“Melina, working on a rose water and cardamom whipped cream…, ” announces Noah Cappe, doing the play-by-play for Wall of Bakers.
The host of the Food Network Canada show was watching Melina Schein of Vernon, B.C., compete as one of the four contestants in the inaugural episode.
While this amateur baker was whisking the soft ingredients together in the studio kitchen, she’s telling the audience what it’s been like to bring her culinary talents in front of 12 Canadian celebrity chefs, who included Christine Cushing, Lynn Crawford and Patrice Demers.
“I realize I’m baking for this wall of magnificence!” Schein says, punctuating her answer with a theatrical swoosh of her arms in the air and a throaty cackle. “So exciting, I love the drama!”
The 46-year-old is an Argentina-born, “geographically misplaced” New Yorker, who makes her home in the Okanagan area of British Columbia.
And she sings operatically for a living.
But when the COVID-19 lockdown put a halt to her performing career, Schein decided to stave off boredom and unemployment by reconnecting with her love of Jewish food. (She also watched a lot of the Food Network.)
“I spent about three weeks on the couch in the fetal position wondering who I was and what I was going to do,” Schein told The CJN. “When life stops making sense. I feed people: just like my mother. Just like my bubbe.”
So, she started cooking her way through the 400 recipes in Leah Koenig’s The Jewish Cookbook. And over the course of 16 months, Schein documented her progress as The Saucy Soprano.
Some of the photos are very saucy, indeed. She’s posed in the altogether, holding up two pieces of strategically placed matzah, or tastefully hidden behind stacks of New York-style bagels.
Schein also launched a line of spices, including Middle Eastern Za’atar, Persian Advieh and Ethiopian Berbere.
A friend sent her a casting call note for a new reality baking show modelled on the successful Wall of Chefs concept. She flew to Toronto last summer for the taping of Wall of Bakers.
“It was one day, but it felt like it was the longest day of my life. That’s the only way to describe it.”
Aside from dealing with the jet lag, she had to get up at 4 a.m. to get to the studio by 5 a.m. After three baking challenges, the final interview was wrapped at midnight.
“When I made it to the final round, I remember just having this thought of ‘I don’t have anything left to give’ and then somehow you find something else. You pull it out of who knows where?”
Descendent of Holocaust survivors
Schein’s culinary heritage has many origins: she is a descendent of Holocaust survivors on both sides. Her mother was born in a Displaced Person’s camp in Germany, before moving to America. Her father’s journey was via Buenos Aires. Her parents actually met in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where Schein’s mother was a busking singer in Washington Square.
As a result, lots of languages were used in her home: Spanish, Yiddish, Russian and Polish.
“The language changed depending on how much or how little my parents or grandparents wanted me to understand.”
Schein was raised in New York and trained at The Juilliard School in voice and piano, also at Columbia University, then a year at Teatro Colon in Argentina. She’s performed on and off-Broadway, and has sung diverse roles in both opera and musical theatre, ranging from Cosi fan tutte to Guys and Dolls and Fiddler on the Roof.
While at Juilliard, Schein met a Canadian opera student who became her first husband. The couple came to live in his small B.C. community over 20 years ago. She discovered the beauty of the scenery—and the dearth of Jewish culture and flavours.
“It gets a little bit lonely sometimes. And I yearn for my people. I yearn for a good bagel. I have to make my own.”
During the pandemic, Schein went to great lengths (and also expense) to find the kosher ingredients required for all those recipes. Amazon had some of what she needed, but she had to make a Herculean effort to get some things which many central Canadian Jews take for granted, like matzah.
She ordered it from a specialty store in Victoria, for about $40 a box. Needless to say, she tried to use it sparingly.
Longing for community made her feel instantly at home in the Toronto studio of Wall of Bakers, when she was bantering with the Jewish host, Noah Cappe, and with two of the celebrity chefs on her episode: Amy Rosen and Jo Notkin.
She recalls how both Rosen and Notkin said something to her in Hebrew when Schein was discussing the origins of one of her dishes. Cappe even sang a little bit of his bar mitzvah portion—but that scene didn’t make the final edit, even though Schein started singing along.
- We interviewed Amy Rosen about her star turn on Wall of Bakers following her rude reception on the Dragons’ Den: The CJN Daily
In recent years, Schein had been a busy performer, touring around North America singing Andrew Lloyd Weber numbers, especially from The Phantom of the Opera.
One of those shows led to an offer of a recurring gig as the cantorial soloist at the Okanagan Jewish Community Centre’s High Holiday services, in Kelowna. (That opportunity ended several years before the pandemic.)
“Kol Nidre was probably my favourite piece to sing, ever,” she said. “It’s just absolutely stunning and exquisite.”
Jewish deli recipes
Spoiler alert: When Schein’s episode aired at the end of March, viewers saw the four bakers go through three rounds of timed challenges: the crowd-pleaser that family and friends at home love to eat, plus a concoction made with mystery ingredients dreamed up by the judges. The final challenge is a signature dessert worthy of a pastry shop’s display.
For her finale, Schein whipped up some personal nostalgia: a black-and-white cookie and an egg cream drink inspired by the Lower East Side delis she visited with her bubbe and zayde.
As the winner of her episode, Schein pockets $10,000. Hers was a one-off appearance, unlike cooking competitions with a full-season arc, such as The Great Canadian Baking Show.
Back at home in Vernon, she didn’t throw a big watch party when her episode aired March 28, due partly to the pandemic, but also because she was worried how she would come across in the final edit. But all over town, folks were watching in pubs and in restaurants and sending her messages of support.
Now she hopes the triumph will lead to new career opportunities, including a cooking show of her own. She’s confident people will like her unusual combination of brash sauciness, soaring operatic voice, and a newly honed cooking talent. A robust social media following doesn’t hurt, either.
But for now, Schein’s put her Saucy Soprano alter ego on the back-burner. Since the social gathering restrictions have been lifted in her home province of B.C., her career as a vocalist has just resumed, reprising her performances of Andrew Lloyd Weber songs in a touring show: Music of the Night.
When she gets back to the kitchen, she’ll try to remember advice she received from the expert bakers judging her stuff: lighten up on bold flavours, and tone down the spices and seasonings.
“And I remember one of the chefs said, ‘You know, too much rose water and it’s going to taste like your grandmother’s bathroom.’ I keep that in mind, too.”