Paul Hollywood – Signature Dish

With his new book BAKE published earlier this summer and the 13th GBBO set to begin next month, we caught up with everyone’s favourite baker, Paul Hollywood to discuss how it all began.  

How did your awareness of baking begin?

It probably began with visits to my dad’s bakery when I was a ten-year-old kid. He was the boss so he would often be in his office upstairs banging away with the numbers, meeting the accountants and financial guys and all that stuff so my brothers and I would often be downstairs in the bakery, causing a nuisance and playing around. I was in and around the bakery, brushing up behind the scenes and my dad would pay me a few quid. Being in the bakery was the norm and it wasn’t unusual to be watching the bakers pull the dough out, making cakes, icing buns. I remember watching the bakers work, even at that young age, and trying to understand the processes. 

What made you ditch your college art course for a job at your dad’s bakery? 

I was alright at art so ended up going to art school, which is more of my mum’s side of things. I wasn’t long into it before my dad made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. At the time I had long hair past my shoulders so my dad offered me £500 to get my haircut and join the business. As a teenager it was tough to say no to that sort of money back in the 70s so I jumped professions very early to the bakery business.

Where did you start?

After a haircut, I ended up working in a bakery in Liverpool at the top end of County Road in Walton.  I worked with a couple of old timers there who were great bakers. I learnt how to work on the table, how to make doughs, on the ovens and then eventually I went over to work with my dad in Lincoln and I took over the Lincoln shop. I picked it up really quickly and worked with my dad for about two years, learning the ropes from some seriously good bakers. Two years later, I moved back to Liverpool and started working in local bakeries as an assistant baker and began climbing the tree. I realised that the time working for my dad and the upbringing in and around bakeries had given me a great grounding for the business. My dad used to put me with the best guy on the ovens, or the best guy on the table, the best guy who does this or that. I was very lucky as I learnt from the best of the old school. I found I picked things up quickly and I was as fast, if not faster, than many of the other bakers who had been doing it a lot longer. I just had a natural aptitude for baking.

In terms of the art side of things – did it help with your baking and if not, what do you put your success down to?

I don’t think so. It probably just meant I wasn’t very smart and I was far better at the manual and practical jobs. I have always been one of those people where if you show me something once, I will pick it up quickly. If I don’t know how to do something, show me and I will practise it until I can nail it. It’s the same in other parts of my life. I have been in the car with some great racing drivers who have won Le Mans. And they have sat in next to me when I have been driving, giving me advice and telling me what to do. Follow this line, do this, do that. Then I have been let loose to race and like with my early baking, I found once shown, I could adapt.   

What was key to your development?

It’s about learning. You learn through repetition and practise and it’s no different whether it’s baking bread or driving at 200-plus mph around a track. This way of development always suited me. I like to push myself, I always liked climbing ladders and I always like to have my future in my own hands.

How did the TV work come about?

It’s cruel to say but I had lost a little motivation while working over in Cyprus and I did get a little bored and probably felt I needed a new challenge. I had done a little bit of filming in Cyprus and someone said – you’re alright at this, contact me when you get to the UK. About a year and half later, I arrived back and met this agent and within three months I was actually filming a series so it all happened pretty fast.

Is there still a need for bakers in hotels?  What’s the difference between a pastry chef?

Yes, I think so. The industry is crying out for decent bakers, not just pastry chefs. Bakers make a proper scone – big and beautiful. Pastry chefs will create a tiny one with a lovely pattern or decoration on it. Bakers are more hands on, they get on with it and will concentrate a lot on bread, croissants, pain au chocolats, Danish pastries etc – especially in the hotels. But they would be doing big, big numbers – 600, 700, 1,000 of each. Pastry chefs will dabble in all sorts of avenues in baking.

Tell me about the new book?

