|Meet Bake Off’s Mat Riley

Mat Riley at Tonbridge Old Fire Station

Mat Riley at Tonbridge Old Fire Station - Credit: Archant

The skateboarding firefighter from Great British Bake Off reveals how a batch of perfect macarons led to his bid for the baker’s crown.

If you’re interviewing Great British Bake Off contestant Mat Riley, the Tunbridge Wells firefighter, surely the only place to meet up is at a fire station? And where better than the iconic Old Fire Station in nearby Tonbridge, currently the hottest place in town and temporarily being used as an exciting pop-venue for everyone from chefs and artisan brewers to tailors and artists.

Mat, who serves with the London Fire Brigade, was delighted to get a chance to see behind the big red doors. Once he’d explored the space, a hive of activity with trestles and tables being set up for the latest venture to ‘pop up’ that evening, we headed round the corner to another highly appropriate venue: The Bakehouse at 124.

Admittedly it was hard to prise Mat away from owner Clare Barton as they chatted away about all things artisan bread, but eventually I managed to persuade him up to the quieter upstairs area for a chat and cup of tea.

And what a lovely chap he is, exactly like he came over on the telly; friendly, down to earth and still a tad bemused by the GBBO fan base. On our short walk from fire station to tea room, he’s stopped several times for photos, handshakes and even the odd hug, but greets everyone with the same warmth.

Not only that, Mat became a first-time father to son Ruben just over two weeks before our meeting, and has just moved home. He could be forgiven for being a bit tired and ratty, but he just laughs and says shift work has made him an ideal dad for night-time nappy duty.

“You sleep in a dorm at the fire station and you’re so used to people coming in and out, chatting, lights going on. Six months with the fire brigade would sort out any new dad!”

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He’s also so excited about his new house, a bungalow just off Camden Road, that he brushes off the stress of moving house. “In the old place near the Pantiles I could touch all four walls with outstretched hands, it was so tiny, but that’s where I did all my practising for Bake Off.

“Now it’s so nice to have space, loads of cupboards to put things in rather than having everything piled up and I’m going to be able to experiment with new recipes. It’s the main reason we went for the bungalow – it’s got a massive kitchen with room for a table for eight.”

Mat, 38, only began baking three years ago when the four days on, four days off routine of his working life gave him time to experiment in the kitchen – and his imminent wedding to Alex Beard, the London Live TV presenter, the incentive to practise baking cakes.

He never did make the macaron tower they’d originally planned (friends and family made all the food for their budget wedding in Wadhurst), but Mat’s mastery of the notoriously tricky French sweet meringue-based confection gave him the confidence to try more and more recipes.

There was also a willing group of tasters in the shape of his firefighter buddies, who quickly came to expect sweet treats every time Mat came back from a break and were rarely disappointed.

“Every time I took something I’d made into the fire station the blokes loved it – it didn’t always look good, but it usually tasted good. Great British Bake Off was on at the time last year and it became a bit of a rolling joke that I should apply for it. In the fire service you have to bring cakes in for literally everything and I always made mine. So I applied as a bit of joke really.”

Then, of course, it all got a bit more serious. “You have to do interviews, bake in a commercial kitchen in front of the camera, while you’re talking – loads. But I think I was alright because I told myself the worst thing that’s going to happen to you is that you’re not going to get on to Bake Off, then when I was on the show it was making a bad cake and having to go home, which is annoying and upsetting but not the end of the world.

“So I went in with that kind of approach and I did alright really, I made it to week seven. After week one I took the pressure off myself and thought, I’ve got this far, I’m not going to get ribbed too much back at the fire station.Then it got to week three, week four and it was even better – to get to week seven was amazing. There’s nothing now that I wouldn’t try.”

Chatting to Mat, it sounds like he’s never been afraid to give new things a try, and while his ambition was always to be a fire fighter, en route he’s had a few interesting changes of direction.

“Years ago I thought I was going to be a fashion designer, so the first thing I did was buy a sewing machine and made a few bits. They were pretty awful, it was a moment a bit like my baking when I thought – I could be really good at this and just went for it. The baking went further than the fashion designing!”

Before trying to become the next Paul Smith, however, Mat’s first job was as a hairdresser in Tunbridge Wells, which he did for three years and loved. Then came the perfect job for this skateboarder of 25 years, working in the skateboard shop in Camden Road.

