The Great British Bake Off returns and FEMAIL gets hot in the kitchen with presenter and silver fox Paul Hollywood

The Great British Bake Off returns and FEMAIL gets hot in the kitchen with presenter and silver fox Paul Hollywood

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UPDATED:

23:05 GMT, 9 August 2012

Paul Hollywood is scrutinising the focaccia bread that I’ve made from one of his recipes and I’m nervous. After all, he’s the bread-baking genius we know and love from the BBC’s hit series Great British Bake Off, back on our screens next Tuesday.

We’re standing in the modern kitchens of L’Atelier des Chefs, a cookery school in west London.

Fixing me with the blue eyes that have become as much a trademark as his striking grey hair and have won him an army of female admirers, he tears a chunk from the bread and pops it into his mouth.

Sadie Nicholas gets the best tips in the trade from baking extraordinaire Paul Hollywood

Sadie Nicholas gets the best tips in the trade from baking extraordinaire Paul Hollywood

‘Did you make this’ he quizzes, a twinkle in those topaz peepers which, ladies, I can confirm are even more dazzling in the flesh than on TV. I nod, screw up my eyes and hold my breath, assuming he’s about to tell me it’s too dry or too heavy.

‘It’s really good, look at that texture!’ he beams. I’m chuffed. Despite a lifelong love of baking that stems from many happy childhood hours spent standing atop a kitchen stool making cakes with my Mum, the ability to bake decent bread has, until now, eluded me.

And Paul should know a good loaf when he sees one. Aside from earning a crust as a baker since he was 18, he’s from something of a baking dynasty: his great, great grandfather was head baker at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, dad John, 68, owned a chain of bakeries, and one of his brothers has a successful wholesale baking business.

Paul and his wife Alex at their home

Paul and his wife Alex at their home

Coupled with his easy manner, there’s little wonder he landed the plum job of co-judging GBBO with Queen of cakes Mary Berry when it first aired in 2010.

The show, which pits 12 amateur bakers against each other to find the nation’s best baker was the big TV hit of last summer, prompting retailers to report a huge surge in sales of baking equipment across the country.

More than five million viewers tuned in for the final, having been seduced by the show’s pastel-coloured kitchens, sun-dappled lawns, country house settings and the scrumptious pastries and cakes rustled up every week.

Paul and Mary are at the heart of the show’s success. Their standards may be steep but their comments are always constructive and kindly. No wonder GBBO won a BAFTA earlier this year.

‘A lot of programmes have gone down the route of sensationalism but our sensation is all in the cakes,’ says Paul. ‘Sometimes I think, there’s Mary and me – two old duffers – in a tent with Mel and Sue (comediennes Giedroyc and Perkins) and a load of bunting, how the hell could that work But it does.’

Paul was raised – pardon the pun – above one of his dad’s bakeries on the Wirral yet his first memory of baking is of making ginger biscuits with his mum, then a graphic artist, when he was five.

‘Dad was always in bed in the afternoons because of getting up in the early hours to bake,’ says Paul, 45, who’s lived in Kent for 11 years. ‘It’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to be a baker initially. I was a bed person, I think most teenagers are. But eventually you realise that getting up at dawn on a summer’s morning is the best time. The roads are quiet, you can think and you work while everyone else is sleeping.’

Before going on to run one of the family bakeries in Lincoln, Paul defected to art school where he was doing a foundation course in sculpture until his dad made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

‘He said if I jacked it in and worked for him instead he’d give me 500, but only as long as I cut my hair,’ he says, explaining that his locks hung down his arms at the time. ‘That was a lot of cash in the mid-Eighties.

‘My mates would go clubbing and stop
by the bakery in the early hours for something to eat. It upset me a bit
to miss out on partying, but baking was what I wanted to do.’

Paul went on to work at the Chester Grosvenor and London’s Dorchester.

‘I
was passionate and very competitive,’ he says. ‘I wanted to become the
best. Mix passion with a competitive streak and ambition and you’ve got a
recipe to do whatever you want. Anyone who’s successful will have one
or all three of those traits.’

