Taking a Great British Bake Off semi-finalist out for cake is a nerve-wracking experience. I must have vetted twenty cake and coffee shops, all the time wondering whether Chetna would ever even want to see a cake again in her life.
Her eyes widened as we approached the counter and she scanned the cakes.
“I didn’t know whether going for cake was a good idea…”, I mumble.
“It’s always a good idea!” she says, pointing out a huge sponge topped with beetroot-red icing to the server, who recognised her immediately and smiled.
It seems baking almost every day for 12 weeks has dulled none of Chetna’s passion, and nor has falling at the last hurdle. Tonight Richard, Luis and Nancy go head to head in the final after watching nine others crumble at the mercy of the immoveable Paul and Mary. For many weeks it looked like Chetna was going to make it.
“I knew after day one of the semi-final that if I didn’t do well on day two I would be going home. And that’s what happened because they didn’t really understand my layered cake – but I thought there was nothing to understand! The layers were so clear and it tasted how I wanted. In the end I was quite happy to go because, for me, I didn’t fail.”
Getting to the semi-finals of this year’s show is certainly no failure. Mel and Sue said that any of the final six, so including Martha and Kate, could have won the show if they had been in previous seasons. By her own admission though, Chetna never expected to get as far as she did. She didn’t even get into baking until she moved from India to the UK 10 years ago, which makes her far less experienced than many of her competitors.
“Indians just don’t bake. If you see the old kitchens in houses there is never an oven, so 99% of the time it’s just cooking. But my Mum had one of those small portable electrical ovens – in fact, she still has it – and I always baked my birthday cakes with her when I was little. So when I had kids I thought ‘I’m going to make their birthday cakes myself’, and that’s how I got into baking.”
From those humble beginnings, Chetna became one of the most exciting contestants on the show, always adding intriguing ingredients and unusual designs to more classic bakes. There was her classy Cardamom, pistachio & coffee Swiss roll, her star-baker-winning Orange savarin with cinnamon cream and, of course, her beautiful Chocolate & mango éclairs.
“My cooking comes from living in India so it shows in my baking – I didn’t do it consciously, it’s just what came to mind. No one in Bake Off had really used the spices in their baking before, so I just thought I’d go with it.”
The judges may not have understood her final patisserie, but they loved many of her other bakes, as did the contestants. After the judging was over each week, contestants would descend upon the cakes to find out how the others had done.
“We’d try to work out if what Paul and Mary said was right or wrong! When you watch it you think ‘That’s so pretty it has to taste good’ or ‘That looks rubbish, how can it be tasty?’. But 99% of the time they were spot on.”
With 12 people vying for such an esteemed prize you would be forgiven for thinking that the contestants would be looking for faults, but according to Chetna they were nothing but supportive of each other and have all become friends.
“The atmosphere in the tent is really lovely, and not competitive at all – until the semi-finals. Oh my God, it was so tense; all four of us felt it. It was so quiet when we were doing our baking, and no one wanted to talk to the cameramen because everyone could hear. Apparently the final was tense too… for obvious reasons.”
The contestants still meet up and have even organised a message board that they can talk on. Because they have never seen the edit they like to message each other as each episode airs. How the conversation went during “ice cream gate” is a question I wish I’d asked.
“You weren’t always aware of what was going on in the tent. Particularly during the showstopper challenges you barely had time to breath. So when you finished, you’d leave the tent and someone would say ‘Oh my God, this happened to me’, you’d be like ‘What?!’. You have no clue really, so you don’t see things until the show.”
The obvious question then, was whether the contestants had any idea who was going to win or make the final during the show. Pencil-eared Richard is odds-on favourite to win (though what kind of person bets on the Great British Bake Off I have no idea), but was he a clear favourite to the contestants?
“Around week five Richard was not having a good week – he was actually in the bottom two twice – but then he bounced back. In week seven he got star baker, and then again, and then we knew he was going to the final. With Luis I think after week 5 or 6 you could tell that he would go through. It’s been so hard keeping the winner a secret, but most of my friends don’t want to know yet. They want to find out on the show.”
Given how much Chetna must have talked about the show with eager-eyed super fans like me, it’s amazing how excited she still is by everything she talks about.
“With baking, you need it inside you, that art. But it’s a science too. With cooking you can see things go wrong and do something about it, with baking you can’t. Once it’s in the oven there’s nothing you can do except watch it and say ‘please rise, please rise’.”
Next year Chetna hopes to write a cookbook, partly thanks to endless questions about the prospect on Twitter. Her unique recipes and use of Indian spices means we’ll certainly be buying it – and we know the recipes work because we’ve seen them in action – although we assume there won’t be a 20-layer Schichttorte.