If you walk past a water cooler today there’s a high likelihood you’ll hear four words: ‘Great British Bake Off’. Or, as it’s known to the die-hards, just ‘Bake Off’.
Last night 8.4 million viewers tuned in to see Frances Quinn triumph over fellow contestants Ruby Tandoh and Kimberley Wilson in a tense finale.
While you might think of baking as a placid, traditional world of aprons, rolling pins and cinnamon, temperatures have been rising in the kitchen, with Twitter sniping and cutting remarks, including some badly-judged comments from celebrity chef Raymond Blanc, who criticised the “female tears” and claimed that former model Tandoh was too thin to appreciate good food.
While Blanc later apologised, the Bake Off has brought the culinary craft slap bang into popular culture. WOW247’s Nick Mitchell caught up with last year’s winner John Whaite to find out what it’s really like to be in front of the cameras, and what he thinks about the sexism row.
How did you enjoy the final last night?
I loved it. It was fantastic wasn’t it?
What did you make of the result?
I’m really pleased that Frances won, because I thought she was the best, I really did. They were all worthy of being in the final but I think Frances just edged it for me.
Was she your favourite going into it? Did you feel she would win?
Yeah I did. When I saw the first episode I thought this girl’s got something about her. So I always had an inkling that it would be her.
What would be your message to her now, speaking from experience?
I think she just needs to make sure that she gets some really good advice. If she’s going to get an agent she just needs to make sure that she can trust them and get on with them. But mainly just to have fun, and don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. It’s all great experience, and you never know who you’re going to meet, so just enjoy it.
Ruby has written a column today in The Guardian where she condemns some of the more sexist reactions to the show. What do you make of her comments?
I’ve had a skim read of it this morning… It’s very easy to interpret comments in some way. I think there have been some very nasty things said about people, and I’ve obviously written my own blog about the Twitter trolls. I think because the Bake Off is so popular – I think about eight million people watched it last night – it’s more susceptible to criticism and abuse really. No matter what the show’s about, there’s always going to be someone who has something negative to say about the contestants or whatnot. Supposedly there’s been a lot of misogynistic things said, but I’m not sure how severe it all is. Obviously Ruby’s been upset by it, and I think she’s been bullied really on Twitter by some nasty people, so I’m glad that she’s written a very eloquent, very well-written article.
For anyone who’s knew to the Bake Off, it would seem surprising that it can provoke such strong reactions. But that seems to be the case, and that’s something you’ve encountered as well?
Well the last series for me, of course there were some negative things said, but this year it seems like the negativity has been quite profound and quite tangible. The only thing you can do is just get on with it because Twitter trolls will be Twitter trolls. They’re miserable and they’re tweeting things just because they’re jealous of the people on the show basically. The important thing is to rise above them and leave those people behind.
And you’re inevitably in the public eye as a past winner. How has your life changed in the past year?
Quite drastically really. Before the Bake Off, last year I was working in a bank, and it was a great job, a corporate job, but it wasn’t for me. So to go on to write recipes and write books, and do television here and there, and do all the food shows across the country, and literary festivals too, it’s great because it is different every single day. I get bored quite easily so it’s good to do something different from one day to the next.
You studied law at university. What changed your mind to go into baking?
I’ve always been really passionate about food. I cooked my first steak when I was about four. It’s just something that I’ve always been obsessed with, but I never really considered it as a career. The Bake Off came along during a moment of procrastination during my degree, so I thought ‘I’ll apply for that’, and obviously it’s enabled me to pursue something I’m passionate about. It’s jump-started me into a career of dreams, dreams I didn’t quite know I had.
What’s the Bake Off process like? How intensive is it to film the show?
Yes, so we’d go down on a Friday night and have some drinks in the bar, and have a good chin-wag. Me and Cathryn [Dresser] would try to work out what the technical challenge would be, and then the next day we’d get up about five, have breakfast, and start filming around seven. We’d usually wrap around eight at night, depending on the challenges. So they were intensive days, but the energy’s flowing, there’s lots of food around, you make sure you have regular breaks. It’s difficult but it’s not impossible. Anyone who’s worked a job in their life would be able to do it.
“I didn’t even think to put gel in my hair”
What’s the delay between filming the show and it being aired?
It’s about four months. We finished the final in June and then it aired on the 16th of October last year.
And you’ve got to keep the secret all that time. That must have been a challenge?
Yeah but you don’t want to ruin it for anyone, as someone who’s previously watched the Bake Off. There’s so much hype and you don’t want to take that away. But also, you have to sign a confidentiality contract and you can’t break that. There’s lots of things put into place to make sure that no-one says anything. A few people might leak it to their mates perhaps on a drunken night but generally no-one tends to find out.
And you must have known how popular it was by the third series. Did you have a sense that the public eye was on you while you were filming the show?
No, that comes after. You’ll see from my series that I didn’t even think to put gel in my hair! When you do watch it you realise ‘oh damn it is television, I wish I’d made an effort to put a nice outfit on that week!’ So actually you go into it for the competition element, and the hype comes after.
Will there come a time when you want to leave the whole Bake Off experience behind you, and be asked about it less frequently?
No, I think I’d like to have a career based on my own name, but I don’t understand why people would want to deny that. It really launched my career and I’m grateful for it. It’s not the kind of show that’s exploitative, it’s a really good, wholesome show. As long as it stays true to its nature, I’m happy with that.
You’ve got your first book out now, and you’re well on the way with the second one?
Yeah, my second book will be out in March, and I think I’m about three days away from a submission deadline, I’ve got about three pages left to write. I’ve shot most of the pictures already.
“Baking is a very therapeutic process”
What’s been the most satisfying feedback you’ve had from the first book?
Just that the recipes were reliable. People seem to have enjoyed it and found the recipes reliable, so it’s great to have that feedback.
You were very open and honest in the first book about how you find baking therapeutic with your depression. Is that still the case?
I mean that’s how it all began. It’s got a bit more strenuous now that it’s my career, but I do still maintain that, I think it’s a very therapeutic process. It’s a constructive thing. Even if you’re feeling a bit negative it can help organize your mind. It is very beneficial for negative thinking.
What are your long-term plans? What’s next?
It’s just a case of trying to get a third or fourth book, because I really enjoy writing the books, and just trying to continue doing that as often as I can, and also do more of the TV as well.
Would you like to have your own TV show?
I would but I’d want to do it on merit. But yeah I’d love to.
Do you still keep up with the fellow contestants and judges?
I do. Cathryn and I have become really good friends, and it’s great to see them at events.
Have there been messages swapped this morning?
I have yeah. Well there’s no inside gossip I’m afraid. But I’ve spoken to Frances. She’s inundated with requests but she’s doing well.
And you’re off to the Dundee Literary Festival this weekend. Looking forward to it?
Yeah, I’ve never been to Dundee so I’m looking forward to that. I enjoy the literary festivals so it should be awesome fun. I really enjoy these events because you get to meet people and I really love it.
John Whaite appears at the Dundee Literary Festival on Saturday (26 Oct). He will also be at the BBC Good Food Show in London on Sunday, November 17. John Whaite Bakes: Recipes for Every Day and Every Mood is out now, published by Headline.