But the dream was always to get into the fire service, and it’s an indication of his determined character that he succeeded. “I am not sure when Kent last recruited, probably years ago – it’s not a job that many people leave, except when they retire, so vacancies don’t come up very often.”

Mat went through various stages from initial application to testing of personal qualities such as the ability to work in a team and deal with stressful situations, followed by an interview, exams, a physical check and a medical – just to get to the four months of intensive training level.

“I love it, I’m at East Greenwich, the governor and the guys I work with are great, the station is busy enough without being too manic and the jobs you get to do put you in a very privileged position. You’re knocking on people’s doors and you get welcomed in when they probably wouldn’t welcome in the police or social workers.

“Once a situation gets a bit hairy your training kicks in and you’re never on your own, you’ve always got a minimum of two and you’re going to work out what you’re going to do pretty quickly.”

No wonder he was a natural on TV, although one big difference from work was not having a buddie alongside. And being under the watchful eye not only of the celebrity judges but also millions of viewers at home. So what was that like?

Mat laughs. “I started baking because it was something that was relaxing and enjoyable to do, then it turned into something that was about as high pressure as it could get baking wise. I was being filmed, there were 13 million people watching me on TV, seeing every slip up I made.

“You do think about the audience and the mistakes with the first couple of bakes, but a couple of weeks in I started to enjoy it more, get to have a bit of a laugh with the others.

“Those first couple of weeks you don’t know anyone or how good they are. When we all got announced, that was a funny day – all of a sudden your face is on the front page of about 10 papers, then you get recognised when you go out. Now it’s back to work, the guys treat me just the same and I’m driving a fire engine again.”

I’m intrigued to know more about the background to each rollercoaster episode of baking highs and lows. Mat explains: “You’re given a cluster of recipes at once – you get two episodes a week, so that’s four recipes and you’ve got to work out what you’re going to do, the ingredients and the process you’re going to use, because that’s what you take into the tent.”

So how were his famous presenters? “Mel and Sue couldn’t have been more helpful, they were there for four out of a four and a half hour bake, either separately or together, and the things they come and talk to you about off mike are just so genuine and when you first meet them, you can see how excited they are.

“It’s always light relief when they come over, their morale support is there all the time, off camera too. When they shout ‘Bake!’ it’s exciting, it’s like a starter’s gun, and I loved it.”

As for Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, initially that was more of a challenge. “We all had pretty normal lives and jobs before, then suddenly you’re talking to these famous people and at first you’re quite starstruck.

“Just stringing a sentence together if you met them in here would be difficult, but being filmed by two cameras, while baking and answering questions at the same time, well, you’re very conscious of what you say and how you sound, if you’re coming across as funny.

“Certainly with my job, if I’d acted in a certain way to get on in the programme, I’d have been ribbed by all my mates – if I’d become even more London, or posher perhaps. The public didn’t really come into it, you’re more aware how you’re coming across to your friends and family, the people who know you. I just tried to be myself.

“It’s such a lovely show and so British, it’s in a tent, there’s bunting, you’re making cakes and it’s probably raining, and with Mary Berry it’s got the second queen of England in it. You don’t get much more British.”

However, the Famous Four weren’t the main issue. “It’s more the camera guys you need to get used to, asking you to explain what you’re doing at every stage; every time you put something into the oven or take it out, you have to raise your hand to let them know. Sometimes you’re just flat out and they ask you to do it again and you have to say you’re sorry, but you don’t have time.

“That’s all explained beforehand and they test that as part of the application process, talking and baking at the same time, but it does take some getting used to when you’re first in front of the cameras. Initially you’re just gabbling and you have to remember to slow down.”

Mat has many stand-out moments, but he’ll never forget the very first challenge, when they had to make a Black Forest gâteau showstopper.

“I remember seeing Flora’s come out of the oven and thinking that’s it, I’m done, I’m walking out. It was the most beautiful-looking cake I’d ever seen at that point. It was pure front cover of a cookbook and I remember looking at mine and thinking, this looks so amateur.”

Now, of course, they are all firm friends and in fact Mat speaks most days to Flora, who when we met was about to come and stay with Mat and Alex in Tunbridge Wells and meet their new son.

