year’s competition winners were each awarded $25,000. This year the series winner receives $100,000 and their winning creation will be featured as a summer special on the menu of Joanna’s bakery — Silos Baking Co.
Joining the show and competing
Bielawski learned about the Silos competition after he had auditioned and failed to earn a spot on another baking competition show — The Great American Baking Show, which is an adaptation of the Great British Bake-Off. After he was told he did not make the cut, a member of The Great American Baking Show casting staff texted Bielawski about the upcoming Silos Competition, telling him that he may be a perfect fit for the show and encouraging him to apply. So Bielawski applied, sending in a funny video of himself in his backyard swimming pool and of him in his car driving to work. They liked his video and invited him to continue in their auditioning process, which progressed with a series of interviews.
Each interview would advance him to the next. He ended up interviewing with over eight people over a series of about eight weeks. They asked him to create another video, this one of his family life, and sent him a tripod and required him to download a particular video app for the camera in order for them to edit it. Finally, in a group Zoom call, they informed twenty-five of the auditioners, including Bielawski, that they had been selected to appear as contestants on the show.
Brewing to baking
Bielawski is no stranger to competitions. Though “Grandma Harry” brought cookies instead of beer to that party back in the ‘80’s, Harry Bielawski, through the years, became an award-winning brewer, winning 20 beer-brewing awards, long before his competitive spirit began focusing on baking.
So what caused the Yeast Master to turn from beer brewing to baking? Bielawski answers this question as matter-of-factly as a grandmother would: “I started baking because of our lack of holiday cookies. We had two people — friends of [wife] Beth— who moved away that used to bake holiday cookies. One year, I said, ‘Where’s the holiday cookies?’”
He started baking some himself and then his daughter-in-law Michell joined in, and now in full “Grandma Harry” form, every year he preps for three days beforehand and they bake holiday cookies all day long.
Bielawski, like many, honed his baking skills through the pandemic, and kept his “Grandma Harry” moniker alive. His friends, and even the kids next door, will often ask if Grandma Harry is baking anything today. Grandma Harry bakes breads, pies, puffed pastries, and of course, cookies. He has always been an avid fan of baking shows like the Great British Bake-Off. So he reasoned, “Why not me? I should try.”
Competing in Waco
Bielawski and his fellow bakers each submitted three possible recipes for the show’s approval, and once they were approved, they could choose for themselves which one they actually were baking for the competition. Recipes needed to follow certain guidelines. For example, the baking product needed to be appropriate for selling at the Silos Baking Co. bakery; it had to fit a certain box size and have a specific shelf life.
From start to finish, the entire Silos Baking Competition episode took a total of four days to complete back in October of 2022, which thankfully, according to Bielawski, was during an 85-degree Waco, Texas, “cold spell.”
According to Bielawski, each contestant was provided a schedule for the four days.
- Day 1 — Contestants travel to Waco, Texas, and check into a hotel about three or four blocks from the Silos property, compliments of Magnolia, along with a per diem.
- Day 2 — A van picks up the episode contestants at the hotel, where they meet each other in the lobby for the very first time. They drive to the set, where they familiarize themselves with their kitchens, learning where things are and how to work the stoves and other kitchen equipment. Contestants check that all of the ingredients and other necessities that they sent beforehand in a list have been provided. (They are not allowed to bring anything of their own.) They also meet their producers. The culinary producer is Ashley Holt (aka “Sugar Monster”) of Bake Squad on Netflix; she won Cake Boss, and Best Baker in America. Ashley puts everyone at ease, and everyone feels more comfortable afterwards.
- Day 3 — The van picks up contestants early — 3 to 4 hours before taping. On set, the contestants do a lot of walk-throughs, all while being taped. Crowds begin to arrive and fill in open spaces, as the show is open to the public. Contestants begin baking and are timed without any interruption. If a baker cuts a finger, they have been told to continue working with the other hand and place the injured hand behind them; a medic on set immediately bandages the cut and puts on a new glove.
- Day 4 — The interviews with contestants about what they are baking is actually taped after the competition, so the contestants must remember to speak in present tense.
Highlights of the experience for Bielawski were meeting fellow bakers and interacting with judges, including Joanna Gaines, Andrew Zimmern, and the Culinary Producer for Magnolia, Ashley Holt. Having his wife Beth, his two sons, and his daughter-in-law there to cheer him on and share the experience kept him relaxed and centered.
Bielawski had nothing but praise for Joanna, Chip and the Magnolia Network: “They were great. The Silo people, Chip and Joanna and the Magnolia Network. They were really good to us. Joanna couldn’t have been a nicer person. She gave me a hug and asked, ‘Can I call you Grandma Harry?’ It was really a great experience and they treated us so well and were so nice to people there.”
As for whether Bielawski is the finalist or not of his baking competition episode, or whether or not he went on to win the Baking series, only Grandma Harry can say (but is contractually forbidden). But Biewlawski did share that after the filming of his episode, the Executive producer came up to him and told him, “Harry, we gotta tell you. That first video you sent us really put you on the radar. We watched you through every step.”
Grandma Harry’s future — and viewing time
What’s in Grandma Harry’s future? He has already applied once again for the next season of The Great American Baking Show, and leaves culinary hopefuls with some grandmotherly advice: “I recommend that anyone who bakes or cooks, take some pictures of your stuff and then send in an application. The baking and the cooking shows are always casting for the next season.”
The premiere of the Silos Baking Competition airs Sunday, May 28, 7 p.m. CT on the Magnolia Network —available now through Max (formerly HBO/MAX), discovery+, on the Magnolia app, magnolia.com, and on TV through a cable or satellite provider.
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