‘The Great British Bake Off’ Is Verging On Unwatchable — Except For One Thing

The Mexican Week fiasco was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the show's problems.
Illustration: Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo: Mark Bourdillon/Netflix, Getty Images

On last week’s episode of “The Great British Bake Off,” judge Prue Leith made what she may have thought was a complimentary remark about Syabira Yusoff, one of the bakers: “She’s given us a lot of funny flavors, and they’ve been wonderful.”

Yusoff then won over Leith and the other judge, Paul Hollywood, with her Patisserie Week signature challenge of peanut butter, strawberry and blackberry cream cheese minicharlottes. In praising Yusoff, Leith called her flavor combination “unusual.”

In an interview after that round, Yusoff, who often incorporates flavors from her Malaysian heritage into her baking, said what many of us viewers were thinking. “They said it’s slightly ‘unusual,’ but it does go together,” she said. “What does it mean by ‘unusual’?”

The coded racism from Leith (who, it must be noted, is an old white lady who grew up in apartheid South Africa and has said she voted for Brexit) is par for the show’s course. It’s hard to imagine Leith saying the same thing if Yusoff were white. Both judges have periodically expressed skepticism toward ingredients like, say, matcha and yuzu, and toward various flavors from primarily nonwhite cultures.

It’s one of many longstanding issues with the long-running show, from unnecessary comedy bits to an overuse of gimmicks and stunts ― not to mention theme weeks that have played out as embarrassing or downright racist. These issues have reached a tipping point in this season, the show’s 13th, and they’re undermining the aspect of the show that’s always made it worth watching: the bakers themselves.

From left to right, host Noel Fielding, judges Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood and host Matt Lucas stand in front of the bakers of this season of "The Great British Bake Off."
From left to right, host Noel Fielding, judges Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood and host Matt Lucas stand in front of the bakers of this season of "The Great British Bake Off."
Mark Bourdillon

On Friday, viewers in the U.S. (where the show airs on Netflix as “The Great British Baking Show”) will find out which of the finalists — Yusoff, Sandro Farmhouse, or Abdul Rehman Sharif — will be crowned this year’s champion. They, like all of this year’s bakers, have been lovely and pleasant as always, an integral part of the show’s feel-good spirit and charm. With its light-filled tent and pastel-colored work stations, “Bake Off” has long distinguished itself as a warmer alternative to typical reality shows that take an often but not exclusively American approach — where, as the saying goes, competitors are not here to make friends.

By contrast, the contestants on each season of “Bake Off” are very much here to make friends. Often modest and self-deprecating, they cheer each other on and help each other out during baking crises. It’s hard not to get a little misty-eyed when, at the end of each episode, the baker who “sadly must leave us this week” (as the hosts typically put it) tearfully describes how grateful they are to have made a group of new friends. As the show has grown in popularity, it’s spawned an entire genre of similar comfort-food reality TV on both sides of the Atlantic. There’s HBO Max’s “The Great Pottery Throw Down” (like “Bake Off,” but with pottery), and NBC’s “Making It” (like “Bake Off,” but with crafting), all delivering cozy vibes to provide a bit of respite from our hellscape world.

But more and more, the bakers are just about the only thing keeping “Bake Off” from completely losing its way, like a cake careening off its stand in the final seconds of one of the show’s challenges. Week after week, the bakers are increasingly the sole reason to keep tuning in, while most everything else around them is a disaster, at times even doing them a disservice.

For years, “Bake Off” fans have pointed out the show’s overreliance on gimmicks and stunts, such as challenges that don’t necessarily test baking skills. The show has reined in some of those (like Hollywood’s overuse of the Hollywood Handshake), while others have only worsened. For example, hosts Matt Lucas and Noel Fielding often take the focus away from the bakers. They’re comedians, yes, but do they have to turn everything into a bit? And if they do, must their bits range exclusively from distracting to corny to inappropriate?

Most infamously, there have been the theme weeks, which have marked real low points for the show. In 2020, the horrifically executed Japanese Week provoked criticism for conflating various Asian cuisines and ingredients (like putting Indian flavors in a Chinese steamed bun, during what was, again, Japanese Week). It also bafflingly positioned Hollywood as an expert, simply because he’d recently visited Japan for a travel show he hosted.

This season’s Mexican Week fiasco proved the show’s producers learned nothing from Japanese Week. The hosts and judges made a mockery of the richness of Mexican cuisine, relying on lazy and cartoonish stereotypes and demonstrating a lack of knowledge and due diligence. If you’re going to be on camera talking about guacamole and pico de gallo, then at the very least, learn how they’re pronounced. And nobody wants to see two white British dudes wearing serapes and sombreros, shaking maracas, and smirking about how they really shouldn’t make Mexican jokes, “not even Juan.”

A few episodes later, the technical challenge for Pastry Week involved making spring rolls. Leith (whose background, as noted above, does not establish her as an authority on Asian cuisines) provided an example of “spring rolls” that looked more like cannoli.

When evaluating the bakers’ completed spring rolls, even she and Hollywood seemed confused by the judging criteria established by Leith herself ― inconsistent about whether the bakers’ spring rolls should or should not have bubbles on the outside. (They should not.)

Leith's example of "spring rolls."
Leith's example of "spring rolls."
Netflix

In weeks with culturally specific challenges, it seems obvious that the show should at least bring in guest judges who actually know what they’re talking about, instead of butchering entire cultures and culinary traditions. But maybe the problems run deeper than that; maybe it’s time for a complete overhaul. For starters, it’s baffling that “Bake Off” has always had an all-white slate of hosts and judges. (The producers wouldn’t have to look very far to find a show doing it better: On “Junior Bake Off,” the kid-oriented version also available on Netflix, both judges are people of color ― Ravneet Gill and former “Bake Off” contestant Liam Charles.)

The monochrome lineup of judges and presenters is especially glaring when compared to the diverse range of bakers. The contestants often use their baking to tell a story about themselves or pay homage to their families and communities. By being on the show, they often help others to feel seen too. When Nadiya Hussain won “Bake Off” in 2015, it was hailed as a hugely significant moment for Muslim representation. As journalist Remona Aly wrote in The Guardian: “That an Asian Muslim woman in a headscarf can win a thoroughly British competition proves that ‘Britishness’ is a broader and more open concept than some would like us to think.” Last year, baker Lizzie Acker, who has ADHD and dyslexia, made a cake to celebrate neurodiversity and reminded viewers that in the U.K., about 1 person in 7 identifies as neurodivergent.

The disconnect between the diversity of the bakers and the lack of diversity among the hosts and judges, and the show’s carelessness when taking on culturally specific cuisines, have long been huge oversights on the show. They’re also evidence of what “Bake Off” is increasingly becoming: out of step with what originally made it great. For a show engineered to make us feel good, much of it now leaves a sour taste in my mouth. And it makes me feel bad for the wonderful bakers, who deserve better.

The bakers are the show’s star ingredients, the reason to keep watching. It’s past time for the rest of the show to actually reflect them, and to do better by them.

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