pronti…cosante…cottura al forno!

A Victory Chat With Giuseppe Dell’Anno, The Great British Bake Off’s Michelangelo

Photo: Channel 4

A rough translation of Giuseppe Dell’Anno’s name is “Giuseppe of the year,” which is exactly how this season of The Great British Bake Off played out for the fabulously coiffed engineer from Bristol. As the winner of Bake Off’s 12th season — and the competition was stiff — Dell’Anno developed a knack for creating simple but effective bakes steeped in familia tradition. He won two Star Bakers and two Hollywood handshakes, even if an oven malfunction in the finals threatened to sabotage his reign in the tent. “You can see the heart and soul that goes into his baking,” Paul Hollywood explained in the finale. “He’s done an incredible job.” Dell’Anno’s recipe for success? More heritage and less flash, except when it comes to his button-down shirts. He’s also the first Italian Bake Off victor. Representation matters.

Dell’Anno, who now splits his time between Italy and England for his career in engineering, recently Zoomed with Vulture to talk more about his fulfilling Bake Off experience. This apologetic writer’s hair was a bit wet and disheveled from the shower because of a time-zone mixup. “Oh,” he said with a laugh, “have you looked at mine?”

When it was revealed in the finale that you moved to Milan, I assumed it was for a baking job! How’s the engineering life treating you these days?
You’re not the only one who thought that. [Laughs.] A lot of people assumed I moved to take on a baking career change. In reality, I had applied for this new job in Milan at the same time as I was applying to Bake Off, convinced that I wouldn’t get either of those. But then you’ve got to be careful what you wish for, as I ended up with a yes from both sides. This year has been particularly challenging for me to fit everything together. It was a few days between finishing the Bake Off filming and jetting off to Milan to start a new job. Given the complexities of things, I couldn’t move my family, so they’re all still in Bristol. I commute a lot, usually weekly. I’m not Greta Thunberg’s biggest friend at the moment because I’m burning a lot of jet fuel these days.

Have you been recognized in Italy a lot?
Not at all. In the U.K., it’s difficult to do anything these days. I get stopped a lot in the streets. With my facial features, I’m very easy to spot. [Laughs.] But in Italy, nobody knows me. The show isn’t very well-known there. There’s an Italian version of Bake Off, but it isn’t as popular. I’ve been recognized twice in Italy — by a British person on a plane and then a couple of Americans recognized me at the airport. It was funny, being at the Milan airport and chatting with two people from Texas. Back in England, though, there was one particularly sweet encounter a couple of weeks ago when I went to my kids’ school to pick them up. This child was on his bike and he saw me, and his face looked as if he had just seen Santa.

Can you tell me what encouraged you to apply for Bake Off and appear in the public eye? I was surprised to learn that you’re quite introverted.
Yeah, I recharge my batteries by being on my own rather than looking for company. My social life isn’t particularly wild. I’d rather lock myself up in a room when I’m tired and recharge that way. Based on that, I was slightly scared when it dawned on me that I was going to be on national television. I had no idea that the show was so big outside of the U.K. before actually appearing on it. There were a few times when I thought, Oh God, why did I put myself here? What if people don’t like me? What if I get trolled on social media? That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned about myself through this whole experience. At the end of the day, I’ve just been myself onscreen. Unapologetically. With weird facial features. [Laughs.] It taught me that I’d been worried for a long time about things that I shouldn’t be worried about.

How else did this Bake Off experience validate you?
I’ve been watching the show since the first series, and I’ve always looked up to the bakers as baking royalty. To be able to become part of that was a big validation exercise. It was a massive pat on the shoulder to say, Well, you can actually bake a loaf of bread, you’re not that bad. On a personal level, you’re so focused on what you do while you’re filming the show that you can’t afford the luxury of being fake in any way. You just can’t fake it. Your mind is entirely focused on the task at hand so you come across as exactly who you are. The way you look, the way you behave, the way you react to things, the way you react to failure, the way you react to mockery, the way you react to disturbances from Noel and Matt. There’s no way of faking that. What comes across the screen is exactly who those people are off-camera. When you realize that you’ve put yourself almost naked in front of the cameras and have the audience accept you for what you are, it’s validating. It’s a way of saying it’s okay to look like that and be you. For somebody who has a lot of complexes like that, it’s very powerful.

You compared walking into the tent for the first time to visiting the Sistine Chapel. What would you say was your Michelangelo moment this season?
It’s not a bake that got me a Star Baker or a handshake. It has to be the joconde imprime from Dessert Week. We were asked to make it for the showstopper, and when I read the brief, I almost fell off the chair. It said something like, Make a joconde sponge that’s highly decorated and wraps around a cake that must be made out of three different elements. I’ve never done anything like that before. Where would I even start? If I was back at home, a perfectionist like me would’ve taken at least two weeks to perfect one of those elements. When I actually managed to make one and have it look decent as well as get very positive feedback from the judges, I was over the moon and beyond myself with happiness. If I managed to pull that off, I could do anything.

Some sensual views of the joconde. Photo: Netflix
Some sensual views of the joconde. Photo: Netflix

Paul said in the finale that you “looked like our winner” after the very first signature challenge. How did it feel to hear that your fate was pretty much destined from the first few minutes in the tent?
That’s an interesting point, because the reality is that while you’re in the tent … well, you don’t have much recollection of everything that goes on around you, because you’re so focused on your own baking. Many things that happened when I was there I only found out while I was watching the show. You see the other bakes being judged, so you can kind of gauge how well or how bad you’re doing compared to others, but I never had a very clear picture of where I was in the rankings. The first time Paul and Prue tried my mini-rolls, which is what you’re referring to, they had very positive words for me and I was very chuffed to hear them, because it was the very first time they tasted my bakes. Having Paul and Prue try something that you’ve baked is surreal. I remember about halfway through the show — this is something that didn’t make it to the final cut. Noel came up to me and said, “You’ve been fairly consistent and at the top all the way until now.” And I was like, “Really?” I never realized that was the case. Nobody tells you that because they’re not entitled to tell you anything.

