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Steven Carter-Bailey on life after Great British Bake Off

Steven inside the Globe Theatre. Pete Le May
Steven inside the Globe Theatre. Pete Le May

The British institution that is, The Great British Bake Off is back on our screens for its 14th series. And although my husband once compared my scones to something the British army might launch at an enemy, I’m still an avid viewer. The baking battle on Channel Four followers the trials and tribulations of amateur bakers competing to be crowned UK’s best amateur baker and as the competition progresses, the more we take the bakers to our hearts.

Steven Carter-Bailey narrowly missed out on winning the eighth series of the competition six years ago. A corporate marketing manager, he grew up in Widdington, near Tring, but the production crew decided it was far too off the beaten track so said he was from Watford. He recently moved to Bovingdon.

As a child, the 40-year-old fondly remembers baking with his mother Judi. ‘She taught us by example,’ he says. ‘I don't remember her saying, “this is how you knead dough”, or “this is how you rub in butter” - she just allowed us in her space. She's so confident in the kitchen she'll pick up a recipe with no fear and attempt it and I gained that confidence from her. I'm not great with mechanics. I'm not great at doing my taxes, but in terms of food, I don't fear anything.’

Great British Life: Steven in series eight of The Great British Bake Off. Photo: Love ProductionsSteven in series eight of The Great British Bake Off. Photo: Love Productions

Steven became well-known for his incredible novelty cakes on Bake Off, including a biscuit creation shaped like a giant chessboard, complete with playing pieces. What's it like walking into the tent for the first time? ‘The first episode was a total adrenaline rush from beginning to end,’ he says. ‘You're cooking in front of millions of people and it doesn’t hit you until you're in there. We were up at 4am that morning and whisked over to Welford Park, where filming took place. ‘It was the most beautiful morning when we were led down. It was still a little bit chilly, there was still some dew on the grass; bunnies were hopping across the lawn, but all we could focus on was this white tent. Considering it's a television set it, it was quite calm and serene inside.’

After the first bake, Steven looked in disbelief at the chaos around him. ‘I am meticulously tidy otherwise I’d go to pot, but I was so focused, it was the first time I'd looked up. I said, “Oh my God, look at the state of this place.” But of course, the cleaning team sweep in like a wave and within 20 minutes it's all back to normal.’

However, despite the mess his first bake won an elusive handshake from Paul Hollywood, who said it was ‘beautifully baked'. ‘When I first walked into the tent, the producer asked me what I was hoping for.’ recalls Steven. I said, “I just want to make it through episode one, I would love to get a handshake and I would love to make star baker. And I got all three in the first episode, so in my head, I'd made it.

‘The wonderful thing about baking is everybody has the opportunity to shine, because even the good bakers have bad days. I got on really well with Yan and Liam. I felt protective of Liam because he was so young, he was only 19 then. We are still great friends; he is a tonic. Yan is exactly the same, and I started to struggle when she left.’

Although Steven was understandably pleased with his showstoppers because ‘a massive amount went into them’, one of his highlights was making Sfogliatella, a crispy Italian pastry. ‘They look like little lobster shells,’ explains Steven. ‘I couldn't put my creative design on it, so I had to master the technique. When Paul Hollywood bit into one and I heard the crunch, I knew I had nailed it.’

Towards the end of the competition, however, Steven admits that he didn’t look after his health and the pressure got to him. ‘I had a real wobble in the tent during the final and Sandi Toksvig was wonderful. She carried me through that episode. At one point, I walked out of the tent, I was tired and emotional, Sandy marched me back in. She was a little mother hen to all of us.’

Great British Life: With Sir Ian McKellen. Photo: Steven Carter-Bailey With Sir Ian McKellen. Photo: Steven Carter-Bailey

When we speak, Steven has just become head chef at ProCook Cookery School in London, having discovered a love for teaching. ‘I teach my students the way my mum taught me - less fuss, more pleasure. It's not just about simplicity, but accessibility. If you cannot get the ingredients you need in the Co-op, the chances are, people are not going to make it. I read cookery books like novels, but I'm not one to try things if I have to go to Borough Market to get a particular kind of spice. I want recipes to be easily made and adaptable.’

When cooking Steven loses himself in what he calls his ‘happy space’. ‘I'm one of the lucky ones; my job is my hobby. I love being in my kitchen at home. People eat my food and say, “how on earth did you come up with that? I don't know half the time. I’m aware of a flavour palette in my mind and I complement it.

‘I also get pleasure out of watching my students. They become totally immersed in what they're doing, the stress disappears, there's lots of chat and banter and everybody thoroughly enjoys making something.’

Since Bake Off, the talented baker has designed celebrity cakes for the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, Disney UK and Jonathan Van Ness, American hairstylist and presenter on Netflix’s Queer Eye. A cake he made for Sir Tom Moore was designed with meticulously handcrafted replicas of Sir Tom’s medals made from sugar paste and a cake featuring Lady Gaga went viral.

Great British Life: Steven designed a birthday cake for Sir Captain Tom Moore. Photo Tom Moore FoundationSteven designed a birthday cake for Sir Captain Tom Moore. Photo Tom Moore Foundation

He has produced a podcast Feed My Curiosity, presented for ITV London and had his own show on local radio. He also went on to win The Great New Year’s Bake off in 2019. ‘I wanted to keep my focus on food because it is what I’m comfortable talking about and creating. I started making cakes professionally, they grew in popularity, and I found myself at the most wonderful places - including the BAFTA awards - and making the most incredible cakes. Celebrity doesn't excite me, but I do remember standing next to Lady Gaga and thinking, how did I get here?

‘I started the podcast discussing food because, whether you're a politician or an actor, everybody has a connection with food and everyone has a story. I wanted to make someone's favourite cake, sit with them and record podcasts while we ate a slice and had a cup of tea. It was a wonderful series. The questions are all the same, but everyone's answers are different. Tara-Lynne O'Neill, who plays Erin’s mother Mary in the Derry Girls, was a scream. We also had Nicola Coughlan also from the Derry Girls and Bridgerton; my favourite was probably Prue Leith.’ Season Two guests include Sophie Ellis Bexter and Joel Dommett.

Steven’s latest commission has been to work his magic designing a cake for a Shakespeare’s Globe production of Hansel and Gretel. ‘I was so excited! I don't really talk about it, but theatre is my other passion, especially Shakespeare. My first ever memory of a theatre production was A Midsummer Night's Dream. I didn't understand a word of it but loved everything. I love the Globe. You experience theatre in the way it would have been experienced it 500 years ago; it's incredible.’

Great British Life: The cake designed for the production of Hansel and Gretel. Photo Elise HumphreyThe cake designed for the production of Hansel and Gretel. Photo Elise Humphrey

Did he especially love putting his creative hat on for the Globe project? The answer is a resounding ‘yes'. ‘I loved working with the team because they're creative as well. There was no strict brief - I worked with show director Nick Bagnall making little miniatures. Walk along the South Bank and you've got huge, incredibly modern structures - and then there is this beautiful recreation of a 1599 building. For me, it was important to make sure that whatever I created was a celebration of the building in cake - and we certainly met it.’

To publish his own book would be a dream – on cakes, obviously. ‘I want people to see what I do and be able to do what I do, because I love it - and I think other people would love it too.’

Hansel and Gretel runs from December 8 until January 7 at the Globe Theatre. Tickets from £5,


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