John Whaite may have won the third series of the Great British Bake Off while it was still on the BBC, but he really doesn’t go in for impartiality.
Get him started on the likes of ‘superfoods’ (“It’s a marketing ploy”), the word ‘glow’ (“What does this mean? It’s a load of BS. You’re only going to glow if you’re sunburnt!”), the demonisation of sugar (“A bit of sugar never killed my 93-year-old grandma, who’d have a slice of cake a day and three whiskies a night”), or celebrity cookbooks (“So many are absolute crap…”) and you’ll find him both frank and witty.
He saves the bulk of his ire, however, for “the clean-eating brigade, the Lycra-clad clan of self-flagellation”, who he says have “taken over” the food world in recent years.
‘Food should not be about guilt’
In his fourth cookbook, Comfort, the Chorley-born food writer, cookery-school owner and telly chef, now 28, is hoping to provide an alternative to the deprivation of clean eating, which he sees as “a very insidious and stealthy way of making people feel guilty about food”.
“I want to get people back onto food that’s hearty and wholesome. You don’t have to spiralize vegetables – it’s nonsense,” he says, incensed. “I’d rather die clutching a bag of Haribo and a family-sized Galaxy than a stick of carrot and hummus!”
While the idea of comfort food might make you think of so-called ‘guilty pleasures’ (John’s one and only concession is loving a Domino’s pizza “on a hangover at 11 o’clock in the morning”), he doesn’t relate the two. “Guilt isn’t something I associate with food. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve had an eating disorder – I was almost too thin to function at one point in my life – and that’s because I was so obsessed with my body image.”
The key, he says – to eating, cooking and to life – is to find a way to “be happy with who you are, and be comfortable in your own skin – I mean, don’t be a fat slob and sit on the couch all day eating buckets full of fried chicken, because you will get fat!
“You’ve got to look after your body; I do yoga, I go to the gym, but that’s not say I deprive myself of the things I need to eat if I’m feeling sad or ill or just in need of comfort,” he explains. “Be careful of junk, but don’t feel guilty about good, home-cooked food.”
‘Memory and love are inseparable from cooking’
Comfort is full of home-cooked goodness, and is divided into sections to mirror mood and cravings – something cheesy; something sticky; something sweet – and every recipe is intended to soothe the soul in some way. “And that’s not just in the eating, but also in the preparation,” says John. “One of the most therapeutic things I can do is get in the kitchen, idly stir some pots and pans and chop some onions.”
He explains that to him, the idea of comfort, and finding it in food, taps into “needing to belong and feel reconnected with people or places in which we feel safe”. It also brings back memories of cooking with his mum as a child – hence why a bland, peppery Lancashire hotpot would still be his death row meal, because it’d remind him of her version.
“You can’t separate food and love,” says John. “And if you try to show off with food, it comes back to bite you in the ass, because you’re too busy thinking about one-upmanship and end up putting salt in instead of sugar, because your mind and your intent is elsewhere – that’s never a good thing with food.
“I believe if you bake with anything but a warm heart, you can taste it – the result’s not right.”
‘Bake Off isn’t the be all and end all’
Talking of baking, since winning GBBO in 2012, John’s been candid about how he was shoehorned into the Bake Off champion mould. “I don’t berate them,” he says of his two ‘Bake Off’ books, “but they weren’t me. The recipes were, but the style of them, the feel of them, had no reflection of who I am.
“You win the Bake Off and you get offered a ridiculous six-figure sum to write two books,” he explains. “I was just out of university, I wanted to break away from the career I was in, and my family and friends said, ‘You have to take the books’.”
Despite five years of moving away from Bake Off, career-wise (he’s studied patisserie at Le Corden Bleu and presented daytime cookery TV show Chopping Block on ITV), John is, of course, watching the new series. “I love it – I think Prue Leith is amazing, she’s so good, she’s so constructive, she knows more about food than anyone I know.”
And the ad breaks, he says, are just “a chance to get a cup of tea and a slice of Battenberg.” Homemade Battenberg? “Oh God no!”