Sunday, February 7, 2016

Outbaked by the Brits: Great British Bake Off review

My wife and I are avid consumers of U.S. competitive baking culture. And in case you're not, it is a wide field: Chopped, Top Chef, Worst Cook in America, Masterchef, Masterchef Jr., and my personal favorite, Kitchen Nightmares, to name a few.

Recently we had a chance to try something with a bit more crumpets - the Great British Bake Off (GBBO), where a dozen home chefs compete in a baking contest. The setup is exactly what you'd see in the U.S., but the execution is completely different. The more I watched, the more I realized they had outdone us again. And while I still can't tell if the difference is due to editing, production design or just a different crop of people, the end result is no less striking.
Here's what I mean:

It's non-competitive - One of the first thing I noticed is how nicely all the contestants treated each other. There was no scheming, no trash talking, no "I'm the best" bravado. Everyone seemed to genuinely get along, and want to excel on their own merits. Do U.S. producers encourage people to backstab each other to heighten the drama? Or are our British counterparts equally skilled and yet less cutthrough?

It's more honest - Many, many times in the U.S. they show people an incredibly challenging thing to bake or cook, and say "Ready, Set, Cook!" Somehow, all the chefs, even home cooks or kids, all seem to know how to do it without any instruction at all. This always smelled fishy to me. In The Great British Bakeoff, you see people consulting general instructions given to them by the producers on a few challenges. It's no less challenging because the instructions are either vague or don't help with time management, but it's clear how the show works. I appreciated that.

It's cheeky - With the exception of Alton Brown, more U.S. hosts are picked for their knowledge and not necessarily their warmth. But the GBBO splits its hosting duties in half. The shows hosts and voiceover-ers are Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, two delightful, funny and real actresses who aren't baking experts at all. They crack puns, steal licks from chocolate bowls and occasionally even help contestants in a bind. The actual judges,  Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, are equal parts impressive and imposing.

It's about skill, not money - Why do most people compete on U.S. game shows? If you said anything but money, sit down. Yes, the fame of winning Top Chef and being on T.V. are important, but for most it's the big paycheck. Many shows remind people again and again of this. "Is this Crème Brulee worth $50,000?" Etc. But the GBBO has no prize money. None. The prize is to be named the winner, and that's it. To facilitate this, the show doesn't air over a period of back-to-back days like in the U.S. Instead, it's only filmed on THE WEEKENDS, allowing people to keep their jobs and routine! This simple fact was so extraordinary, I tipped my metaphorical hat to the television when it was revealed.

In short, all these pieces together create a competition that is more like a family cookoff. You don't want anyone to go home. Every contestant has something you like, even those with less skill. You learn more when the show is more honest. I'll prolly be catching the other seasons soon.

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