Mumbai girl, Chetna Makan, adds Indian touch to bakes and cakes, in fray in the intense and hugely popular television programme, The Great British Bake Off
Not since the Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty braved the racism of the late Jade Goody and her girl gang in Celebrity Big Brother in January 2007, has there been as keen a following for an Indian woman on a British reality television show. But The Great British Bake Off, in which Chetna Makan is a contestant, is an entirely civilised affair. It is still intense and competitive, though.
Chetna with husband Gaurav. The couple have two children
The idea behind it might sound a little mundane by the standards of today’s frenetic television but there are two judges, Mary Berry, dubbed “the queen of puddings”, and Paul Hollywood, a hard to please chef, who ask a bunch of ordinary people to bake cakes, pastries, biscuits, pies and the like within so many minutes.
Some of Chetna’s finger-lickin’ good food
This year, the series has started with 12 contestants, selected from several thousand who applied from all over the country. None can be a professional baker. In the end, six men and six women, including Chetna, a 35-year-old originally from Mumbai, were selected. The winning baker will be announced after 10 episodes in early October.
Chetna impresses the jury
It is all covered
Chetna sets out what happens: “We cover everything, a bit of baking, a bit of pastry, a bit of cake, a bit of pie, dessert. Because it is a 10-week series there are 10 weeks to try 10 different bakes. So they try and cover all aspects of baking.”
Each week one contestant is expelled, after two episodes, two are already gone. Chetna has survived and, in fact, won praise from reviewers for giving her Swiss Roll an Indian touch by adding ground cardamom, something she had apparently learnt from her mother when she was a little girl growing up in a Punjabi family in Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh.
Test of the taste
Then she moved to Mumbai where she worked as a fashion designer for 10 years, “styling for magazines” and running her own small label, after qualifying from NIFT. “I consider myself a Bombay girl,” she says.
But a passion for baking replaced fashion when she settled in the UK 10 years ago with her husband, Gaurav Gupta, a general practitioner. The couple now live in Broadstairs on the Kent coast with their daughter and son, aged six and four.
“I have always been into cooking,” she points out, “but I got into baking since having kids. They love most of the things I bake but the cakes and biscuits, they absolutely love. I have been baking for the last two-three years properly. It suited me because I never learnt to bake (professionally), I taught myself.”
A fan turns competitor
Encouraged by friends to apply to be a contestant this year, Chetna did and was astonished to be included. She already ran an informal curry club for her friends, making traditional dal makhani, tomato and garlic chutney, and chilli and coriander naan for them.
But she also experimented with ambitious recipes for Croquembouche, a French dessert served on special occasions, Cinnamon and Walnut Rolls and Pistachio and Almond Baklava. She was already a fan of The Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth year. Last year’s final episode was watched by a staggering 9.4 million viewers.
It was moved from BBC2 to BBC1 to attract even more viewers and the transfer has clearly worked for the new series has got off to a rollicking start with 7.9 million viewers for the opening episode. The show is coming from a tent pitched in the grounds of Welford Park, a country house near Newbury in Berkshire.
Presented as always by the duo of She Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, the judges asked the contestants to make a Swiss Roll, a Cherry Cake and Classic Miniature British Cakes in episode one. In episode two, the challenges were Savoury Biscuits, Florentines and to construct 3-D Biscuit Scenes. “We can't use anybody else’s recipe,” says Chetna. “It has to be our own.”
The biggies back her
At the end of episode one, Paul Holland was heard to murmur that three people, including Chetna, appeared “promising”. On a spin off programme on BBC2, called An Extra Slice, one of its celebrity guests, Gregg Wallace from Masterchef, another reality show, was asked who he was backing. "I like Chetna,” was “his reply.
Three of the recipes from episode one, including Chetna’s “Cardamom, Pistachio and Coffee Swiss Roll”, were posted on the BBC website, with viewers immediately displaying their results on social media. It does seem as though the entire nation is now engaged in one giant bake in. And one way or another, fame has been thrust on Chetna. When she goes shopping, for example, people stop her in the street.
