HOW COOKIES BEAT THE MONSTER
The Great British Bake Off winner on how the show set her on a path of learning – how to present, write a novel, and conquer panic disorder
It’s safe to say that few TV cooking contestants have parlayed winning a show into genuine fame as successfully as Nadiya Hussain.
Nadiya won the sixth season of hit show The Great British Bake Off, but that was just the beginning for the mother-of-three. She’s since become an author, a TV host, star of her own upcoming cooking show, and something of a role model, both for multiculturalism and panic disorder. She handles it all with pragmatism. ‘It just means I can’t do anything stupid,’ she says over a platter of pastries at Dubai’s InterContinental hotel, during the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. ‘Which I won’t, because I have three children. I want to be the best role model I can be to my children – when you have kids, you try to be a role model and the rest of it just comes naturally.’
When Friday sat down with Nadiya, on the festival’s second day, it was the same morning the UK press had announced that she is to co-host a new cooking challenge show, touted as a rival to Bake Off. (The show has, somewhat acrimoniously, moved from the BBC to another channel, and of the original cast, only judge Paul Hollywood is staying with the show.)
On Nadiya’s show, the Big Family Cooking Showdown, 16 families will battle for culinary glory. Two-thirds of the first series has already been shot. She calls it ‘a whole other gig; much bigger’ than any other hosting she has done. ‘It’s exciting because it’s still something I love, still about food, I get to work with [UK TV and radio star] Zoe Ball – but I learn to do something new, too.’
Learning new things was a theme of our conversation that day; Nadiya comes across as thirsty for new challenges and experiences. That could be the result of something else she has learned: How to deal with her panic disorder.
‘It’s one of those things that is going to stay with me forever, it’s not going to go away. I have just learned to deal with it a lot better,’ she says of the condition, adding that overcoming it
was the motivation for taking part in Bake Off. ‘Someone asked me to describe it and I said it’s like living with a monster. The difference is the monster isn’t in front of me anymore, he’s behind me – I know he’s there, but he’s not in front of me.’ Her husband, Abdal, who accompanied her to Dubai, is her support – ‘he knows my face and that the monster is creeping up on me’ – but learning to deal with it herself was important. Talking about what is being faced helps, too: Nadiya is happy to lead that conversation.
‘It’s very easy to watch someone with panic disorder and just say “get a grip, shake it off. It will be fine”. Actually it’s not fine, it’s not OK, there’s a reason why that person’s scared or feels that. That’s why I talk about it so openly. The first step is to talk about it, because if you do, you can get help. And you are informing people around you of what you are suffering from, and they can deal with it.’
A trigger could be as simple as dropping a fork. ‘I could be completely happy and it could set it off.’
Setting herself the challenge of competing on a beloved national baking show might seem the antithesis of treating panic disorder; it has set her on the path to fame, public appearances – and being a poster girl for the condition. ‘The fact that I am that face for these people – it’s a great thing. Is it a responsibility? Yeah, it is, but it doesn’t make me feel stressed or under pressure. It’s a responsibility, I have been given it for a reason and I should embrace it and do the best that I can.’
The baker and cook – she stresses that she makes all kinds of food, not only cakes – has an approach to learning that wouldn’t be out of place in a management book: Don’t stop until you fail, so you can learn from your mistakes. It was intended for dealing with the frustrations of baking, but is a pretty good life motto, too.
‘The more things go wrong, the more you learn what you’ve done wrong,’ she says.
‘During Bake Off, if I was baking or practising something and it went right every single time, I would bake until it went wrong. I knew how to rectify that mistake in the house, so if it went wrong in the tent, I knew how to fix it. This is how my brain works. The more you make mistakes… you should take that as a learning process. I mean, yes, you’ll have spent 20 quid on ingredients but never mind… I think it’s all about learning.’
Baking never stops in her household; there are four cake stands that are filled at all times, feeding family and friends, including her ‘desperately loyal’ children, who wouldn’t watch the last season of Bake Off, which was won by Candice Brown, because their mum wasn’t in it. Nadiya was disappointed, because watching the show was something they had always shared. She is loyal to the show, whether it’s on BBC or, now, Channel 4. Candice’s win was not something Nadiya saw coming; her money was on Benjamina. Then again, she says, ‘I always call it and I’m always wrong’ – including the year she took part.
Will she watch the new version, which will be hosted by Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding? ‘Absolutely. I love the show and it’s been a part of my life for the last five-six years. It’s fun [to watch] but kind of hard, because you know what they are going through.’
Let’s hope she finds the time in between the two TV shows she has in the works with the BBC. In addition to Showdown, there’s a cooking show she is carrying on her own shoulders. The eight-episode Nadiya’s British Food Adventure, airing this summer, sees her touring the UK to find the best producers and food, then cooking her own versions.
It’s a long way from playing with her sisters and teddy bears. ‘As a child I would pretend I have my own cookery show and I would play out for my sisters, who would get bored, and then I would line my teddies up and cook to them. This is different because I get to cook and real people are going to watch it, which is going to be great. In my mind I am going to pretend I am
Bake Off was for ‘SELFISH reasons. I had panic disorder and I wanted to fix that. I was so ATTACHED to my children and husband, I needed to come out of my COMFORT zone’
cooking to my teddy bears.’
Despite her games, ‘I can’t even say that [the cookery show is] a dream come true. I never even dreamt of doing anything like it.’ Going on Bake Off was for ‘my own selfish reasons, I suppose, because I had panic disorder and I wanted to fix that. I was so attached to my children and my husband and my life I actually needed to come out of my comfort zone’.
Writing, too, was a youthful pursuit without expectations. She has two cookbooks, including one, Bake Me A Story, aimed at children, and a novel, Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters .A second novel is in the works.
She started writing when she was seven, won a poetry contest, and got the bug. ‘The novel ‘scared the life out of me. I had done A-level English language, writing 7,000-word monologues, short stories… and then it dawned on my that I have to write 80,000 words.’ It was tricky, but she worked with a team and ‘learned how to write. ‘Another thing I have learned.’
Now it’s your turn to cook like a Bake Off winner. Turn the page for three of Nadiya Hussain’s scrumptious – and royal – recipes
‘This was probably one of my proudest moments,’ says Nadiya of baking for Elizabeth II. Above, her first novel