Great British Bake Off star Paul Hollywood: Life doesn"t get any better than this


Risen to perfection: Life doesn’t get any better for star of The Great British Bake Off Paul Hollywood

By
Sarah Chalmers

PUBLISHED:

21:52 GMT, 6 July 2012

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UPDATED:

22:44 GMT, 6 July 2012

For the last three years, artisan baker Paul Hollywood has been passing judgement on the breads, cakes and pastries produced by anxious contestants on The Great British Bake Off, alongside fellow judge Mary Berry. He’s squeezed, lifted, sniffed and tasted more than 180 different bakes before delivering his expert opinion with the unshakeable confidence of a man at the peak of his profession.

But when it comes to the clothes he wears, he’s happy to take criticism – from the right person. ‘I always wore shirts and during the last series even had a jacket on a few times. But once I wore a polo shirt and Mary said she didn’t like it, so that was it; I’ve never worn one since,’ he explains with a belly laugh punctuating his Wirral accent.

‘Mary likes me in a dinner jacket when we go to awards ceremonies. She reminds me of the Queen. There’s something regal about Mary when she hooks her arm through mine to walk down a red carpet,’ he explains, making no attempt to hide his affection for the woman he says is ‘like my mother’.

Paul Hollywood sits alongside Mary Berry to pass judgement on the pastries and breads of The Great British Bakeoff

Paul Hollywood sits alongside Mary Berry to pass judgement on the pastries and breads of The Great British Bakeoff

The pair first met eight years ago on a Food Channel series and instantly clicked, but didn’t work together again until each was auditioned separately for the BBC bakery competition, which has become a runaway hit since it started in 2010, picking up 5 million viewers for the last series and a BAFTA earlier this year. ‘I was really glad it was her and she was really glad it was me. When we’re filming, Mary, Mel, Sue and I all go out for dinner together and I cry with laughter. Mary is the mother and we’re the naughty children.’ Mel and Sue are, of course, comediennes Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins who together with Paul, 45, and doyenne of British cookery Mary, 77, make up the unlikely success story that is Bake Off.

‘You can watch a lot of cookery programmes but I don’t know what percentage of people actually go out and try making the dish afterwards,’ says Paul. ‘We’re trying to change that, and with baking it’s so easy. It takes just ten minutes to make a sponge cake, pop it in the tin and bake for 20 minutes, add some cream and jam and an hour later you’re eating a lovely Victoria sponge.’

The current renaissance in British
baking – ‘everyone has the bug’, says Paul – has led him to write a book
which he says ‘anyone can use as a starting point'

This year thousands of amateur bakers applied to take part in the third series of the show, which has just finished filming and will be on our screens next month. Paul says he’s ‘had to raise the bar’ because the standard just keeps getting higher. He has also, in the past, had to loosen his belt as the endless tasting meant he gained around a stone and a half each series. ‘This year I’ve cut my slices smaller. Besides, I can’t eat too much or there’d be none left for the crew and then they wouldn’t speak to me.’

He says he’s never been faced with anything he couldn’t bear to try but has twice spat food out. ‘Both times it was about salt. The contestant thought they’d used sugar, and didn’t realise it was salt because they hadn’t tasted it.’

Such calamities aside, the Bake Off set sounds a riotous place to work. ‘Mel pinched my car keys and moved my car during filming one day this year, and when I came out at the end of the shoot I was baffled. The whole crew was in on it and she let me squirm for half an hour before owning up, by which time everyone was in stitches.’

The show has become so popular that Paul’s often recognised on the street. ‘My son’s school had a cake sale in the playground recently and you could see everyone panicking when I arrived. They all watched to see what I’d go for. I bought a particularly good lemon drizzle cake, and I’m sure the mother who made it is still living off the story!’

Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood attending the 2012 Arqiva British Academy Television Awards

Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood attending the 2012 Arqiva British Academy Television Awards

The current renaissance in British
baking – ‘everyone has the bug’, says Paul – has led him to write a book
which he says ‘anyone can use as a starting point’. He insists How To
Bake can turn a complete novice into a first-rate baker. His own
introduction to the art started early when he accompanied his father –
who ran a string of bakeries on the north-east coast – to work in the
holidays and observed the bakers with the same rapt attention other boys
would give to a football match. ‘Every time I went missing I’d be found
in the kitchen watching someone at work, my head barely as high as the
counter. By the time I was a teenager I had a Saturday job jamming
doughnuts with a big machine, which was really satisfying.’

Paul, whose uncles are also bakers,
initially resisted the lure of the industry to study sculpture at art
college. But at 18 he relented when his father offered him 500 to cut
off his long hair and work for him. An apprenticeship followed, and his
diligence paid off when he became the youngest-ever head baker at The
Dorchester in London. He also did stints at the Chester Grosvenor and
Cliveden hotels, but success came at a price. ‘I lost my youth to
baking. I spent 20 years working nights baking bread for breakfasts. In
the early days my friends would come in and see me in the bakery on
their way home from a bar.'

But he only once came close to changing careers, when he toyed with retraining as a chef. ‘Because I’d been at the top of my profession there was no one to learn from and it was hard to stay motivated. I had to teach myself by reading books and travelling.’ Thankfully he opted instead to accept a year’s contract as head baker at a hotel group in Cyprus where the Mediterranean influences reignited his passion – and he admits the only recipe that still eludes him is a decent one for a local Easter bread called Flaouna.

The one-year contract turned into six when he met and married diving instructor Alexandra, who he wooed with food. ‘I used to bring her Danish pastries and her favourite had champagne ganache in it and orange segments on the top.’ But a chance encounter with a TV crew led to offers of work on UK television, and the couple now live in Kent with son Joshua, ten, another keen baker.

Paul’s avuncular manner and infectious passion make him a natural on TV, and he describes his current role as ‘the best job in the world’. The only time during our conversation when he’s temporarily silenced is when asked if he would still do Bake Off if Mary quit. After a momentary pause he replies, ‘She’ll go on forever.’ So too, I imagine, will Paul – or at least until he’s discovered the secret of Flaouna.

The Great British Bake Off returns to BBC2 next month.