He is a big fan of GBBO’s winner too. “What a lovely, genuine, unassuming person Nadiya is. She was so nervous and unsure of herself in the first couple of weeks and convinced she was going, then she just got better and better.

“People are saying she timed her run perfectly but I don’t think it was something she’d even considered. You can’t think at the beginning, right I’m going to get to the final, because for one thing you don’t know how good the other people are. Nadiya got one Star Baker, then another and in the final she didn’t put a foot wrong. Yet she came last in the technical challenge more than anyone.

“We didn’t see what went on in the final, we were all outside and just saw them come out and be rewarded, so we had no idea how she’d done in the tent.

“But when you watch it back you realise that there could be no other winner. The speech she gave was just unbelievable and she would never have even considered that she would get to that position, so it was straight from the heart.

“She has an amazing future; 11 weeks ago no one knew who this 30-year-old mum of three was, now look at her. She and her husband – he’s a handsome devil – are the new power couple.”

While he is still in shock that he made it as far as he did and even won Star Baker in week three with his wafer-thin Arlette biscuits, Mat admits he was out of his depth in Victorian week.

“It’s so easy to be distracted for a minute and do something like forgetting to put your sugar in, like Ian did, or the tennis cake where I was so engrossed in trying to get my icing rolled out that I didn’t check the cake was baked properly.

“The chances are that if I’d checked the oven, turned it up a bit, left the cake in longer I might not have gone home that week. My pie was good, everything was going well, you’re there but for the grace of one mistake at the wrong moment .”

Mat is certainly now experiencing a new-found confidence as a baker. “Before, if I opened a cookbook I’d be going ‘I can’t do that, can’t do that one’ until I got to the biscuit page and I’d think, ‘yeah, I’ll knock a couple of those out instead.’

“Then I did technical challenges in the Bake Off tent where I’d never even heard of what we were making. And apart from the dreaded tennis cake, I did alright, and I was even told I must have a baker’s instinct.

“Things do generally work out when I try them. I had two carrot cakes to bake yesterday morning for my mum’s birthday when we had 16 people to feed. I was a bit rushed, baby in one hand, mixing bowl in the other, and the first one came out and I thought ‘do you know, that’s alright that is, I’d buy a slice of that.’

“I am really getting into baking biscotti – before the show I’d have thought they were just too hard, they look pretty impressive – and I’m trying to work with lots of different flavour combinations, most recently dark chocolate and cherry, which at the moment is too much chocolate and not enough cherry.” (Ed’s note: I took a couple home and I’d disagree – loved it).

“That’s what is so great about baking, I can tweak the recipe a bit and even if just my wife and I or the guys at work like it, well, that’s brilliant.”

As for the future, Mat will still carry on being a fireman, but he entered Bake Off because he genuinely loves baking and if he can combine the two, he will. “A lot of opportunities will come my way simply by having been on such a popular programme and if they’re baking related, well that’s fantastic. I’m not sure in what direction I’ll go yet – and if nothing happens as a result of GBBO, I’ve already got the job I love doing.

“I’ve also now got a kitchen that lends itself to baking and maybe even filming some baking there, that’s what we’re leading to. Maybe for a YouTube channel, get some equipment sorted and get cooking and filming!”

Watch this space

Mat on Tunbridge Wells

Tunbridge Wells is great and I love Camden Road, it’s coming up now with lots of independents, like the Italian restaurant Il Vesuvio, where my mate Dangerous Dave used to cook and I’d sit in there and chat to him.

It could benefit from being pedestrianised at weekends, like they do it in Brighton on Bond Street, then the restaurants and cafés could have eating out space on the pavements and road. The bottom end of town is really smashing it – The Pantiles are rammed at weekends - and the top needs to fight back a bit.

Find out more

Are you a fantastic home baker? Can you bake a brilliant spiced bun, an exceptional celebration cake or beautifully plaited bread? Then don’t delay, the deadline to apply for Great British Bake Off, series seven, is 10 January 2016, for details visit: www.bbc.co.uk/showsandtours/takepart/great_british_bake_off7

The Bakehouse at 124, 124 High Street, Tonbridge TN9 1AS

The Old Fire Station, Castle Street, Tonbridge

Follow Mat on Twitter @matrileybakes