He’s been dubbed the George Clooney of baking, but despite the name, there’s nothing puffed up about Bake Off’s bit of crumpet, finds Janet Christie
IS IT the ice-blue husky eyes and carefully clipped salt and pepper facial hair, the lightly floured hands that can expertly shape and knead, the cheeky Scouse persona or the down-to-earth baking advice delivered 13 to the dozen? Whatever it is, Paul Hollywood is acknowledged to be Britain’s favourite master baker. He and sidekick Mary Berry help attract an audience of more than nine million on the cooking competition, The Great British Bake Off, which is now looking ahead to a fifth series and has been part of a baking revival that has seen cooking equipment selling like hot cakes as the nation rolls up its sleeves and gets down and floury.
At the head of it all, with rolling pin held aloft leading the crusade to inspire millions to discover the delights of baking, is 48-year-old Hollywood. With four best-selling cookery books bearing no-nonsense titles such as How To Bake and Pies & Puds to his name, the housewives’ bit of crumpet is now hitting the road and heading north. His Get Your Bake On! Live Tour comprises 22 dates for which he will cook four or five dishes each night, in a menu of madeleine-style memory triggers that charts his path from child to celebrity baker.
“For me, it was my mum’s ginger biscuits, and jam tarts we made together with any leftover pastry. It was the anticipation of waiting for something to come out of the oven that got me. It’s the smell.”
Another memory is of his father, a baker, coming home on Saturday afternoons and making dough that was left to rise in front of the gas fire while they watched the wrestling on the telly.
“It was the only time we ever saw him. He would cover the dough balls with a towel and I’d keep touching them and looking at them and he’d say, ‘leave them alone’. His dough balls and barm cakes were the best. My dad thinks it’s hilarious where I am now. He says you know nothing about baking. And I’ll never know more than my dad. I get my bread baking knowledge from him and pastry from my mum, and I’ve picked up other stuff from hotels all over the world,” he says. “I love bread because it’s far more difficult to master than other baking. It’s a living organism that changes every day. Anyone can make a loaf but not everyone can do it day in, day out.
“In the show I’ll be cooking my food memories, but I’m not telling you what they are now. You’ll have to come and see the show. There will be recipes from when I was a kid right the way through to now. I’ll have two screens at either side of the stage so people can see what I’m doing, and interactive things going on, a roving mic so people can ask questions, and I’m going to pick four people out of the audience and give them a baking challenge. I want it to be interactive and fun, entertaining,” he says.
Hollywood acknowledges that baking is currently hot stuff, but disputes it ever went out of fashion, averring that we were always at it behind closed doors, long before Nigella started sucking her sticky fingers or Jamie got Naked to entice us with “pukka tukka”.
“I think baking has always been in vogue in people’s houses but hasn’t had the publicity,” says Hollywood. “Bake Off adds in the bunting and contestants and Mel and Sue. But the reason it’s popular is because it’s about nostalgia, it takes you back to a time and a place when you were young. Also, it’s very accessible. Everyone has the ingredients in their cupboards, and since Bake Off has been on for a couple of years, they’ve dusted off the weevils and updated their stock. People are inspired and getting off their arses. And it was to take this momentum of baking out on the road that we’re doing the Get Your Bake On! show.
“I’m really looking forward to coming to Scotland. I spent a lot of time in Scotland filming for Pies & Puds. I was out with fishermen off the coast of Fife, saw the water buffalo at Kirkcaldy, did a food festival in Dundee and visited Hopetoun House and Musselburgh. I love the people in Scotland. They’re hilarious, and the most genuine people I have ever met. There’s McKenzie in me on my grandad’s side; his mum was a McKenzie, so I could wear the tartan as it’s part of my heritage.”
But before you get excited, there will be no Bake Off/kilt on/glimpse of buns scenarios north of the Border for Hollywood. “Definitely not!” he laughs. “I’d never wear a kilt.” Which is probably for the best, what with all those hot baking trays, audience interactivity and Hollywood’s female fans getting steamed up.
