Lancashire’s fabulous baking boy - Great British Bake Off winner John Whaite
PUBLISHED: 09:53 16 April 2013 | UPDATED: 15:39 01 May 2016
Great British Bake Off winner John Whaite is breaking off from producing his first cookbook for a special engagement close to home. He spoke exclusively to Roger Borrell - and no dough changed hands.
It’s a sad fact but there is very little chance of the Wigan Kebab ever making it onto the Great British Bake Off. This almost mythically delicacy – a meat and potato pie encased in a buttered barm – is the sort of dish to make Mary Berry start swearing like a merchant seaman.
A pie in a bun – surely it flies in the face of all things decent and then spits in the eye of that nice Paul Hollywood?
But mention it to John Whaite, the young man who stormed to victory in the last BBC series of GBBO, and he reacts with a relaxed chuckle. What’s more, he admits to having tried one once. ‘And I am unashamed,’ he says with mock defiance. ‘And, I wouldn’t rule out having another.’
For while this brilliant baker has very strong views about eating ‘real’ food, he is level-headed enough to know that a little of what you fancy does you no harm. So long as it is a little.
‘We all have the occasional takeaway or pizza, especially when we are a bit hung over, and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up so long as it is just now and then,’ he says.
‘But where it goes wrong is when we turn into a nation reliant on things like frozen ready meals. That’s really not something we should be proud of.’
John, the son of dairy farmers from just outside Wigan, was brought up surrounded by well-cooked, nutritious food. ‘Cooking is something I’ve always done since I was little boy,’ says the 23-year-old, currently in the middle of a demanding patisserie course at le Cordon Blue School in London.
‘Cooking together was part of our family tradition and it still makes me think of happy times at home. And being a farming family, we knew about food. We didn’t go in for all this pasteurised stuff. In fact, I’d probably eat horse if it wasn’t in a ready meal disguised as something else. But then I’m just greedy!’
John, who grew up with two older sisters, does not fit the Wigan stereotype - the kitchen was where he was most comfortable. ‘I was always a delicate child,’ he laughs. ‘I can remember playing rugby once. It was in Leyland and I was about seven. It almost killed me and I retreated from the field never to return.’
If he lacked sporting prowess, he could run rings around most in the classroom and he eventually won a place at Oxford to read modern and medieval languages. But the draw of home proved too strong and he switched to Manchester University to read law. Bake Off viewers will recall he was sitting his finals during the competition, which he won with a stunning Heaven and Hell Cake.
It didn’t seem to distract him – he graduated with a first and his mum, Linda, who initially wanted him to have a career in the law or in banking, accepted he had to follow his first love. ‘Like all mums, she was a bit worried about the future, my safety and well-being. She just wanted me to be happy.’ Common sense is second nature to Linda – after all, she’s a Lancashire Life reader.
He had to keep the result of the competition secret for weeks after filming. ‘At that stage, there was no big fuss,’ says John. ‘But it turned out to be absolutely huge when seven million people watched the final. After that I just bounced from one interview to another.’ He thoroughly enjoyed the competition. ‘A lot of people get nervous in front of the camera, but it didn’t trouble me,’ he says. ‘You think more about the baking than the filming. I would like to do more television work.
‘A few people still recognise me but things have calmed down. Besides, I’ve put on so much weight after eating all those cakes!’ That will all change when he appears at the Cake and Bake Show at Manchester Central between April 5 and 7. ‘You do get a bit mobbed because everyone there knows who you are.’
He still keeps in touch with people from the show – especially young mum Cathryn Dresser and Scottish medical student James Morton. ‘In fact, we’re all having dinner together next week. Cathryn only lives 40 minutes away and we have become very close friends.
‘I don’t see much of Mary Berry because she so incredibly busy but Paul Hollywood and I have become good friends. He’s been really helpful. I appreciate his time and advice.’
John’s ultimate ambition is to open a patisserie selling good quality, fresh food. His particular passion is bread and he bakes all of his own. ‘We should have shops selling real, fresh bread on every corner. Buying a sliced loaf and eating it for a week is just not natural. Home made bread is healthier and easier to digest.’
When it comes to culinary heroes Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater are the people he turns to for inspiration. But soon, the young man from Wigan will join them on the bookshelves when his own cookery book comes out towards the end of this month.
‘It’s going to be different because it’s about baking by mood,’ he says. ‘For instance, it will have sections devoted to thing I cook when I’m very happy and things I make when I’m down in the dumps.’ After a short time chatting to John, you suspect there will be more pages devoted to happy than sad.