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So last week I not only got the opportunity to review the debut cookbook of John Whaite, winner of last year’s series of The Great British Bake Off, but I also got to have a natter with him and find out all about Mary Berry, the time a fan nearly made him drown, and what I’m doing wrong when I try to make macaroons.
Vada: Hi John! First of all a massive congratulations on winning the Bake Off and on your first book.
John Whaite: Hi Roy, thank you very much!
So, what or who motivated you to apply for the Great British Bake Off?
Actually it was just me, I mean I had support from my friends and family but I honestly just applied for myself because I thought it would be a good opportunity and a bloody good laugh. And thankfully it was a bloody good laugh! I applied but I didn’t even really think I would get on the show, let alone win!
You looked so shocked when it was announced that you had won the show – was there a point earlier on in the competition where you realised you might win?
Not really, no. I think you always remember the negative criticisms a lot more than the points where you’ve done well, so I didn’t think I’d win up until the point they told me I had!
Any of those negative criticisms still ringing in your ears even now?
[Laughs] No, I’ve managed to repress them and drown them out. I’ve had therapy…[Laughs]
I really liked the fact that in the book you included a recipe for Salted Caramel Rum Babas as a nod to your cock-up with the salt in episode one!
Yeah I thought that would be a really nice one to include in the book!
Have you kept in touch with any of the other contestants since the show ended?
I see a lot of Cathryn still, but not really with anyone else.
That makes me really happy as you two were my favourites on the show! Do you have brilliant nights out in London together?
Oh yes, and in Manchester too! We were out in Manchester a couple of weeks ago, and ended up in a Chinatown karaoke bar until 5 in the morning!
Amazing. What about the judges then – is Mary Berry as intimidating in real life as she seems on the show?
[Laughs] No, not at all, she’s an absolute darling.
A lot was made of the fact that the Bake Off final was all-male last year – do you think generally speaking more men are getting into baking and cooking these days?
Well, it wasn’t contrived in any way – we just happened to have been the three who made it to the final, but I do think it’s indicative of that fact, yes. And that’s a really good thing!
So the book came out yesterday, and you’ve been doing the rounds with TV interviews and launches – I saw you on Loose Women yesterday– how are you finding all the attention?
I honestly don’t get that much attention – I don’t really get spotted or stopped when I’m out. It’s just nice I’m getting recognised for my food and not recognised for my big fat arse! [Laughs]
I heard there was an incident where someone recognised you in a swimming pool and you nearly drowned?
[Laughs] Yeah, that was after the first episode of the Bake Off had aired. I was in the pool, doing laps, and this guy just went – “Are you John from Great British Bake Off?” and I was just totally thrown. And yeah, I did nearly drown.
The book has so many fantastic recipes in it – do you have any favourites, or is that a bit like asking a mother to pick her favourite child?
Well, every mother has a favourite child, even if they say they don’t! I’d probably say those Salted Caramel Babas are one of my favourite things in the book but I’m really happy with everything in there. Also the Curried Halloumi, Spinach and Potato Pithivier – using all the spices and making your own curry paste is hard work but it’s totally worth it.
My mum is a chef, and she’s already been going through the book and deciding what she wants to make this weekend. She’s also demanded I get her a copy of her own for her birthday!
Oh wow, thank you – that’s high praise!
I’m really competitive when it comes to my mum and cooking – if I make something better than her I’m straight on the phone to tell her – is it the same with your mum?
[Laughs] Oh God, definitely! When I won, one of the first things she said to me was “Well, I guess I’ll have to renounce my crown!” But in all seriousness, she’s been really supportive.
You’ve said before that your mum was the one who introduced you to baking when you were little – are there any recipes that she still does better than you?
Totally! Although maybe we should keep that between us… [Laughs]. She hasn’t got the patience for a lot of stuff, she’s quite slapdash when it comes to her baking, but she does some really excellent bakes.
I notice that my food hero Nigella Lawson gets a shout-out in your book. One of the reasons I love her books so much is the way she writes about food – it’s passionate, it’s sincere and in a lot of cases it’s really funny. I’m getting a little bit of Nigella realness from your book and the way you write – was she an intentional influence for you?
There’s one particular recipe that was originally inspired by Nigella and one of hers, so I definitely wanted to make sure I credited her for that. I was definitely influenced by people like Nigella and Nigel Slater, because their books are just exquisite. I think I’ve always been quite a conversational writer, and my writing style has always been quite conversational. I wanted people to be able to take what they wanted from the book – there are the recipes themselves but there is also a bit more background and information about me, and people can just take what they want from it. I’ve had some people who’ve told me they’ve read the book from cover to cover, and I’m really happy with that.
You talk pretty candidly about your experiences with depression in the book, and how baking was a way for you to find a bit of solace when you felt down – what is it about baking that helps you so much when things are going wrong?
It’s just the whole process really. There will be days when you’re depressed when it’s really hard to even get out of bed, so just getting into the kitchen is an achievement in itself. But then you’ve got the baking itself which I find very therapeutic – and of course at the end of it you’ve actually made something. I think it’s just having that ability to turn something quite destructive into something creative.
So, when did you move down to London?
Back in January, as I started doing a patisserie course at the Cordon Bleu school down in London. But also my publisher is here, my agent is here – it all kind of tied together.
How are you finding the Cordon Bleu? Was there an expectation that after winning the Bake Off you were going to be amazing?
I actually made a point of saying to everyone on the first day when we were all getting to know each other that just because of what I’d been through with the Bake Off, it didn’t mean I was better than anybody else. It’s a really challenging course but it’s really enjoyable.
Are there still recipes that even you struggle with?
Oh God yeah – things like enriched doughs can be really tricky even still, but it’s just about practice.
My partner James loves to bake, whereas I massively prefer to cook – there’s so much that can go wrong when you bake – over-egging, soggy bottoms… I once tried to make macaroons and everything went horribly wrong. I still get flashbacks whenever I hear the words “Italian meringue”. Any tips for me?
Well, macaroons aren’t as hard as people think, and the Italian meringue method is actually the easiest – you don’t have to wait an hour for the macaroons to form a skin on them which is imperative if you’re using a French meringue. The key thing is to have a smooth, magma-consistency batter. If it feels a bit too thick, one trick is to add an extra egg white to it.
Thanks for the tips! I’ll give them another go and let you know how I fare!
So do you think you’d ever do a cooking book in the future?
I’m writing my second book now – I’ve got the first 10 recipes done – just another 110 to go! It will be another baking one but I do really want to do a cooking book. My column for Heat is mostly cooking, although there have been a few bakes in there, so it’s definitely something I’d like to do in the future. It’s a long process though – with some recipes they work first time, and with others you have to make it six or seven times and by the time it’s done you never want to see the bloody thing again. I’m a recipe developer, so it’ll take some time but I’ll get there eventually!