reality tv

The Great British Baking Show’s David Atherton on Overcoming the Paul Hollywood Bias

Photo: Netflix

David Atherton was the little baker (with amazing cheekbones) that could. Despite never getting a Star Baker title while competing on this season’s Great British Baking Show, the international health adviser would go on to defeat his pal-ponents, Steph Blackwell and Alice Fevronia, in last week’s finale, thanks to his cucumber-cool methodical precision and being, well, a damn good baker with a cheery demeanor. (Still looking at that illusion picnic-basket feast? So are we.) Fresh off Atherton’s win, Vulture spoke to him about what it’s like to be in that infamous tent, how quick he was with completing just about every challenge, and overcoming the challenge of Paul Hollywood’s simple palate.

Since you were gone for ten weekends in a row and unable to tell your friends you were competing, what was your go-to excuse about why you were always away?
I have quite a busy job, and I’m often on call for many weekends at a time. Sometimes my work takes me out of the country without much notice. I’m a busy guy and always doing things, and always accidentally double- or triple-book myself. I give a lot of last-minute apologies. [Laughs.] People just thought I was hard to reach as always.

What motivated you to audition in the first place?
I loved Baking Show. I’m not a big television watcher, but I’ve always found the time to watch it every year. Every year my friends and family would tell me, “Hey, you really should apply,” but I didn’t want to.

Why is that?
I really didn’t want to be on TV. I loved the idea of the actual show — being given a challenge to bake new things. But being on TV with millions of people watching didn’t appeal to me at all. Eventually, I was in a good space within myself to open up to the opportunity. Baking Show is easy because they don’t try to make you look stupid. There are some reality TV shows where you wouldn’t know you’re made to look dumb or made to be ripped apart. It’s a fairly nice show. I didn’t mind looking a bit silly at times, but it was all very positive.

Did Baking Show David align with regular David for you?
No, but I never really expected that to happen. I’m a character on the show and they have to tell a story. I’ve gotten a lot of messages saying, “Oh, so nice that you came into yourself in the final!” But I was like that the whole way through. I was always laughing and dancing and joking, but the cameras really only showed me being quiet and methodical. That’s not me, but it’s okay. I get they have to have characters. What you all see ends up being the reality, and for me, Bake Off David was interesting to see.

Were you bummed that certain moments of your “fun” side weren’t included?
Kind of. My absolute favorite moment didn’t make the cut. When I made my cinnamon rolls during Bread Week, I baked a whole new set of cinnamon rolls for the crew and the other bakers because I had the time. They all came around my desk, had a roll, and we chatted for a bit. I could have spent more time doing my bake, but that’s me. I’m not competitive. I loved the buzz of the tent and being with everyone. I bake for people! I guess it wasn’t part of the story Baking Show wanted to show.

It’s funny because I remember seeing a handful of scenes of you hanging out in the background with your completed bakes, while the other bakers are freaking out and racing against the clock. I don’t recall that happening much in the past before. Did you always finish so early?
Pretty much every time. [Laughs.] I always thought I could be doing more things, but I didn’t want to overthink it. People always said my bench was the cleanest, and that’s because I had nothing else to do. Obviously the edit made it seem like everyone was down to the wire, and lots of people were, but I finished early on almost every single bake. Around an hour early.

How would you pass the time in the tent when you were done?
I’d go around and help the other bakers, but then the producers would tell me to go back to my station because I was spoiling the edit for the cameras. [Laughs.] So I’d clean and sit in silence. Or talk to the crew.

You’re the first person in Baking Show history to win without ever getting a Star Baker title, and you’ve been branded an “underdog” by a lot of viewers as a result. Do you welcome that title?
Steph, Alice, and I became really good friends and genuinely thought we won just to be in the finals. We said, “Let’s just enjoy this final because we’re all winners to get here.” I managed to do that, but I’m not sure they did. They still felt the pressure. I even surprised myself because my mantra right from the start was to sit back and enjoy the experience. If you get stressed, things start to go wrong, and you’re only affecting yourself by getting frustrated and upset. Easier said than done, right? As I mentioned, I’m really not that competitive, but going into the final I never felt I was that far behind. Yeah, I was never a Star Baker, but I was always consistently at the top the whole season. I felt like the underdog because Paul Hollywood didn’t like my bakes much. It’s not objective judging; it’s subjective. Paul didn’t dislike me — he liked me as a person — but he didn’t like my bakes as much as the others. I wasn’t going to change that. You’re meant to have your personality in your bakes.

Also, this is interesting. I’d done some research throughout filming the episodes. The biggest factor in determining the winner is the person who does best in the technical challenge over the course of the series. The only exception to that is Nadiya Hussain. I checked and I had the best technical record of anyone in Baking Show history. So I was quite confident knowing that I was a strong technical baker. But I can’t stress this enough: I was so happy to be in the final and I was determined not to change my attitude.

Why do you think Paul didn’t prefer your baking style?
I used a lot of spices. The show encourages you to put your personality in bakes and to be adventurous. But Paul has simple tastes. He doesn’t like saffron, so it’s very difficult if you put saffron in a bake like I did. [Laughs.] He doesn’t like clove or any spices. He likes the traditional flavors of chocolate, caramel, and raspberry. Don’t use matcha! I wanted to be true to my baking, since that’s what we’re asked to do.

Do you feel the showstopper challenges have become increasingly complex in recent seasons?
I’ve loved being intimidated by the showstoppers. When the three of us got the brief for the final showstopper, we were like, “Oh, wow, that’s pretty scary.” It wasn’t going to be a boring final. They could all collapse and fall into pieces, but at least it’ll be interesting. It would be ridiculous if people weren’t achieving success with the showstoppers, that’s what I’ll say. Week after week I’d be so impressed with what everyone had done. There were no pools of mousse or icing or anything that spoke of failure. The showstopper has to be a showstopper.

Pools of mousse reminds me — did you all have temperate weather this season? There were no brutally hot tent moments.
Yeah, we were so lucky. In the first half of the season, all of us would actually switch our ovens on and open the doors to heat the place up while we were preparing. They don’t try to climate control the tent. If you’re boiling hot, that’s just too bad.

What does the future look like for you? Do you anticipate quitting your job now that you’ve joined the celebrity baker club?
Call me crazy, but I want everything. I love my work at the moment and I’d love to continue with that. At the same time I’ve worked at my company long enough that they’re willing to let me do fewer hours to explore more opportunities. I wouldn’t necessarily think baking is what I want to do, but rather food as a whole, and to link it to the work I do now as a health provider. I care about inspiring young people to bake, make healthy food, and to learn how to make things from scratch. I’m pretty much up for any opportunity.

My dream is for all of the winners to reunite for a Baking Show: All Stars in two or three years.
Or an international All Stars! I would definitely be up for that, by the way. The show should absolutely do it. I’m ready for the next stage in my life. I know there’s going to be negative and positive things said about me, but really, the majority of stuff I’ve been reading about me is always positive. The Daily Mail can print what they want. [Laughs.]

GBBS’s David Atherton on Overcoming the Paul Hollywood Bias