“Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper, so keep your head down and work bloody hard.”
By Daniell Musaheb.
It is an exciting time to talk to John Whaite, an alumni and series 3 winner of The Great British Bake Off, the latest series finale of which aired in the U.K. on Tuesday the 24th. Having later opened his own cooking school, John Whaite’s Kitchen, and written multiple cookbooks, we talk about his early years, Bake Off, and his efforts to raise awareness for mental health.
As he puts it, “I’ve always been interested in eating, that’s for certain,” but just when and how did his love of food develop into a hobby and, eventually, a career? At the heart of his passion lies his self-prescribed therapy for his own dips in mental health. “I became particularly involved with cooking and baking for myself when I was at university and found myself struggling with low mood and depression,” Whaite says. “Baking in particular seemed to be a very therapeutic process.”
While reading law at university, Whaite found a larger portion of his time was spent focusing on baking rather than the degree. It was this devotion of time that prompted him to go for it, a decision that would ultimately prove life-changing. John went on to win the third series of The Great British Bake Off in 2012.
“It opened doors,” he says of his win. “As soon as I won I got a book deal – that wasn’t part of winning the show, it was incidental, but for a 23-year-old to get a 2-book deal for a crazy amount of money, it was pretty life-changing. I was sensible, I used some of that money to set up my cookery school and buy my first house. The hype and the interest around me and my win was completely temporary, so I knew I had to keep working hard. As Churchill said, ‘success isn’t final,’ so I never stop to pat myself on the back because tomorrow I could really fuck something up and be ashamed of myself. I’m a typical northern, working class man – head down, crack on!”
The final episode of the current series aired on Tuesday. Any avid viewer is sure to have a favorite. John is no different, immediately saying: “Peter. Although he’s a baby (20!) he has some seriously remarkable technical skills and precision.” He also offers some advice for this year’s finalists post-Bake Off. “Just stay grounded. It’ll be very exciting for a little while, and most certainly enjoy that, but don’t forget that today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper, so keep your head down and work bloody hard.”
You can currently catch him on Channel 4’s Steph’s Packed Lunch (U.K.). “I feel really privileged to be a resident chef on the show. It’s a daytime chat show (every day at 12:30) where we, as a TV family, discuss stories that are in the news,” he says. “It’s like no TV I have done before – I completely forget the cameras are there and it’s as though I’m sat at home with some pals and we’re all having a good laugh.”
This year’s edition of John’s downloadable mini e-book, The 12 Bakes of Christmas, will give proceeds to MIND, a U.K.-based mental health charity. “I tested, wrote, and photographed the recipes and they used their in-house designer to create a really beautiful book,” Whaite says. “The plan is for people to donate what they can afford (from £2 to £50) and they’ll then download the e-book and recreate the recipes at home.”
Mental health awareness holds a special place for John, having experienced mental health difficulties throughout his life. “I’ve stood on the side of the lake ready to put stones in my pocket. I’ve woken in the night with thoughts of hanging myself in the loft. I know that’s blunt, probably shocking, but these are the very reasons for which I am so keen to advocate for mental health awareness,” he says. “Many of us struggle with the daily grind, but sometimes that struggle becomes a real rock face, and without an open, public discussion, people can be left to fight the battle alone. They don’t have to.”
The book will be available from the first week in December. You can also catch him on Instagram, @john_whaite.