Gah-Kai Leung talks exclusively to Andrew Smyth, who is in the running to become champion of Series 7 of the beloved cooking show.
Perhaps his passion for baking runs in the blood, but Andrew Smyth is surely a cooking talent all his own.
The Cambridge graduate is probably best known to viewers up and down the country as That Redhead from Northern Ireland on the latest series of The Great British Bake Off.
He now lives in Derby but his affiliation with his home country is surely as infectious as his enthusiasm for the best baking recipes. “I would sum up Northern Irish identity as being up for a bit of craic and not taking yourself too seriously. And also having to explain our wee sayings to the non Northern Irish!” he says.
Andrew is happy to be seen as an ambassador in Northern Ireland for baking, particularly as it has its own distinctive culinary culture.
He adds: “I was shocked to find out fifteens are a Northern Irish creation when I first made them for English friends. I make them more over in Derby now than I ever did at home!”
The amateur baker was persuaded by his friends and family to apply for the seventh series of the perennial cooking show, though he has been an avid follower from the very beginning. “I’ve been a massive fan of the show since Series 1 and almost applied for Series 6, but decided against it as I just didn’t feel confident enough,” he reveals.
“I helped out around the kitchen when I was much younger as both my parents are good bakers and have their own signature recipes. I think my interest really took off from there – having my own kitchen since university has given me the chance to expand my baking horizons a bit more!”
Andrew muses, somewhat drily, that he wishes he knew which way round a Jaffa cake should be before he started his baking career. But he believes the most vital lesson he has learned from Bake Off has been the importance of planning. He says: “Having all your ingredients ready to go and having a clear idea of what you’re aiming for is invaluable. Also I learnt that it’s possible to surprise yourself with what you can make with a bit of practice. The whole experience has really boosted my confidence to give things a go.”
The 25-year-old chef describes his favourite things to bake as anything that requires building or constructing something out of bakes and loves doing desserts when he has guests for dinner. But he admits he tries to steer clear of fiddly fondant and sugarcraft work. “I don’t have the patience for it but would love to get better at it someday!” he confides.
As a trained aerospace engineer, it might be little surprise that he admires Heston Blumenthal’s brand of molecular gastronomy. “Visiting the Fat Duck [run by Blumenthal] is on my bucket list,” he says. “And reading anything Nigel Slater writes always makes me want to dash to the nearest food source. I’d love to be as eloquent as he is.”
Andrew advises wannabe bakers not to be afraid to experiment and get things wrong. He adds: “Trial and error teaches you a lot. Most of the time it tastes great no matter how awful it looks.”
When he is not baking, Andrew sings in choirs and musical theatre groups, while also finding the time to ski and go abroad when he can. Eating is a major hobby, of course.
He describes his time on GBBO as “fantastic” and can’t sing the praises of the other contestants enough. “Folks back home have been so supportive too and it’s made me proud to be Northern Irish,” he says. “Let’s hope to see more familiar Northern Irish faces on the telly!”