Hollywood takes the whole sex symbol thing with a pinch of salt and bats away any suggestions that his easy-on-the-eye appearance may have helped his career.
“It’s a joke, not real. It’s nonsense. I’m a bit chubby, a bit of a chunky monkey, but I’m happy in my own skin. I lost weight last year, although I think I’ve put it back on. On the tour I’ll lose shitloads of weight, it’ll drop off, a good stone and a half. At the beginning of a series of Bake Off I’m a chunky monkey, and at the end I’m skinnier and browner from sitting outside the tent on breaks between challenges,” he says.
CBS might disagree though. The US channel dubbed him “the George Clooney of baking” when promoting the US version of Bake Off last year. Renamed The American Baking Competition, the show brought him rather too close to co-host Marcela Valladolid – a relationship Hollywood later described as “the biggest mistake of my life” and which saw his wife Alexandra talking divorce. Hollywood moved out of the Kent marital home they shared with 12-year-old son Josh and chocolate lab Rufus, but the couple have been reconciled since Christmas. Hollywood won’t comment on his private life, other than to say: “I’m in a good place now. I’m wiser.”
Hollywood puts the success of The Great British Bake Off down to a combination of ingredients that both create and satisfy an appetite for foodie TV.
“It’s a success because of the relationships in it. There are three sets. The contestants, who are all dynamite, then there’s Mel and Sue who are hilarious, then there’s Mary and me doing our thing, and all three of these cogs are interacting.
“Mary is more like a mother. She says she’s my TV mum. I have grown very fond of her over the years and I see her outside of the show. We do demos and I always pop in for a cup of tea if I’m going past her house,” he says.
Hollywood is something of a TV natural, having been picked up by a TV crew during the six years he spent working at the Annabelle and Anassa resorts in Cyprus as head baker. His wife Alexandra, a scuba diving instructor, got chatting to the crew and told them they should speak to her husband, and they wound up using him for his local foodie knowledge. When the couple returned to the UK, he followed their advice and found an agent, which led to guest appearances on cookery programmes on the BBC and ITV, including James Martin’s Saturday Kitchen. He also set up the Paul Hollywood Artisan Bread Company in Aylesham, Kent, and by 2008, Harrods were stocking his £15 loaves, the most expensive in the country at the time. When Hollywood was appointed as a judge on Bake Off in 2010, his status as a household name was assured, despite being a self-confessed “shy person”.
“I treat it as if no-one’s there. I ignore the camera. I’m the baker, the pastry man and I’m just doing my job. If you play to it then you’ve got a problem. You should just be yourself. I always think about my three mates sitting on the sofa there laughing. Chris, Keith and Adam, my three mates I grew up with: an architect, body shop guy and a builder. They used to come into my dad’s bakery and we’d have a laugh, and I just imagine it’s them watching me. I’m insular in my private life. I like keeping it to quite a small group of people. The person on TV is me, but it’s just a different me.”
Having a laugh is hugely important to Hollywood, and he reckons it’s a vital part of his make-up and his heritage, coming from Wallasey on the Wirral. Taking himself too seriously would be a big mistake, and he’s at pains to point out that Hollywood is his real name. “Why the hell would I change it to Hollywood – I was always getting the mickey taken by taxi drivers. And now people think it’s a stage name, but it’s not.”
“You have to be a comedian to live in Liverpool. A sense of humour is critical. Everyone takes the mickey, and how you take it makes you the person you are. If you’re out on the ale with the guys, every one will take a pop at you, then it’s their turn. You have to learn to take it on the chin,” he says.
Hollywood is also of the opinion that the contestants on Bake Off have to learn to take criticism on the chin too and listen to the advice he gives them about their soggy sponges and housebrick loaves. His straightforward and forthright manner mean he could never be accused of being a Len Goodman of the gourmet world. Hollywood sees it as part of his job to give the contestants the benefit of his knowledge. He is on a mission to help us all be better bakers.
“I don’t criticise the contestant but the product. It’s not personal. That’s why it’s technically challenging and there are blind bakes. It’s all constructive criticism, telling people where they went wrong and how they can make it better. Everyone wants to get better at baking,” he says.
