Backstage at the Bake Off

What really goes on behind the scenes in the Great British Bake Off tent? Holly Brooke-Smith finds out who gets to pick star baker, who gets to eat the evidence, and who does the washing up...

Backstage at the Bake Off

As this year’s batch of bakers began lining their tins and cracking eggs, I spent a day in the marquee in Berkshire alongside the team who mastermind the hit show. The tent is bigger than it appears on screen, with room for the 45-strong crew to work without being caught on camera. That’s three producers, a researcher, five cameras, three home economists, a food producer and two make-up artists, as well as Mel and Sue. 

Planning, shopping, washing-up – and sleepless nights! 

Chief home economist Faenia Moore and her team ensure every baker has exactly what they need on the day.

How would you describe your job? 

I filter through recipes and compile a list of ingredients a week before each episode is filmed, then I do a massive shop. There’s a prep kitchen in the tent with our fridges and flour bins. A day before filming, I make up trays for each contestant, with ingredients they’ll need in Kilner jars. People normally have 12-20 ingredients, but it varies – last year Frances Quinn had 124 for her cake in the final.

How do you prep?

Before filming we block through recipes with each contestant. It’s a case of asking: ‘Have you got enough raspberries?’ and ‘Do you know how the oven works?’ We run through all the methods so that during filming someone isn’t suddenly looking for a whisk. We want them to be in the best environment to achieve amazing things. During the run-through our food runner is stationed in the nearest supermarket so I can call and say: ‘We need more raspberries in 10 minutes – go, go, go!’

Do you buy extra ingredients in case bakers need to start again?

It’s not practical to buy too much, but I know at this stage what people might need more of. With ganache, for instance, people always mess it up first time, so I’ll have more chocolate on hand. We also have tons of eggs, butter, sugar, flour – all the basics.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve been asked for?

I don’t think they’ve shocked me yet! Some have started using things like isomalt, which is a sugar substitute used for decorations – it’s very ‘cheffy’. But I don’t think Mary and Paul are that impressed by the new-fangled stuff, they want the real deal. Last year everyone went nuts for pistachio nibs because they look so good.

What do you do during filming?

I make sure everything is going as smoothly as possible. But if I see a contestant doing something that I know will go wrong, I just have to turn away – I worry that they’ll see my reaction and realise. I can explain how to use unfamiliar equipment, but in terms of ‘I’ve split my custard’, they’re completely on their own. All I say is: ‘Do what you would at home.’

Have you had any disasters?

I’m quite nerdy about getting everything in place – it’s not fair on the bakers if it’s not organised. I did wake up at 2am last year and think: ‘I’ve forgotten pomegranate molasses!’ Thankfully my assistant had some in her cupboard. And in the first season one contestant pulled the door off his oven – I have no idea how he did that! Luckily there was a spare that day.

Does everyone try all the bakes?

It all gets eaten, but in a controlled way. It’s important for the bakers to eat what they’ve slaved over, so after each challenge I make up a ‘baker’s basket’ to go to their lunchroom. Then any leftovers go to the crew lunch. Everyone gets quite excited so you have to say: ‘Step back, we need to do this in an orderly fashion.’

How about clearing up?

Lovely Iva does all the washing-up. The runners help, and we have a good system with two sinks. A dishwasher would be too noisy, and probably take longer. Also, if you’ve got caramel, you’ve got to use plenty of elbow grease. I just give Iva regular hugs!

What’s the biggest challenge?

The weather. If we’re doing bread when we need warmth for proving, chances are it’ll be freezing. Then when it’s chocolate, it’ll be scorching. It happens almost every year.

A typical day in the tent

The morning’s first challenge is coming to a close and the bakers are focused – it’s very quiet on the set, apart from the occasional honk of a passing goose. It’s not until Sue calls the final ‘two minutes’ that oven doors start to slam, plates clatter and the tent is filled with a last-minute buzz as we’re enveloped in a haze of delicious baking smells.

There’s time to grab a sandwich as Faenia and her two colleagues quickly tidy surfaces ready for Paul and Mary to start judging. Contestants wait at their benches as the presenters move around between them. Often they won’t know what’s being said to other contestants until after all the judging.

It’s a seamless operation – once a bake has been judged, it is quietly filmed at the back of the tent for the ‘beauty shots’, which play when a recipe is introduced on the show, and the contestant is interviewed outside for their reaction. When everything has finally been judged, there’s just time for Faenia to clean down completely and set up for the next challenge of the day.

Could you make the grade?

Series producer Sam Beddoes explains how this year’s batch of bakers were chosen.

How are contestants selected?

More than 12,000 people applied this year. Everyone sends in a form and we call those who we think are serious bakers. The show takes over their lives as the filming is done at weekends.

About 300-400 people make it through to the first round of auditions, when they bring two bakes along. After a screen test, we invite 50-60 people to a second audition, where we give them a technical challenge and shove cameras in their faces, to see if they can talk and bake at the same time. When we’re filming, we’re the equivalent of an annoying child who wants your attention constantly.

Who applied this year?

We’re attracting better and more adventurous bakers. The challenge for this series was finding people who are traditional as well as those who are excited by new techniques, and we’ve scoured the country. It’s lovely this year – they are amazing, and that gets Mary and Paul really excited.

So how did you decide?

The baking is 100% the most important thing – not personality. You can have brilliant characters, but if they’re going to go out in the first round there’s no point. Part of the charm of Bake Off is that they’re real people from all over the country. It’s such a lovely atmosphere here and we fiercely protect that.

So who’ll be star baker?

Paul Hollywood, Mary Berry, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins assess this year’s bakers and explain what they’ll be looking for.

MARY When we came into the marquee on day one, we realised we’ve got a really wonderful group. They are so focused on being original, creative and concentrating on the bake. The flavours have been very good, too – they’re using ones that we know, but in different ways. This year they are very skilful and stylish.

SUE It’s sort of sickening – they’re too good! We’ll be harking back to the days when a baker would make a perfect mirror-finish ganache and then turf it onto the carpet for no good reason.

MARY Because the standards are so high this time we’re getting a bit tougher, I think. We always try to be constructive though – we don’t want people to be upset. It’s important to remind ourselves exactly what the contestants have been asked to do. So the fact they’ve made extra ice cream or an additional custard, for instance, is nice – but it mustn’t enter into our judging too much. 

PAUL These guys are proper bakers. Most of them have been baking for years and years. We’re talking to like-minded people and it’s really stimulating. However, even though they’re really good, you do always get someone slipping through the net. But when a contestant does fail, hopefully people at home learn something too.

SUE It’s educational, redemptive failure. With sauce on top.

MARY In the past we have sometimes known who’s leaving the moment we’ve finished judging – or it will take half an hour. Paul and I can just look at each other and know who’s the star and who’s going home, but we always have to explain why. The viewer doesn’t taste anything so – although they might see sheer perfection, we know whether it’s right or not.

MEL Do you remember when it took five hours to make a decision in series one? Interminable. It was like waiting for a new Pope – extraordinary! 

MARY When it comes to the judging, my friends are surprised that we have complete control over who stays and who goes. That’s why we might get three girls in a final, or three boys – maybe it’s not great television, but that’s just what happened. We always judge on what takes place on the day – not the week before, or the week before that. At the final we might look at the season as a whole, if it’s extremely close.

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