I’ve been binge-watching The Great British Bake Off for the past few weeks. It’s quickly become one of my favorite reality TV shows, perhaps one of my favorite TV shows ever. It’s such a great combination of relatable, real-life drama, heart-warming moments, so many funny bits, and yes, the triumph of the human spirit. All in one sugary, carb-loaded package.
I’ve been thinking about how nearly perfect The Great British Bake Off is in terms of creating a televised competition that nearly everyone can relate to. No matter your background or upbringing, baking and baked goods are a part of your life. Whether you make or simply consume them, we all respond to a well-baked loaf of bread or a beautifully created cake. It crosses gender, cultural, political, and generational lines, that few other arts or craft forms do.
The actual contest is interesting because there is no obvious demographic that has a distinct advantage.
Gender is not really a factor. Both women and men have an equal ability and opportunity to excel at baking.
Being young and fit does not confer any benefits. Age and experience is probably more of a help, since it takes time and practice to have actually made the hundreds of varieties of baked goods and mastered the techniques that the challenges are comprised of. What individual who isn’t a professional pastry chef has any experience making a Spanische Windtorte, a Mokatine, or Flaounes?
In thinking about the competition, I’ve been counting off the attributes of the perfect competitor. To win the Bake Off, you need:
Baking Skills and Experience: People typically specialize on the kind of bakes that they like, whether its bread-making, cakes, or cookies. They don’t tend to try and master the entire universe of baking products, skills and techniques. Some people, like young Ruby Tandoh in season 4, have an innate sense for how to execute a bake, even if she has never done it before. Others simply have put in the hours mastering different techniques, so a homemade filo dough or creating a soufflé doesn’t phase them.
Design and Artistic Vision: You need to be able to conceive of truly breathtaking showstoppers, like Paul Jagger’s lion loaf from season 6. That takes a certain vision that most regular cooks don’t have.
Design Skills: There’s the vision, and then there’s the actual skill to execute. Most contestants will be able to make reasonably good tasting bakes. So how it looks can make the difference between an okay bake and a winning one. You need to be able to create elaborate decorations and flourishes that make your bake stand out. Sugar work, anyone?
Project Management Skills: You need to be able to plan and execute a complicated set of instructions under intense time pressures. Many of the more successful bakers aren’t necessarily more skilled, they just are better at planning their bakes so that they have something close to the brief to present at the end of the time. As one of my favorite contestants, Yan in Season 8, said, “Time management is my secret super power.”
Focus and Concentration: Since you are baking in a competitive format, while being filmed, within a time limit, you need the ability to focus on the task at hand, not get overwhelmed by challenges and unexpected issues, and get it done. How hard is it to cook in someone else’s kitchen, using their tools and appliances, under normal conditions? This must be 100 times harder.
Confidence: You have to believe in the thing you are making, even if Paul Hollywood is throwing you shade, or someone else is making something similar to what you are making. Alvin in Season 3 creating his simple pineapple upside down cake, comes to mind. During that challenge, every other contestant was making very complex creations with multiple ingredients and flashy decorations. But Alvin knew his cake was excellent, even if it didn’t have the pizazz of the others, and it paid off.
Flexibility and Openness: While its good to have an artistic vision and confidence, you also need to be able to take feedback and notes from the judges and adjust your bakes accordingly. While judging, Paul and Mary and Prue take into account not only your current bake, but also whether you have responded to their previous notes. It takes a certain amount of humility and sensitivity to be able to adjust your bakes to accommodate what you know the judges like and what they want from you, even if you don’t necessarily agree.
Given all of these attributes, I think a middle-aged person might have an advantage over a young or older contestant. By your mid-30s or 40s, you’ve had the time to develop the skills and experiences you need to be a good baker. You may have figured out how to manage stress, to work under challenging conditions, to master your own internal critic. You can balance what your gut tells you, the information you have from the judges, and what other contestants are doing around you. And you are nimble and flexible enough to change tactics mid-bake if something isn’t working.
It’s this unique balance of skill sets, competencies, and experiences that makes the Great British Bake Off so fascinating to watch. It’s a true test not only of the best baked goods, but also of character.