Another thing that struck me is that the television business is alien to me. From the outside, there’s a cynical assumption that it’s a very cutthroat business and people are aggressive. It couldn’t be further from the truth on Bake Off. The people on this show have recruited the most lovable people they could get their hands on. Matt and Noel are also two true gentlemen. They would eat lunch with us every day and be so supportive and concerned about our well-being. I wasn’t expecting the experience to be so wholesome. It’s soaked with warmth when it’s filmed and it transpires on the screen. The stars of the show are the bakes, not the bakers. You’re celebrating a cake and the baker is the incidental necessity in order to get a cake. It’s about how good they look and how good they taste. That’s what makes it less personality-driven.

As someone who was a recipient of multiple Paul Hollywood handshakes, I’m curious what your feelings are about his signature move. Fans have seemed to be really divided about it in recent years.
Paul must have a hard time keeping his ego under control. When you’re given that power, it must feel so empowering. When he shook Crystelle’s hand, she literally almost fell on the floor. How can your head not just blow up out of proportion when you’ve got that power? Kudos to Paul for keeping it real. [Laughs.] Despite the power it’s given. The handshake is part of the fabric of the show. There have been debates if Prue should have her own equivalent or if it’s a gender issue. I don’t think it was ever deliberate to be this way. Paul has managed to time it to perfection. Every time he gives out a handshake, he never does it straightaway. There’s always a few milliseconds between him not talking and offering his hand that almost makes it unexpected to the eyes of the bakers. It comes across very strongly. The first time that he shook my hand, I almost broke into tears. It was difficult to keep it under control.

What do you think would be a good Prue equivalent?
A “Prue hand pat.” We’ll have to trademark that. She’s the sweetest and wisest woman you can possibly imagine. A couple of times when she wanted to tell us we’ve done a particularly good job, she tapped the top of our hands very gently. It never became anything as big as a handshake, but when you’re there and you receive it, it’s as strong of an approval as Paul’s handshake, trust me.

Did you ever get the sense that your main rival was Jürgen?
I never felt that the other bakers were competitors. That said, I was convinced 100 percent that Jürgen was going to win from day one. Mostly because I tasted his bakes. [Laughs.] They were flippin’ delicious. When I called my wife after the first episode, I told her, “I just had the most delicious cake I’ve ever tasted in 45 years.” My dad is a chef and I’ve eaten my fair share of cakes. The first showstopper Jürgen made was unbelievable. It was a chiffon cake with a hint of rosewater and pistachio praline. The best cake I ever tasted. When I tried that and saw what he could make, I assumed that if he wasn’t going to win, he’s certainly going to be in the finals. But the only competition I had in that tent was myself. I wanted to make sure I could do the best I could possibly do, and the others were of less of a concern.

Besides the Leaning Tower, what other Italian landmarks do you think would make good showstoppers?
I’ve been asked to make a Colosseum out of cake, and that’s not going to happen. [Laughs.] If I’m honest, I’m not into elaborately decorated cakes. If you look at my bakes, they’re not extravagant or whimsical. It’s mostly because I’ve never practiced that sort of thing. I’m still a home baker; I’m not a professional. The things I make at home are the things I can tackle in 30 minutes, because that’s the most amount of time I have to make things. As long as a cake is edible, that’s good enough for me. So, that’s my long way of saying, no more Italian landmarks.

I like that Prue defined your bakes as “classic and beautiful.”
I’m a very traditional baker. I’ve been blessed by having lived for this long in a different country, because that opens up your horizons and perspectives on so many levels, including baking. I have my Italian repertoire, which is basic stuff that I’ve always loved and made. But I’ve also been playing around with quintessentially British things as well. There’s a lot of American influence in British baking. I’m in a very fortunate position where I can mix and match, so I can put together elements like buttercream or rich sponges, which is typical of British baking, with very Italian flavors, like fruit or citrus or almond. I’m a “Britalian.” I’m an expat baker. My heritage has been enriched by everything I’ve found in life.

Do you feel you’re getting more social-media compliments about your shirts or hair?
It’s been weird getting used to this. [Laughs.] Listen, I’ve spent an entire lifetime trying to manage my hair. I’ve always cut it very short. I’ve straightened it. I’ve done everything you can possibly imagine to tame it, because I’ve always hated it. This goes back to what I said about validation points — the fact that I’ve been able to go on television with my natural-looking hair and get praised for it is a revelation. I thought, Why didn’t they tell me this 25 years ago? It would’ve had a much easier life!

It’s all positive, I have to say. I was worried about being trolled or bullied. I never had social-media accounts until the day after my name was announced for Bake Off. I’m still learning. I went into it very cautiously. I’m even terrified by putting comments on other people’s feeds. You never know how they can be read. You might mean them as lighthearted banter, but they can be interpreted badly on the other side. Every time I write anything, I overthink it and spend days thinking what words I should be using. And then when I think of something, I can’t publish it any longer because it’s too late. I’ve surprised myself by how little I care about the few negative comments I get.

Are you glad that you kissed Noel’s spoon?
That’s the only reason why I managed to make it through the final.

A Victory Chat With Bake Off’s Giuseppe Dell’Anno