Behind the scenes of “The Great British Bake Off,“ contestants must be reminded to be less helpful to one another. While most reality cooking competitions are notoriously cutthroat, Series 3 winner John Whaite can attest that the British friendliness exhibited in the GBBO tent on screen is genuine.
In this week’s episode of Milk Street Radio, Whaite talks to Christopher Kimball about filming the show and returning to life after. He also explains why he considers England’s signature desserts to be slapdash, suggests a new strategy for determining cake doneness (use your ears) and pitches his dream cooking competition. Get an extended look at our interview from the excerpts below, and listen to his full conversation with Christopher Kimball on our website or via Apple Podcasts here.
On finding joy in baking
When my mom and dad divorced, she and I used to bake all the time. And from that moment, food was a very therapeutic, medicinal thing for me. It really solved a lot of my darkest bouts of depression because I find that baking allows you to turn a very destructive energy into something constructive. Food is also a social thing. If you make a batch of brownies, you really shouldn’t eat them all yourself. You should get out there and share them with your friends. So, I latched onto food to get out of that darkness even thought it was what make the darkness very obvious to me. It was actually my life raft out of loneliness.
On what GBBO is like behind the scenes
We’d get there at about 7 o’clock in the morning to the studio–but it wasn’t a studio, it was a tent in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere. We were all really excited. It was a really fun process. There was a great deal of friendliness behind the scenes between the bakers. We got on so well that the production company had to ask us to stop helping each other during the technical challenges. We weren’t very competitive–not until the end, anyway. I really enjoyed the challenge because I was in the middle of my law degree. Well, I wasn’t in the middle of my law degree. I was doing the final exams of my law degree during the final few weeks of Bake Off and I found that it was a great distraction from the mundanity of sale and supply of goods and intellectual property law.
On the aftershock of winning
I kind of forgot who I was after Bake Off. Being presented with TV opportunities and money and freebies and holidays–it goes to your head as a 23-year-old lad. Luckily, I come from a farming family and my mother would never ever let my head get too far in the clouds. She clamped and stapled and nailed my feet to the ground. And I’m so grateful for that.
On quintessential British desserts
Our desserts are pretty hodgepodge. We’ve got trifle, we’ve got bread and butter pudding, we’ve got treacle tart, which uses leftover breadcrumbs. Our desserts would probably make a French person scoff, but they survive for us because they’re so simple. Our food is based on good ingredients prepared with love and a fairly slapdash nature. Eton mess is great because you just use leftover meringue and whipped cream. People are proud of how it tastes, not how it looks. That’s British food all over.
On listening as he cooks
When you brown butter, it’s not just about how the butter looks or how it smells. It’s also about how it sounds. As you’re evaporating the moisture from the butter, it’s like the pitter patter of rainfall on a cold tin roof. But then all of a sudden, the rain just stops and that’s when you’ll get the smell of hazelnuts. And when you’re baking a cake, when it’s just about set, it’ll sing very, very delicately to you. It’s like a little pop, pop, pop. Honestly, you should try it when you bake a cake next. Just raise the cake to your ear–not too close, you don’t want to leave without your ear lobes–but raise it to your ear and it will sing to you.
On his fantasy television cooking show
I think The Kitchen Island would be a great title. It would be a cookery show based on a remote island, and people have to forage for what they’ve got on the island. Obviously, the production company will need to plant a few yams here and there, but they have to forage the island to create meals for the judges. And then if they don’t make it, they get kicked off the island and they have to drown in the shark infested waters or at least get a life raft home.
Quotes have been edited for clarity.