Paul and the Queen of baking, Mary Berry, hosts of The Great British Bake-off

Paul and the Queen of baking, Mary Berry, hosts of The Great British Bake-off

In his late 20s came a call about a job going in the kitchens of the prestigious Anassa hotel in Cyprus, teaching the Cypriots European baking – afternoon teas, cupcakes, brioche, pain au chocolate and croissants.

‘I flew out for an interview thinking it would just be a jolly for two days but came back really wanting to work there, which was so different to my normal character. I’d always been such a home bird. When I moved to Cyprus, Mum gave it three weeks – I stayed for six years.’

According to ancient tradition, Aphrodite, goddess of love and fertility, was born from the waves off the coast of Cyprus and it was there that Paul met his English wife Alexandra, 39, then a PADI diving instructor and he one of her charges. Within a year they’d married on the island.

Soon after, a TV crew arrived there to film a show with renowned food critic Thane Prince. ‘The crew asked me to do something to camera – I’d never done anything like that before,’ Paul says. ’The director said I should work in TV. I thought, “Yeah, right!”

‘But when I came back to the UK two years later in 1999 I called him and within two months filmed a series with James Martin called Use Your Loaf.’

Paul is from a dynasty of bakers and has made himself a household name with his range of books and shows

Paul is from a dynasty of bakers and has made himself a household name with his range of books and shows

James has remained a close friend and is godfather to Paul’s son Joshua, 10. Then, two years ago GBBO came calling. Paul grins as he reveals he’s the only person who can and does call his on-screen partner ‘Bezza’.

‘Mary’s angle is home baking, mine is professional so we meet in the middle but with all the same passion and drive,’ Paul explains. I wonder what the biggest lesson is that he’s learnt from Mary and the answer is not one I was expecting.

‘Stork margarine!’ he laughs. ‘I always used butter in my cakes before but Mary said I should use a mixture of butter and Stork – you get the flavour from butter but the Stork sustains the crumb, making it lighter.

Filming for this year’s GBBO is finished now and Paul says we can expect to see even higher standards from the contestants and technical challenges that are ‘staggeringly difficult’.

Is this year’s Bake Off different from last year After all, other hit food shows like MasterChef have attracted criticism for tinkering with formulas that viewers already thought were perfect.

‘The dynamics No. The feel No. But the contestants are fascinating, they’re a bit more panicky. In series one and two people don’t know what to expect, but by series three they understand it so there’s added pressure.

‘This year’s bakers have been feisty and flared up in one particularly tricky situation. But I don’t mind that. I love that they had the passion to challenge me.’

As with the previous two series, contestants are required to make a signature dish and a showstopper to flaunt their skills. Were Paul a contestant, what would he make

‘My signature dish would be sour dough or the passion fruit souffl that I’ve been making for 15 years, and my showstopper a two tier chocolate cake.’

He describes the atmosphere on set as ‘lovely and completely genuine’ and says Mel and Sue are like his ‘naughty sisters’.

‘They’re always pulling faces, or winding me up and I have to say, “Hey, you two, shush!”’ he continues. ‘We have some real giggles. What you see on screen is genuine. A couple of times I’ve rolled out of that tent in tears from laughing so much.’

Although his role is as an expert, Paul admits that, like GBBO’s contestants, he’s made plenty of mistakes over the years.

‘But
that’s good, how can you ever learn or pass on your skills to others
otherwise’ he says with typical candour. ‘I once made 600 scones for a
very important family and had cut them out beautifully and put them on
trays before I realised I’d forgotten to put baking powder in them.

‘Then
there was the time I salted 1000 donuts instead of sugaring them, and
forgot to put yeast in bread, once after spending hours intricately
plaiting hundreds of individual rolls.’

At home he admits Alexandra wears the trousers in the kitchen.
‘She’s the cook, I’m the baker, but it really winds me up that she can
make a much better Roquefort sauce to go with steak than I can,’ he
chuckles again – Paul laughs a lot. ‘My sauce is always gloopy.

