Julia Chernogorova on The Great British Bake Off audition process and life in the tent
- Credit: Jim Holden
Crawley’s Julia Chernogorova was one of the break-out stars of Channel Four’s inaugural season of The Great British Bake Off. She talks to Duncan Hall about life in and out of the famous tent
Interview from 2018
In the corner of Julia Chernogorova's Crawley flat is a small open-plan kitchen.
At first glance it doesn't look much different from any other modern kitchen - but this is the spot where Julia spent many hours last year testing 18 different bakes before competing in Channel Four's top-rated show of 2017 - The Great British Bake Off.
When Sussex Life pays her a visit it is almost exactly a year since she first applied to take part. "It feels like we finished forever ago," she says, offering us some gorgeous cream cheese-filled Russian buns called vatrushki. "The hardest time was getting back to normal life. We didn't know when it was going to be aired. It felt like it was a dream - I had to ask [husband] Matt [Laughton] whether I had really done it. It definitely controls your life while you are filming."
The Siberian-born 22-year-old was introduced to the programme by her Horsham-based mother-in-law three years ago when she first came to England with 24-year-old Matt. "She knew I loved baking so said I should watch it," says Julia. "I really liked it - I couldn't put my finger on why, but I felt I needed to do it."
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She put in her application form and a month later she received a series of phone calls from Love Productions who eventually asked her to bring a sweet and savoury bake to an audition. It was the start of a series of interviews and challenges which according to Julia seemed to go on forever. "It was really tough," she says. "Unless you've gone through it you would never understand the amount of things we had to do."
When she got through to the final 12 she was sent all the requirements for the first nine weeks' Signature and Showstopper bakes - the Technical challenge was always set on the day of filming. "It was non-stop - you had to tell them what you were doing, how you were doing it and how it would be presented," says Julia, who made many practice bakes, much to the joy of Matt's colleagues in Gatwick, where he works as an electrical engineer. "I was just taking one taste to make sure it was all right," says Julia. "It was Matt's colleagues who got the bakes. Nobody knew apart from Matt what I was making - with cakes like the Russian Doll [Julia's first Showstopper] I had to smash the cake into pieces and pretend I was making a birthday cake."
Contrary to press reports she didn't give up her job as an aviation broker on a private airfield just to go on the Bake Off. "I didn't enjoy my job - it wasn't right for me," she says, having previously spent two years as a hairdresser. "I had done the job for six months at the same time I was applying for Bake Off. I would have quit anyway. I don't know how people do the show and have a job at the same time - it's really tough."
Walking into the tent for the first time was a weird feeling. "I felt very privileged, amazed and excited," she says. "But at the same time I felt ridiculously worried. It was the unknown, I had no idea what was going to happen."
She had a pretty amazing run in the famous tent - winning the devilishly hard bread week with a Showstopper featuring an overgrown toadstool and rather phallic-looking snail. "It was easy for me to forget about the cameras," she says. "They were doing their job and you couldn't get annoyed with them."
But the pressure showed in week six - pudding week - when Julia burst into floods of uncontrollable tears while the announcement was made about which baker judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith had decided would leave that week. She blames it on a lot of pressure coming together, as well as a disastrous Showstopper after doing so well in the Signature and Technical rounds.
The following week the focus was on pastry. "I knew as soon as I got in the tent that it would be my last week," she says. "Everything was going wrong - there was no point getting angry or upset about it. It was my time to go. It was never my intention to win or get to a certain point - I wanted to get as far as I could and enjoy being on set." Her decision to use baking powder in her decorative shortcrust pies came under criticism from Prue, she came last in the technical challenge making 12 Portuguese pastéis de nata and for her Showstopper, the Special Occasion hand-raised pie, she was criticised for not being neater, undercooked pastry and a dry shredded chicken filling.
"Even if you've practised a million times when you get into the tent you don't know what's going to happen," she says. "Even the weather seemed to work against us - when you make bread you want it to be warm so the dough can rise, but the whole time that week it was raining and horrible. When we made caramel we needed it to be cold, but it was really boiling. It's funny now, but at the time it wasn't fun!"
Her departure caused some consternation on social media - not least because fellow finalist Stacey had forgotten to take her baking parchment out of her Showstopper handraised pie. In announcing the judge's decision presenter Sandi Toksvig seemed to take the news worse than Julia, delivering the verdict with a notable catch in her voice.
Sandi and comedian Noel Fielding replaced previous presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins when the show made its controversial move from the BBC to Channel Four. Julia really enjoyed working with the new pairing. "I miss Noel so much, he was like a brother and Sandi was like a mother," she says. "Noel was so funny - he would come up and talk rubbish about everything and nothing. Sandi was always coming up and having a chat or deep conversations between bakes, she was really supportive."
One unexpected consequence of appearing on the Bake Off was how close Julia got to her fellow contestants. "When I moved to England I didn't make many friends," she says. "When I was a hairdresser I met lots of mums who were older than me. Being on set with 11 other people we became really close with everyone and part of each other's lives. It was like joining a massive family - and the previous bakers were really nice and supportive too. When we came back for the final [won by Sophie Faldo from Surrey] it was the 12 of us back together again for the first time since the opening week. After the final Extra Slice show we all went for a drink." Among the contestants she got closest to were fan favourite student Liam Charles, scientist Chuen-Yan 'Yan' Tsou and Merseyside pensioner Flo Atkins, who Julia went to visit just after Christmas. "It's such a shame she lives so far away," she says. "If she lived here I would be around there all the time asking: 'What's for breakfast?'." The friendships filtered onto the TV screen, with all the contestants helping each other out when time got short.
The biggest shock for Julia was when Scot Tom Hetherington left after the caramel week. "No-one expected him to go that quickly," she says. "He was such a great guy, really supportive and funny. I would like to go up to Edinburgh to see him - the people I got really close to all live far away!"
Outside the tent Julia had to get back to normal life again, taking up a part-time job, writing recipes and waiting for the show to be aired. She started noticing people staring at her once the show hit the screen. "People feel like they know you," she says. "Sometimes people are pointing at you and taking sneaky pictures without asking, but generally it feels really nice. When you're doing the show you don't realise how big it is."
She won't be drawn on all her post-Bake Off projects under the instructions of her new agent, but is looking forward to visiting a number of summer food festivals.
And one thing that hasn't diminished is her love of baking. "When I left the Bake Off my first thought was I can't wait to get home and bake," she says. "I love it even more now. I'm not very patient, but I love bread and waiting for it to prove. It's not frustrating for me.
"Baking is comfort food. Baking bread was the first thing I enjoyed doing.
"I've really got into chocolate, making chocolate sweets and pastries. I like making croissants, shortcrust, puff and rough puff pastry. I enjoy doing cakes that need a bit of work, but that taste lovely and homemade.
"You put a bit of yourself into it but you never know what you're going to get."
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