For full-time epidemiologist and part-time baker Chris Taylor, it was a sweet journey from making gobs and Christmas cookies with his mother in Johnstown to whipping up confections on national television.
Taylor, 32 and a 2000 Greater Johnstown High School graduate, works by day to prevent traumatic brain injury as an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Injury Center in Atlanta.
During his off time, he puts his mixers to work, baking for fun at first and now competitively.
The Johnstown native appeared on the Food Network’s “Spring Baking Championship” in May.
“The show was really intriguing to me,” Taylor said. “They did a first season of the show ‘Holiday Baking Championship,’ and a woman who did that show is someone I know from competing in national pie championships. She also works full-time as a professional but enjoys baking.”
Through an email from American Pie Council, Taylor threw in his hat for the next iteration of the Bobby Deen-hosted baking competition. Though Taylor was the first contestant eliminated, it was a chance for him to try his hand at baking for a wider audience than the regional competitions where he’s put his goods to the test.
“It was a great experience, even though I didn’t make it very far,” Taylor said.
Shot in Los Angeles, each episode has a pre-heat and then a main heat. The pre-heat challenge was to make flower-inspired cupcakes, and Taylor turned to a twist on a southern favorite: hummingbird cake, a banana-pineapple spice cake.
He turned the banana, coconut and pineapple concoction into a cupcake for the judges.
“What likes flowers more than a hummingbird?” Taylor said.
“That was the idea.”
But he lost traction in a main heat, where the challenge was to reimagine the upside-down cake. Judges thought his apricot-blueberry upside-down cake was a little underdone.
Through his brush on a national stage, Taylor said he made lasting friendships with those who share his passion.
It’s his decorated sugar cookies that really show off his strengths: making food that’s delicious and detailed.
“That’s what I like about those cookies,” he said. “It’s a good cookie, and I flavor the royal icing – lemon or raspberry or orange. That cuts through what can be a chalky taste. You really have to practice to get the consistency right. You can make a really beautiful cookie that also tastes really good.”
The middle child of three boys, Taylor got his start in the family kitchen in Johnstown, where he often baked with his mother, Sharon Wurth. She and his father, Frank, still live in the area.
“We would normally make classic things, a lot of Christmas cookies – chocolate chip, oatmeal scotchies (a recipe found on the back of the butterscotch morsels bag), Hershey kiss thumbprint cookies,” Taylor said.
He moved down south after attending the University of Pittsburgh at Oakland, completing a bachelor’s degree in health information management and a doctorate in epidemiology in 2010.
During his studies, he discovered a passion for epidemiology, the study of disease trends and methods to control diseases and other factors detrimental to health.
He also met his husband, Paul Arguin, who also now works for the CDC in Atlanta. The two were married on July 19.
Arguin also enjoys baking, though the two never compete in the kitchen. Arguin focuses on breads, Taylor said.
Graduate school was also where Taylor rediscovered the joy of baking when he happened upon a white, 4.5-quart, classic KitchenAid stand mixer.
“At grad school, I had my own apartment,” he said. “A friend of mine’s brother was living in an apartment, and the landlord was moving out and told him to take anything he wanted. He took the stand mixer for his brother, but he had one already. My friend sent it to me.”
Taylor started baking cookies and cakes. One year, his New Year’s resolution was to bake something new every week.
“I was baking for people in the office,” he said. “I was the one who would bring in birthday cakes. I kept that going through grad school and came down to Atlanta, kept doing it here and started doing competitions as well at local county and state fairs.”
Though Taylor said the South hasn’t made a dramatic difference in what he bakes, he does seem to make more pies now.
And he still makes gobs – though most folks around him call them whoopie pies.
Taylor said he enjoys his post, making the public healthier by studying traumatic brain injury, and he appreciates the balance of being able to create in the kitchen.
He initially headed to Atlanta as a post-doctoral fellow in the center’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, a program that was the first to identify Legionnaires’ disease. After two years there, he became a full-time staffer.
“I’ve thought about baking more – but then it becomes a job,” he said. “For now, it’s just something I really enjoy.”