Basically, the book was written and put together during lockdown and Bake Off. I have always loved the baking classics so this book showcases them with my updated recipes. Today, there are so many new ingredients around and a need to reduce salt, sugar etc so the classics needed some adjusting. I wanted to create a book that covers all the baking bases – pizzas, bread, cakes, pies, pasties, pastries – the lot. My dream is that it’s a book that will be covered in flour from overuse and that it acts like a baking almanac or bible in kitchens everywhere – both in the home and professional arena. If a chef had a copy in his kitchen and says – let’s make one of those Hollywood breads – and then they pull down the book and the pages are stuck together with batter, I will be a happy baker.

I enjoyed writing this book. It’s really got my heart and soul in it and it means a lot to me. It’s my favourites and while I’m sure they are other people’s favourites as well, the process was very indulging and enjoyable. 

You’re a country chap now – do you grow you own and garden?

I’m a bit like Forest Gump. If gardening involves my ride-on mower then count me in. Otherwise, I can give it a swerve. I was actually bought a great t-shirt recently. It says – I’m sexy and I mow it. You can’t beat straight lines on your lawn.

Any baking trends we should be watching out for?

Nothing has been leaping out really when it comes to brand new trends but I think Covid has probably been to blame and has probably scuppered a lot of that. I think interest in the approachable classics such as teacakes, cherry cakes, banana breads etc has always been there but home-baking has probably given them a popularity boost. As we’re becoming unlocked, I think we will start to see a bit more of the faddy trends but I haven’t seen too much of it just yet.

What Signature dish or bake have you chosen?

It’s so hard to choose a favourite or signature dish or bake but something that everyone loves but not everyone gets right is a Margherita pizza. It’s an easy thing to do but it’s about good ingredients and the right technique. Put good in and you get good out. I have a pizza oven in the garden, like a lot of other people who bought them during lockdown do. I wanted to show how to do them properly so spent a lot of time perfecting the recipe. It’s very simple and about a great San Marzano tomato sauce, good buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil but the preparation of your dough is crucial. If you want that thin and crispy base then it’s in the oven for a minute twenty tops.

Recipe is extracted from BAKE by Paul Hollywood, published by Bloomsbury on 9 June 2022

Photography © Haarala Hamilton

Please click here to see the recipe.

Anything that you learnt in those days that stuck with you in your career? 

It’s sounds terrible now but the old boys in the bakery would often try and burn us. They would say – ‘grab that tray for me Paul’ – which would then be scolding hot and would burn your fingertips. But from a young age, we learnt quickly to always tap a tray before picking it up Why did you leave you dad’s bakery chain?  

I was homesick and missed Liverpool. I was always homesick when I worked away – even at the Dorchester. It was only really in Cyprus that I felt I broke that cycle. When I moved to Cyprus, what originally was going to be a year became six so this is where I moved past the homesickness.

Did you foresee or dream of the career you have had?

I didn’t realise that baking could take me where it took me. Obviously, TV is one thing but baking can literally take you anywhere in the world. It offered and still offers so many possibilities. I could have worked on the liners, big ships, hotels – anywhere I wanted. It was just incredible the jobs I was getting interviews for. Cyprus came up – it was a bit closer to home – just the 4 hours and I thought, I will have a go at that one. I ended up scuba diving, I ended up a dive master and when I wasn’t baking, I was enjoying the sea and sand.

Still up early?

I don’t get up at 3am in the morning and start baking anymore but from living the life of a baker for so many years, I’m definitely a morning man. I still get up early. There is something about being up early before anyone else and I have always been one of those that when I wake, my brain starts going and it’s pointless staying in bed. Once awake, I’m on it and I get to work because that is I how I have trained myself to be for 30-odd years. It’s not just about being there at 3am in the morning.  Bakers have to be on it, they have to organise and plan and there are deadlines to be met. I think that has stayed with me but I don’t massively miss the 3am starts. 

Is baking professionally a big commitment?

I lost so much of my social life as young lad. My mates would be preparing to go out and I would be preparing myself for bed so it does take a lot of commitment, especially if you want to push yourself to be as good as you can be.

