After the final of the Great British Bakeoff, we talked to John Whaite, who won the competition back in Series 3. Since then, he’s released 2 cookbooks, John Whaite Bakes and John Waites Bakes At Home, has started an artisan chocolate company called The Hungry Dog and plans to open a cookery school late this year.
We caught up with John to talk baking, GBBO, chocolate and hair gel. Here’s what he had to say in our exclusive interview.
How did you initially get into baking?
I got into baking when I was a teeny tiny little boy. It was one of those things that most families do, they bake. It doesn’t depend upon the weather, so my mum and my sisters and I would all get together in the kitchen on rainy weekends. I think that became a very comforting thing for me. So when I became a perpetually stressed out student, it meant that I could find solace in baking. I’d bake and make myself feel better. And then I realised I was lousy at anything else except for baking, so I thought I’ll be a baker.
What made you apply for The Great British Bake Off?
I applied because I was in the middle of my exams and I thought, I’ve got to do something to take my mind off these exams. I just filled out the application form and thought, I might not hear back, I probably won’t. Then 6 months later, I was in a field in the middle of the country baking for Mary Berry. So things happened all of a sudden and seemingly for no reason, but I’m glad it happened, that’s for sure.
How do you find inspiration for your recipes and what you bake?
I eat out a lot, I buy a lot of other people’s baking in food markets and things, I read a lot around the subject. I always say you are standing on the shoulders of giants so you can’t really come up with an idea completely by yourself but what you can do is combine what you’ve tried, flavour combinations, and put them into something else. Baking, really, is exhausted. There’s really only so much that can come from the baking industry so it’s a case of reinventing the wheel. Which is good because you know you can rely on the tradition that works as well as the more modern evolutionary flavour combinations.
What is it about baking that brings people together?
I think it’s because if you bake for yourself, then you have to eat it all. But if you bake and then share it, you make friends! And so, ya know, you can buy people to like you. (laughs) So yeah, baking is good for that.
Also, baking is a very traditional British thing, it’s something we’ve always done in this country, and I think it’s because it’s a cheap thing to do, it means you can do things with the ones you love, you can learn how to bake with your family members as I did with my mum. It’s about that sort of togetherness in food. I think food in general brings that but baking specifically it’s very familiar, it’s very comforting. The smell of warm bread cooking in the oven or a cake that’s just been baked is just the best antidote to anything in life.
What’s your best baking tip?
Weigh everything out in advance, read the recipe once and then read it again, make sure you have all your equipment ready. There’s nothing worse when you’re baking and you think, oh, I’ve got to put the vanilla in so you go to the cupboard with your mucky hands, open your cupboard, get finger prints all over your kitchen (which is a sacking offense in my house) and then the phone rings and you have to answer the phone and then you’ve got ingredients missing.
So get everything weighed out, read the recipe so you know what you have to do, and don’t make it up! People will say to me, I followed your recipe and something went wrong and I’ll say, well, did you do this? Oh no, I didn’t do that bit. Well it’s an integral part of the recipe, you’ve got to do it! So do as the recipe says and once you’re quite proficient in baking, then you can start messing around with things and fiddling.
What’s your ultimate comfort food?
I think if I’m in a really bad mood and I’m really in a rush then I think a mini chocolate mud cake. So you make a mud cake batter and you put it in a cup or small bowl in the oven for 5 or 10 minutes and you’ve got a gorgeous sort of oozy pudding, like a molten cake.
Also, I don’t think you can beat making bread when you’re stressed out. Because you have so many processes to put into it, you don’t even have time to think about what you’re feeling. I think when you work through any recipe, you’re transferring destructive energy into constructive energy. You’re reading through a recipe, weighing ingredients out, being really wholly focused on the recipe – that creative process really helps to take away any negative thoughts. Unless of course, the cake sinks in the middle and if you’re already in a mood, that might be disastrous so tread carefully! (laughs)
Do you still watch The Great British Bake Off?
I do, I do, I mean, part of me still misses it because it was the best thing I’ve ever done, it was just great fun. It was stressful at times but really it was just enjoyable. But watching it now is good because I’m not emotionally involved in it. I can enjoy it for the entertainment value.