The Great British Bake Off with Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc, Paul and Mary

The Great British Bake Off with Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc, Paul and Mary

She makes a mean risotto and an unbelievable mushroom sauce but refuses to reveal her secret ingredient, which annoys me intensely. I’m going to get one of my chef mates to show me how to make the ultimate sauce so I can beat her.

‘But she’s no good at making macaroons or my chocolate and almond cake recipe. I try to teach her but she doesn’t like being told what to do, especially by me.

‘She tells me not to make a mess in the kitchen when I bake. Yet I get in there and think it’s already a mess – she likes to have the scales and the mixer in a certain place – so I move things round.’

Even young son Joshua has his views on Dad’s baking. ‘I made a chocolate roulade with him the other day and as we were about to put the cream filling in he stopped me and said we needed to add fruit as it was too sweet! He loves to challenge my recipes. He’s got quite mature taste and complains if I try to feed him a plan white baguette so I have to make him a sourdough instead.’

Having baked for Paul today, I’m wondering whether friends and family are reluctant to cook for someone with such dazzling culinary credentials

‘If anyone wants to cook for me I’m happy as long as it’s edible,’ he says. ‘But I’m fussy about the simple things. If I’m having beans on toast you can’t microwave the beans and you can’t put butter on the toast straight away or it’ll go soggy.


I’ve realised that it’s like being asked, “Does my bum look big in this” – people don’t always want the honest answer.’

‘We went to a party recently and the hostess asked me to judge a cake she’d made as if she was appearing on Bake Off. I tried to put her off but she insisted so I admitted the cake was a bit dry round the edges and had sunk in the middle. She didn’t speak to us for weeks!

I’ve realised that it’s like being asked, “Does my bum look big in this” – people don’t always want the honest answer.’

Off screen Paul has his own bakery, the Artisan Bread Co., which supplies Harrods and Waitrose, and after two years in the making, his second book, How To Bake, was published in July.

‘I’ve been asked a lot of questions from GBBO contestants and people in the street,’ Paul adds. ‘They want to know why their sponge has sunk, why their macaroons are terrible, how to make a croissant. I wanted to answer lots of those questions in this book.’

Sadie can't help but take a bite of the freshly baked bread

Sadie can't help but take a bite of the freshly baked bread

Right on cue, our photographer, Dan, lets slip that his wife Tanya can’t get her scones to rise. Smiling, Paul asks him to dial her number on his mobile so he can talk to her.

‘What’s wrong Scones’ he enquires. ‘Add a little bit more liquid and don’t overwork it – roll it three times and that’s it. Don’t cut them too thin, and leave them for half an hour before you bake them.’

With such easy charm, is there any wonder Paul’s become the housewives’ pin-up The only time he looks awkward is when I ask if he knew he’d been listed in an online top 10 silver foxes alongside heartthrobs George Clooney, Jose Mourino and Trevor Eve.

‘Erm, I don’t believe it. It’s flattering. It’s very nice.’ He’s flustered, but endearingly so. ‘It makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. I’m just a baker.’

‘The other day two women walked past me and I heard one say to the other, “He’s got the same blue eyes as that Paul Hollywood!”’

What does Mrs Hollywood make of women melting over her husband like the chocolate in some of his recipes

‘She thinks it’s funny,’ he laughs, at ease again. ‘The other day two women walked past me and I heard one say to the other, “He’s got the same blue eyes as that Paul Hollywood!”’

Paul has a couple more ‘big projects’ coming up with the BBC, plus another series of Celebrity Bake Off. But this is a man for whom the dough he makes from TV really does come second to the bread, the pork pies, and the sausage rolls.

‘I’m a northern lad,’ he explains. ‘All I want to do is bake. Whether I do that on TV or on the moon, I’m still just a baker.’

He cuts a wedge from a wholemeal loaf that took me three hours to bake following another of his recipes.

‘That would taste great smothered in butter,’ he contemplates.

‘But next time leave it to prove for another half an hour before you bake it so it rises more and the texture’s lighter.’

And that’s precisely why we’ve grown to love ‘ole blue eyes: just like Mary Berry he proffers just the right mixture of praise, expertise and constructive criticism to leave you wanting to rise to the next baking challenge.