By Steve Hubrecht

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A math lesson from mom helped Vina Benn find something magical in baking — that ordinary-yet-wonderous alchemy that turns flour and eggs and butter and sugar into cookies. She was fascinated and she wanted to learn that alchemy. As she grew up, Benn became an accomplished home baker, the person everyone else asked to bake birthday cakes, because you just couldn’t buy in a store what Benn could whip up in the oven.

Those skills came in handy when Benn launched her own Mama Bear Bakery business here in the Columbia Valley some years back, and they may propel her even further in the near future. That’s because Benn is currently competing in the semi-finals of The Greatest Baker, one of the biggest online-run baking contests in North America. As this issue of the Pioneer goes to press, Benn is sitting in second place in the online voting. If she bumps up to first place she’ll make the final — an astounding achievement for a small town mom running a home-based baking business.

Voting for the semi-finals closes at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 25 – the very day this issue of the Pioneer hits newsstands. (This, dear reader, is where you come in: go and vote online as soon as possible at

The Greatest Baker is run by media company and attracts many thousands of participants each year. The winner gets a $10,000 prize, is flown to New York to be featured in a multi-page spread in ‘Bake From Scratch’ magazine, and gets to meet celebrity baker and ‘Cake Boss’ reality television star Buddy Valastro. 

In case you’re wondering, no, Benn did not actually mail in any baking to New York for the contest – instead she sent a description about herself along with several images of her baking handiwork. That was compiled into a profile. Contestants are clumped together into groups, and online voting begins with the top finishers in each group moving on to the next round.

Benn applied to be on the show after an ad suggesting she do so popped up in her Facebook feed. She did apply, not expecting much. But she got into the competition. Then, to her surprise, she began finishing at the top of her group, round after round. When the Pioneer first spoke with Benn last week, she had managed to proceed through six rounds of voting and was in the seventh round —  the quarter-final stage, at which point only 1,000 contestants were left. 

To move on to the semi-final stage, Benn needed to finish not just near the top, but at the very top of her group in the quarter-finals. Benn, her friends and family (especially her sister Nikki) and the Pioneer watched as the deadline for quarter-final voting — 8 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 18 — ticked closer and closer. At first Benn was in the lead. Then, less than a day to go, she slipped to second.

“My sister was watching right down to the wire. She told me that with 10 seconds to go I was still in second place. So I guess the voting must have been very, very close and at the end, I just got a few extra votes that pushed me over the line,” Benn told the Pioneer. “It’s crazy. It’s so unexpected and it’s very exciting.”

At midday on Friday, Jan. 19, Benn was sitting first in her semi-final group, although she had moved down to second by Friday evening.

“I definitely didn’t think I would get this far. It’s been very humbling,” said Benn. 

It’s quite a journey, and it has its beginnings when Benn was 10 and struggling with fractions in math class. Her mom lit on the idea of baking a batch of chocolate cookies to help, guessing that the measurements — 3/4 cup of this, 2/3 cup of that — could give Benn a real-life example of how fractions work. Plus, it would be tasty.

The math lesson worked very well. “Fractions suddenly made sense,” said Benn, laughing at the memory.

Pretty soon she was creating all kinds of confections and baked goods. Cakes became one of her favourite things to make, and remain so today.

“There’s a lot of room for creativity with cakes. I love when you make something special for a kid, decorate it in a way you know they’ll really like. Then they see it and get really excited. There’s just such joy,” said Benn. “I don’t know, I just love baking. Everyone likes a treat. It brightens your day. And if you’re the baker, you get to be part of that.”

Benn says that aside from creating special birthday cakes, cinnamon buns are her favourite thing to bake.

“The smell of cinnamon buns in the oven . . . I’ve just always liked that. And if you keep them moist, well that’s really yummy,” she said. (Benn’s sister Nikki separately and very emphatically attested to the Pioneer about the quality of Benn’s cinnamon buns.)

Benn moved to the Columbia Valley more than 20 years ago and lives here now with her three kids (two at David Thompson Secondary School and one at J.A. Laird Elementary School) and their mini Australian shepherd. She briefly ran Mama Bear Bakery out of a storefront in Radium Hot Springs, but these days runs it out of her home and at local farmer’s markets throughout the summer.

Stay tuned to future issues of the Pioneer for updates on Benn’s run on The Greatest Baker.