What would be the equivalent of a Hollywood Handshake for you?

I would say a handshake from someone in the racing field who I greatly admire. Lewis Hamilton would be up there but it’s difficult to name just one as there are some amazing drivers who I greatly respect in different disciplines whether it’s single seaters or GT cars. I remember when I first started racing, I didn’t want to be there because I was the guy off the telly. I wanted to be there because I could drive and race. Initially the TV got me the opportunities and the break but once there I wanted to be seen as a good driver, not just a baker who likes cars. A couple of times I did a few races with professional drivers who would say – nice one Paul, well done. That was probably as close to a Hollywood handshake that I can get. It was that wow moment for me where I felt such a buzz and was immensely proud.

How was the jump to TV and moving from a job you knew inside out into the somewhat unknown?  

I was confident as a baker with what I was doing and talking about so that wasn’t the issue. My role throughout my working life was to check, smell, taste and ensure every product that went out to the guests were the best possible. Now I just do the same thing without the guests. It takes you a bit of time to get used to the cameras being on and being as natural as you can. I have met people since in a bar and they often say – you’re exactly the same as you are on TV. I take that as a compliment. 

The editing on Bake Off is all about me being the bad cop but really that’s not the case. I’m just the one who has to give the bad news at times and I admit I can be a little brutal but that is telly. There are lots of bakers that if they were in my shoes, they would agree with what I am saying about the bakes. Most people judge it on what they can see on the screen but I’m looking at texture, the smell, the taste. Those three things are critical when judging. It’s not about a pretty colour or a shape. People will say – why has he said it’s so bad. Simple – it either tasted terrible or the texture was all wrong.

Have you had a mentor in your working life who you credit with being key to your development as a baker?

No, not really. Maybe the old boys at my dad’s bakery but I don’t think it was like today where personal development is planned out. I joined the hotels and I was pretty much the only baker. There was the Head Chef and chefs but I was the only baker. So, I was reading books, doing my own research and really was let loose to do my own thing. There was no one else who could do what I was doing so I was looking around and thinking, I will do this today. I was the youngest Head Baker the Dorchester had ever had so it was an incredible job and opportunity. The experience I gained was invaluable. I liked challenges and was very driven. I read a lot and practised a lot and loved trying different techniques and recipes. Once you know the basics of baking, you can have a lot of fun tweaking and playing around and that’s what I did.

Favourite part of your job?

I would be lying if I said I didn’t love going into the GBBO tent. It’s like a second home. Thirteen years in and I feel very comfortable there. I love working with Noel, Matt and Prue. They are such a laugh and we’re so relaxed with each other. Like with any job, if you like the people you’re working with, it makes a huge difference and on top of that I also get to meet loads of other interesting people and eat cakes, pies and bread all day. What’s not to love?

Any other targets/goals with racing? Or how else do you unwind?

There are a couple of races I would like to do at some stage. The 24 hour Le Mans would be epic if I could do that. The problem is that when I am filming, I can’t race as it becomes tricky insurance-wise. I’m very chilled out nowadays to be honest. When I am not filming, I would definitely like to do a few more races but I love going out on the motorbike as well. Two or three friends, a nice ride and then stop off somewhere for a coffee and a bacon roll.

Three key tips for bakers to succeed:

  • Never be late. It’s just the worst thing.
  • Listen and be prepared to take on criticism
  • Be ambitious and aim high. 

How did lockdown effect you?

I’m such a hermit really, I live in the middle of nowhere and rarely go out, which is probably a by-product of what I do and all the crazy stories the press come up with. I find I just keep my head down so Covid wasn’t really all that different for me. In fact, rather than having to travel for interviews and meetings, Zoom took over so my life probably got a bit easier. When the bubbles opened, we would visit our neighbours for pizza, bread and we even started a pub quiz in the community, which was lovely. I got more of chance to bake as well.