13 things we didn’t know about Great British Bake Off until we chatted with a former contestant

The Great British Bake Off is one of the UK’s most popular television programs.

The Channel 4 series is so popular that there have been a number of spin-off shows, including Junior Bake Off, which aired this month.

Life Writer Laura Nightingale had the chance to chat with Val Stones who appeared on Bake Off in 2016 – the series where Candice Brown won the title.

READ MORE: The super easy microwave peanut butter bread recipe that takes 90 seconds to cook

Stannah baking expert and Series Six icon Val surprised us when she shared her experience of entering the famous white tent.

The former teacher and grandmother, from Conisbrough near Doncaster, appeared on Bake Off in the days of Mary Berry and Mel and Sue, when the show aired on BBC One.

She talked about the judges, the cameras, and what it was really like to enter and audition for the baking contest.

1. Best of the show

It was going into the tent, putting on the apron and thinking “I’m not watching it, I’m doing it”.

I felt honored to share my own recipes in the tent as you are one of a relatively small group of home bakers who are licensed to entertain millions through baking.

2. What the judges really look like

When Mary and Paul first walked in, it was a surreal moment. I had learned to cook from Mary’s cookbooks, and I knew that Paul was an excellent baker and I thought “there’s nothing to escape either of the judges”, these are the best bakers and I am an enthusiastic amateur. I was hoping they would be nice.

When Paul was harsh, Mary gently reprimanded him to be a little less harsh with his comments. Both give praise where it was deserved and both have a great sense of humor and patience with bakers.

3. The biggest surprise

What surprised me was that the days were so long. We got up at 5am and arrived at the tent just after 6am for breakfast in the green room.

At 7am we were on set checking that our ingredients were correct for each cook with the food techs.

Filming started at 8am and apart from an hour break for lunch, we were cooking, being interviewed and filmed until between 8am and 9.30pm.

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4. Cameras you can’t see

When you watch the show, you only see the bakers, judges, and presenters.

What you don’t see are the eight mobile cameramen (each with their own soundman). There are also two boom cameras and a remote camera that zooms into the side of the tent (which was new when I went to Christmas Bake Off).

These film crews are accompanied by interviewers who question you constantly.

There are food techs running up and down the tent to take away used utensils and the tent is so full of people that it was sometimes difficult to move around the tent to retrieve the gear.

5. Practice time

Each baker in the tent must produce recipes for 11 iconic and unmissable challenges. This was done over a four week period, so not only did you have to write down the recipes, but you also had to do them to be sure they worked.

It was exhausting and it was a learning curve to write recipes properly. I was grateful for this practice because it helped me when I wrote my cookbook.

The turnaround time for the practice cooks was very tight, we would be filming for two days and then we would have maybe four to six days to practice the cooks for the following week.

I also continued to work as a substitute teacher, which reduced the practice time. I would say most recipes have been practiced two or three times. Often I would cook in the morning before leaving for filming and let my poor husband clean up the kitchen.

6. Pastry leftovers

The pastries are distributed – some are taken back to the green room so that we bakers can sample each other’s pastries.

The huge crew and tent staff eat the rest.

Nothing is wasted and we also knew that doggy bags were brought home by some presenters.

homemade sausage rolls
Homemade sausage and focaccia rolls from Val Stones

7. Do the dishes

Someone else does the dishes for you in the tent.

8. Who pays for the ingredients?

All ingredients are provided for challenges unless you use a specific ingredient which cannot be provided by Food Technicians.

I used several ingredients that I purchased in New Jersey. All ingredients are discussed well in advance and where possible will be provided.

9. Meet Paul and Mary

I think it was the second week when I realized that we only saw Paul and Mary when they were in the tent doing their part.

10. Wear the same clothes

I don’t know if I should say it, but I will. The judges and presenters film talk segments which are scripted and therefore can be done on either day of filming, so for continuity wearing the same clothes is required.

For bakers, there are plenty of snaps taken of us on both days that aren’t directly related to our baking – we might be rushing for gear or chatting with a fellow baker, and these can be mixed and matched in a single episode.

There’s around 100 hours of camera time over the two days of filming, and that’s whittled down to an hour.

I had to buy two of the same outfits.

11. WhatsApp group

We have a WhatsApp group that we talk to every day.

My baker friends have been very supportive.

12. The application form

The application and interview process has changed significantly since the program moved to Channel 4 and since the coronavirus outbreak.

For the BBC bakers, it was a 12-week process, starting in January and ending in March. I was late in submitting my application online, it was a last minute registration.

It was a complex application; they went through all the baking skills of several types of pastry, various methods of making cakes and different types of bread making.

They wanted to know if I had already made the items and if it went well for me. They wanted to learn about our family and work life and were very picky to make sure you didn’t have professional training as a baker or caterer.

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13. Auditions

Auditions were conducted over the phone at first, but there were many more over the 12-week audition period. I was working on the competition closing date and my cell phone rang at 12:55 just as I was about to drive my class home from the playground.

A voice asked me if I was available to answer some questions about my application. I had to say I was unable as I had 32 children waiting to be picked up and can I please call them back after 5pm.

At this point, I thought that was it. I ended up doing the interview around 7:30 p.m. for an hour and a half.

Three days later I was called again and asked to prepare a savory pastry and a sweet pastry to bring to an interview, impressed the food technicians and was filmed for 20 minutes chatting with an interviewer and the film was watched by members of the BBC.

There have been numerous telephone interviews with me and my referents (the people I have worked with and my husband).

The final challenge was when 190,000 applicants were whittled down to 192. I had to take a Mary bake and a Paul bake to London to be judged and then compete in a real technical challenge.

I came out of that last day thinking I wouldn’t go any further – I was proud to have reached the final lap.

On the show, I learned on the job and applied my other skills. I managed to pass half of the competition.

I can’t look at a gingham rag now (Val laughs).

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