Being a guy who thinks of himself as a foodie (and enjoys watching shows about food), I have to admit to not being too keen on watching yet another food competition show. Food Network has the market cornered on these type of shows, and while I see their appeal, they are fairly pointless in terms of learning anything useful when it comes cooking at home. For example, if you look at the show “Chopped,” the ingredients can sometimes be a disparate mix of items that few (if any) would want to replicate in their own kitchen.
So when Julie said she was interested in watching “The Great British Baking Show,” I was hesitant. Thinking it was just a British version of a show like “Chopped,” I wasn’t too thrilled about concept, but gave it a try anyway. Well, there’s a reason why this show has been on TV for three seasons: because it’s really compelling . The premise is pretty standard. Take 13 armature bakers and over the course of 10 weeks have them make sweet and savory baked goods while a timer is running. Add to it two expert bakers/cooks (Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood) as judges, and two hosts who are there for some levity (Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc) and you have talent and a format locked in that, while not original, is novel in that these bakers are crafting creations that are critiqued at very high standards. And while the judges are pros, they often interact with the bakers to understand why they use this or that ingredient in their baked goods. We also get to know the personalities of the bakers complete with backstories as they rise (or fall) to challenges that get more difficult as the season progresses. Oh, and in true competitive style, one baker is voted off the show each week by the judges because they failed in various ways in their creations. All in all, lots of drama, lots of cakes, and there’s a lot to learn, too.
Baking — unlike cooking — is about chemistry and precision. And when it comes to certain items like Charlotte Royale, Princess Cakes, or even Pretzels, one can get the boot from the show if you can’t deliver. Each episode has three challenges that tests the mettle of each contestant. The first is the Signature Challenge — where the bakers get to something that they usually make for their family and friends. The second challenge is the Technical Challenge — where the bakers are given the same recipe (usually from one of the judges) with instructions that are kind of vague. For example, sometimes they aren’t told how long to bake something, or how much of certain ingredients they need to add. The show concludes with the Showstopper Challenge — where the bakers to show off their skills and talent. The judges are looking for a bake that has a professional appearance and outstanding in taste. The one who reaches the top of each week’s competition is named “Star Baker”– and one person is sent home.
The judges are fair, sometimes blunt, but always give the bakers good advice on how to make their creations better. They are also good about not tipping their hand on what they think of the bakes (as they are known) until they finish eating. Viewers and bakers can’t tell what’s on the minds of the judges because often they look confused about what they are eating. One expects to hear, “this is horrible” when reading the faces of the judges. However, now and then, Paul or Mary will say something like, “This is quite possibly the best pie I’ve eaten in months.”
Just like people get addicted to sugar, “The Great British Baking Show” — which is called “The Great British Bake Off” in the UK — has an addictive quality to it as well. The drama is very muted in a British way, the winners get nothing but praise and bragging rights (a refreshing twist to these competition shows where winners usually get money), and the food is, for the most part, very British. The bakers, however, represent a kind of post-Brexit “Remain” part of England. That is to say, they are a cosmopolitan group of people who often add ethnic flourishes to their bakes as an expression their multicultural background.
“The Great British Baking Show” has many great things going for it. But one thing it does head and shoulders above other competitive cooking shows is it’s knows how to entertain and inform in a measured pace.