The Netflix original series “Nailed It” is not a show to watch for astonishing displays of culinary expertise. Rather, it draws viewers because of its simple humor, focus on dessert, and the appeal of watching others fail.
Each episode, the show pits three amateur bakers against one another in a competition to replicate a professional-level dessert, often with disappointing results. But for Ithaca native Benjamin Mumford-Zisk, who appeared on the recently-released third season premier, he left with the sweet taste of victory: $10,000 in cash.
Mumford-Zisk, who moved from Ithaca three years ago and now lives in San Diego, was inspired to be on “Nailed It” one night in the spring of 2018 when he had an uncharacteristic sweet tooth and baked a chocolate peanut butter cake with a yam as the base. The cake, he says, was inedible, describing it as “gritty and slimey at the same time,” and the peanut butter cream frosting was gritty and greasy because he had used granulated sugar.
Mumford-Zisk and his partner threw out the dessert, and with a lack of anything better to do, they watched “Nailed It” for the first time. Not usually interested by cooking shows or reality television, Mumford-Zisk was intrigued and, with the help of his partner, sent an audition video to be on the show. A month later, he was invited to be a contestant.
In June of 2018, Mumford-Zisk arrived in Burbank, California, where the episode was filmed over a weekend in a warehouse studio. The stakes were high for him: As a science fiction writer who had recently traveled the world for a year-and-a-half, the $10,000 was a way to zero debt he had accrued. On Friday, he and his fellow contestants, Cia Hang and Jordan Smith were brought into the studio and introduced to the episode’s judges, and the cameras rolled after that.
Saturday was the competition, and theme for the episode was Marvel Comics. In the first of two rounds, the contestants were tasked with creating two Marvel character cupcakes from premade cookie dough in an hour, which Mumford-Zisk comfortably won. For the second round, they were presented with an intricate 3-D Black Panther cake, complete with a mask, hand, and Wakanda landscape. The contestants were given two hours to recreate it from scratch, and despite Mumford-Zisk’s anxiety kicking in halfway through, he regained focus in time to present a quality cake.
Once the contestants were gathered before the judges and Mumford-Zisk was announced as the winner, he felt some mental relief, but it took him three hours for his body to calm down.
“It was a lot,” he says. “By the end of the day, I was really just exhausted, and it shows on my face. […] I go from sort of more chipper in the beginning to really looking kind of dead on my feet, exhausted at the end.”
The design of the show, even with a playful atmosphere, didn’t help the contestants’ stress levels. The process of revealing the results was drawn out much longer to increase suspense, and cameras were kept rolling to capture the contestants’ nervous reactions while they were asked questions about whether they expected to win.
“It was high-stress, and they worked to goose the stress for the show,” he said. “They definitely don’t want you to be at ease—it’s not good television. But overall, it was a good group of people. As I was sitting there getting more and more anxious, the people behind the scenes were all making sure that I was okay.”
The dramatization extended beyond just the judges and to the editing as well. Watching the episode after his victory, Mumford-Zisk noticed that the other contestants were presented as more flawed while he was framed favorably in the footage selected, even though he wasn’t as confident as he appeared
“I get the sense that if we had done things exactly the same but someone else had won, they could have very easily just made the other person look like the hero and me look like the bumbling fool,” he said. “The lesson is sort of that there’s a lot of really wonderful opportunities out there that might just be really fun stories to tell that folks can just find if they just look for them.