“Everybody is supporting me so much,” she recounts. “It has been so nice, when I have gone out people are coming and talking to me and saying, ‘All the best,’ and ‘We are behind you.’ For the last 10 years this has been my home but now I truly believe that this is my home. That comes from people accepting me.”
Mention in the reviews
Day after day, there have been lengthy reviews in newspapers. The Guardian reported the episodes minute by minute, as though covering a Test match ball by ball.
The Wales Online reviewer was of the opinion that “Chetna’s fenugreek and carom crackers looked lush”, while the Isle of Thanet Gazette loyally backed its local girl: “Chetna's cherry cake shone in the second challenge.”
It quoted Mary Berry’s comments on Chetna’s cherry cake: “It’s got a very nice finish, caught the icing just at the right time and it hasn’t dripped down and (there’s) nice distribution of the cherries.”
There is no nice way to be kind when judges ask contestants to leave the show: the unlucky two are Clare Goodwin, 31, a speech therapist (she was ‘trolled’ on social media by nasty critics before others came to her defence), and Enwezor Nzegwu, 39, a part Nigerian, part Japanese business consultant.
That leaves Martha Collison, 17, a schoolgirl and the youngest in the group, and Diana Beard, a Women’s Institute judge who is the oldest at 69. The others include Iain Watters, 31, a construction engineer; Jordan Cox, 32, an IT manager; Kate Henry, 41, a furniture restorer; Luis Troyano, 42, a graphic designer; Nancy Birtwhistle, 60, a retired practice manager; Norman Calder, 66, a retired naval officer; and Richard Burr, 38, a builder.
Humble origins to big bakes
Unlike the bitchiness and nasty taunts Shilpa had to endure, The Great Bake Off exudes English civility. “We get on really well,” enthuses Chetna. That said, “it is very, very intense and high pressured, we are normal people who have cameras on us, plus judges keeping an eye on you, plus it is not your own kitchen.
Everything, including the oven, is new. It is so, so different to cooking at home. This is so specific time-wise. They (the judges) don’t say, ‘This one is nearly finished, let us give her five extra minutes.’ If the time is done, it is done for everybody.”
She explains how baking is different from the traditional way her mother used to cook back in India on a choola: “It was all cooking (on top of the oven),” emphasises Chetna. “When we were growing up I don’t remember my mum having a proper oven , there was a small oven which came later.
“The difference between cooking and baking is that with cooking you can see it all happen in front of you,” she elaborates. “If it is not going right, you can add things, you can change it and taste along the way. But with baking, once you have put whatever you have made inside the oven, it's out of your hands. You can’t do anything to that.”
Baking and British culture
Since many people think that food can be the carrier of culture, “baking helped me embrace British culture,” observes Chetna. “Baking has helped me to understand more about British food because baking is a big part of British food.”
She admits that her husband had worries about whether she could be able to cope with the “technical challenge”posed as “a surprise” by the judges. “They tell us to bake something we have never seen before; once they show us the picture, they ask us to bake it. My husband was thinking what will I do during those challenges, not being born and brought up here (in the UK).”
Gaurav need not have worried. “I said it will be fine, they will give us some outline and it was actually fine. It was really difficult but everyone was feeling the same pressure.” Probably what sets Chetna out from the others is that she gives her baking an Indian touch: “Today everyone talks of fusion cooking but I have given it my own take.
Only recently I made a raspberry lemon cake at home. I try and do baking with whatever fresh I can get hold of. I have tried to use my mum’s Indian influence with British baking and that is exactly what I have tried to do on the show.”
About Bake Off
The Great British Bake Off is a BAFTA award-winning British television baking competition first shown by the BBC on August 17, 2010. The competition selects from amongst its competitors, the best amateur baker.
Having gained increasing popularity since the first series, it is credited with reinvigorating interest in baking throughout the UK and many of its participants, including winners, have gone on to start a career based on bakery.
The series now appears in three versions: the main Bake Off series, a celebrity charity series in aid of Sport Relief or Comic Relief, and Junior Bake Off, for young children (broadcast on the CBBC channel).