But Hollywood nearly wasn’t a baker at all. Before his father tempted him into the bakery business, leading to stints at the Dorchester, Cliveden, the Chester Grosvenor and Claridge’s, his first love was sculpture.
“After school I went to art school. My mum was artistic too. She painted in oils and exhibited some of her work, then when she had us three to look after, she sat and painted models, those winter cottages and rabbits. She painted them by the boxful, with her glasses on the end of her nose. If you see a rabbit with JH on the bottom anywhere, she probably painted it.
“I used to do sculpting. Horses was my thing and I’d sit in fields sketching them for hours. The muscle structure in their legs is amazing. My dad owned a racehorse for a bit, Price of Peace, a hurdler. His ambition was always to get it into Aintree, but he never did and he sold it in the end. I still sculpt though, in sugar and pastry, it’s just in a different medium,” he says.
Despite his artistic side, Hollywood is also a blokey bloke and isn’t averse to shouting in the kitchen, especially first thing in the morning.
“I’m always grumpy when I’m waking up. Once I’ve had my coffee I’m OK, but don’t talk to me before that. Don’t give me bad news or I’ll tear you to pieces.”
Perhaps it’s a hangover from his early days in the bakery. “Yeah, I was shouted at by the lads I was training with. I remember being told to pick up a tray that was burning hot, just out of the oven and I didn’t realise, but you learn to live with it. I had to work twice as hard too – I was loo cleaning for about three months. Yeah, I do still clean them at home too.”
He might clean the toilet, but he doesn’t do all the cooking. His wife Alexandra has always cooked too, and recently launched her own TV cooking career, appearing with Hollywood’s support on ITV’s Lorraine.
“Cooking’s work to me. At home I keep it basic, with pasta dishes, pies and salads. And my son loves pizza. I’ll make a cake if it’s someone’s birthday, but they’re not always pleased if you turn up with that and someone else’s made one. The dinner party invites have dried up too since Bake Off,” he laughs.
Hollywood is also a self-confessed grease monkey. There’s nothing he likes better than to climb on one of his two Ducatis and hit the open road. Despite his mother’s concerns, he had bikes at 16 and has been on and around them ever since. “I like the freedom on the road, the speed. One day I’ll do a road trip, around Scotland maybe. Nice bikes and cars have always been something I’ve been around. I’m a speed freak,” he says. “There was a time when I wanted to be a fireman, drive a fire engine, it was the excitement of it.”
Sadly the bike will be staying at home when he hits the road, with all the equipment needed for the show making travelling light impossible.
After the tour there’s no let-up for Hollywood when he’s reunited with Mary Berry, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins for another Bake Off series airing in August, then there’s another food series – although he’s keeping the details under wraps – followed by a book about regional baking coming out before Christmas.
“Then I’d like to do a food travel series, pointing the finger at other countries’ cooking,” he says. “Are they really that good? We have fantastic regional dishes here, and abroad they’re maybe not as good as they think they are. I’d like to look at the history of baking too, where it all started, with the Egyptians and the first risen bread in 2500BC. Then the Romans took those techniques and skills and spread them. But that doesn’t mean we weren’t already making good stuff here when they arrived.”
In the meantime, Hollywood has been gearing up for the mammoth Get Your Bake On! ahead of him by taking time off to go away skiing with his family. “I’m about to do something massive but I enjoy time off. All work and no play, you can’t do.”
So it’s feet up with a cup of coffee and a little of what he fancies. “Yum-yums. I love them. They’re my comfort food.”
Fair enough, but he probably makes them from scratch, whipping up a superior version that would put those of us who head to Greggs to shame. “Nah,” he laughs. “I just buy them from the shop.”
Paul Hollywood’s Get Your Bake On! Live Tour comes to Edinburgh Playhouse on 29 April, tickets £34 (£28.50 concession) and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 30 April, tickets £33 (£28.50 concession). For tickets, go to www.paulhollywood.com