Food: Paul Hollywood on his unexpected journey from art school to world-famous baker
The Great British Bake Off judge talks to Prudence Wade about her baking mistakes, her habit of starting early and being a perfectionist.
Paul Hollywood didn’t want to become a baker. Yes, his father was a baker, but he first joined the industry out of necessity.
After going to art school, “I just needed a job,” admits Hollywood, 56. “The 80s were tough for everyone, everyone was unemployed. So you needed a job to make money – it was hard, being young. Getting a job was always a bonus, whether you were a plumber , mason or other, and I ended up being a baker.
“It was a skill I had to learn, but I learned it pretty quickly” – and he knows how lucky he is to have fallen in love with the art of baking. “Anyone doing a job they love – it’s not like work. Getting out of bed in the morning was hard, but you get used to it.”
Sometimes it’s easy to forget Hollywood – best known as the steely-eyed judge on the much-loved show The Great British Bake Off – built quite a career as a professional baker before he moved onto TV. He is familiar with those 2 a.m. hard starts (his secret was never to repeat his alarm: “Anyone who snoozes in my area ended up getting fired for being late”), later becoming head baker at the hotel Dorchester and supplying Harrods and Waitrose with its pastries.
Now he is arguably the most famous baker in the country, with desperate candidates for one of his famous Hollywood handshakes. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t make mistakes. This is how he became the baker he is today.
“I messed up in the past. I think when I started I missed something like yeast, which is really critical,” he recalls. “Having to put all the dough back in the mixer, dilute the yeast and put it back in the dough – I’ve done that before. Forgot the leavens in the sponge cake [sponges], bake them and they’re flat and wondering what’s wrong. And the meringue by overmoulding.
“It just comes to you like a flash, that it’s all about consistency. It’s about being consistent in your work and consistent with the products that come out. Everything is fine and well-being is good one day, but it have to be good every day.”
And while Hollywood acknowledges that Bake Off contestants are “amateurs, not professionals,” it still expects a high standard of them. “They signed up to be judged, and judging they will get. It’s probably the first time in their lives they’ve been judged. If a friend made you a cake – good or not – you’d say it’s was good, because you don’t want to upset them. They took the time, they did it for you, and it’s a very personal thing.
“But if you do it for a judge for the first time, you give it to a professional, and then you get criticized. That’s a good thing, because you learn not to make that mistake again, and your cooking becomes It’s always constructive criticism – it’s never destructive.”
Hollywood wrote his latest cookbook, Bake, while in the Bake Off bubble in 2021 — and he couldn’t have chosen a better environment. “It gave me the motivation, because everything was at my fingertips – some of the things I was eating at the time, I thought I could improve on that, or do something like that.”
Some of the pastries he sees “pique his interest,” he says. “I’m a professional baker – it’s my job, it’s my life. But at the same time, you see bakers bring things like bao buns, or they’ll bring a weird [flavour]. Matcha – I’ve never been particularly fond of it – I’ve tried matcha, I don’t like matcha. I don’t think I would have used it myself…Sometimes I take something and walk away, I like that flavor. I might try that when I get home.
“But nothing really surprises me 13 years later, it would take a lot to surprise me. [A bake] might remind me of something I haven’t done in a long time, [and I’d think] ‘I’m going to do some crumpets when I come back’.”
So, is the tough-but-fair TV judge the same as the Paul Hollywood at home? “At home, I’m a little cooler,” Hollywood muses – but he’s still very much a perfectionist. “There are certain things that I like, I have a routine. I make bread for the house all the time, and I always make toast for my chucky egg in the morning – and the egg has to be done in five minutes and 13 seconds. Not 12, not 14 – 13. I’m like that, I don’t like change too much – I think it’s just my way of being.”
As we speak, Hollywood is sitting in the sunshine of his Kentish backyard, awaiting a call from producers telling him when filming for the new season of Bake Off will begin. In the meantime, he’s sticking to his routine – and cooking regularly helps him switch off.
“I relax when I’m baking, when I have a piece of dough in my hand or if I have a cake in the oven, I watch it rise,” Hollywood says. “I relax, because I don’t think about anything else. I just focus on what I’m doing – what I expect the bakers to do in the tent as well.”
Bake: My Best Ever Recipes For The Classics by Paul Hollywood is published by Bloomsbury Publishing, priced at £26. Photography by Haarala Hamilton.