Because when you’re in it, it’s great but people ask me, were you nervous? No, I wasn’t during the Bake Off because I was too busy thinking about my degree and the baking. But when you watch it back, you’re like, oh bl**dy hell, I’m on telly here! And people are watching it and they’re tweeting you going, why haven’t you done your hair today? (laughs) Seriously, I mean, I had that floppy fringe and I do wish I’d done it, put a bit of gel in it or something.
What have you been up to since the Great British Bake Off?
I did the 9 month diploma at Cordon Bleu, so it was really intense and I realised I absolutely loved chocolate work. I loved tempered chocolate, I loved eating chocolate!
I love to make truffles in particular because you can get a real burst of flavour in one tiny little bit of chocolate that you might not necessarily be able to translate into a cake. So for example, where I have Guinness and Black Battenburg cake, I’ve got a Guinness and Black chocolate called the Black Dog, so Guinness and Blackcurrant puree and a bit of chocolate inside of a chocolate shell. And when you eat it, the first thing you get is this sort of tangy kick of blackcurrant on the jaw and all of a sudden, the chocolate comes through and then finally that really dark haunting mellow Guinness flavour. And do you know what? I think it’s a taste sensation.
So I’ve started a chocolate company called The Hungry Dog Artisian Chocolates. And that name comes from my granddad. He always used to say to me, “The hungry dog hunts best” so to want something in life, you’ve got to be hungry for it, you’ve got to strive for it and when you are hungry and you’re ready to strive for it, you’ll do your damned best to get it.
These chocolates are luxury products, it’s all hand made by me, even that last flourish of finishing gold leaf on top is put on by me and so I really believe that the product is one of the best chocolate products available because there are no machines involved. I really want to be able to continue making it by hand but on a bigger scale. So when I move into our cookery school – because I’m opening a cookery school in Wigan in the Manchester area – we’ll have a production kitchen there for the chocolates too. My sister and my mum want to take a bigger role in the chocolate production so it will also be handmade from the very beginning to the very end of the production. So that’s what we want to do.
So will you be offering classes at the school?
Yes, the John Whaites Kitchen is going to be just off Junction 27 off the M6 so really accessible. I’m going to do 1-day baking, just the basics; 2 day classes in bread and brioche and patisserie; and I’m going to offer 5 day classes doing chocolate tempering on one day, patisserie on another day, bread boulangerie on another day, back to normal cakes the day after and the final day around finishing touches and chocolate work – an intensive 5 day patisserie from start to finish cookery course. I love to teach and to speak – I really love to engage with people about food and I really don’t want to be one of these chefs who sits on a cloud and gets home economists to write their recipes. That’s not what Im about. I mean, I grew up on a farm and my first job was at a chip shop peeling potatoes. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty.
It’s nice that you’re doing it near your home, rather than London.
Yeah, I didn’t want to do it in London because back up North is my true home. I mean, I love London and I love living in London, I’ve got my flat there but what I really love is my family and my home. It’s going to be on my family’s farm, the cookery school and the chocolate and in the future what we want to do is use their milk to make cheeses, so Hungry Dog Cheeses. I also want to branch out into Hungry Dog Brewery and start a micro brewery. So, there’s going be John Whaites Kitchen and then Hungry Dog Chocolates, Hungry Dog Cheeses, Hungry Dog Brewery. My family have always had businesses, they always had the farm, they had a laundrette, hairdressers and the chip shop. And I’ve grown up working with my family from a young age. That’s one of the things that’s so important to me that I can spend that time with them after the Bake Off when my granddad passed away. I hadn’t seen him for 10 weeks because we were filming, that put it in perspective for me. And he wasn’t an old, old man, it was all very unexpected but it was like, you’ve got to do as much as you can with your family because that’s all that really matters, ya know? London life is great, but really, my life is at home.
A huge thanks to John for this interview!
See also John Whaites’ recipe for Cranberry Orange Buns, perfect for Christmas breakfast with sweet cranberry, crunchy macadamia nuts and the zest of orange, baked in our Neff Slide and Hide oven with CircoTherm technology.