Yorkshire’s Great British Bake Off champ David Atherton has had a hectic year, winning the country’s much-loved, primetime baking show, experiencing life in lockdown and launching My First Cook Book: Bake, Make and Learn to Cook. Find out more about his love of the countryside, curries and cakey caterpillars.
Growing up in picturesque Ruswarp, just outside Whitby, I loved how rural it was, living the outdoor life and growing food. For a family of seven we had a very small house, but with a massive garden, an apple orchard and vegetables. It’s a very beautiful part of the world and we’d walk a lot and spend time at the beach. My mum used to take us foraging when we were kids and at the time it was fun but I didn’t realise how useful it actually was, picking tonnes of bilberries and blackberries off the moors. We had a big chest freezer so we could use the fruits all year round and make crumbles.
I live in London now but love coming back to visit, leaving the city and just feeling like you’re at one with the countryside again. Driving across the North York Moors I feel like I’m properly away and that I get a proper break from my London life. There’s nothing like walking on the beach with your family and smelling the sea.
Being part of and winning GBBO in 2019 was amazing. It’s very different to a lot of TV shows and probably why it’s loved so much. It’s so friendly. When you go on a TV show people may be worried about how they come across. I never felt like that because the Bake Off puts people in a good light. It’s still A TV show that they’re producing and editing but you feel like it’s a real genuine thing. I also loved the fact that you’re not in a TV studio, you really are in a tent in the grounds of the most beautiful house. So when there’s a lot of waiting around, which there is in TV, you’re in spectacular surroundings. BUT overall, for me I just love baking and being in a kitchen. It’s not a hard task or a stressful task, it’s just something I love doing.
You don’t really see the judges very often, but I was surprised that Sandy and Noel were in the tent the whole time, giving hugs, even when the cameras weren’t running.
Winning the GBBO changed my life quite profoundly I guess. The obvious is that you get recognised in the street. I quite enjoyed my anonymity before because I’m not someone who likes to get dressed properly in the morning and it can be very embarrassing sometimes. But the opportunities are just great. It’s not just a show that everyone watches, it’s a show that everyone loves. I’ve had the opportunity to write a book, I’ve got two more book deals and I write for The Guardian. So it’s a really good springboard I guess. All the bakers have stayed great friends and keep in touch too.
Lockdown meant spending more time at home but for all the negative things during the last few months, I’ve been trying to look at the positives. Sleeping more, reading books, cooking and baking. I’m just obsessed with food so I’ve been doing a lot of things from scratch again and also my partner has so I’m not allowed anywhere near my sourdough starter and I love sourdough! I’ve been pickling and fermenting instead. I’m quite a crafty person and my partner and I made a quilt together. It’s been very busy since Bake Off, so it’s actually been quite nice to be forced to spend some time relaxing.
I split my time between baking and working as a health adviser for Voluntary Service Overseas on classic health programmes like mass vaccination programmes in African countries, plus malaria and maternal health, which I still do three days a week. Based in the HQ in London dealing with 21 different countries. I travel frequently (not so much at the moment) to Ethiopia, Nigeria, Malawi, multiple times a year. I’ve always been obsessed with health and food from a young age and lots of things I’ve done connected to health has been about nutrition.
Over the last few months there have been a lot of Zoom meetings. My partner and I are both working from our small flat in London, but we love exercise so every day we will go off on a bike ride together or do a keep fit workout. In the afternoon and evening it’s writing recipes and testing recipes, then reading a book before going to bed.
My First Book Book: Bake, Make and Learn to Cook has just been published, it’s for kids and is inspired by my childhood. My mum was such an inspiration and we spent lots of time in the kitchen together, making me the food person I am today. Mum never said ‘don’t touch that or that’s sharp’, she made sure we had freedom and that it was safe, fun and that we learnt about food. Another important part of the book is the health side. It’s really important for kids to know about food and how things are made. I love spending time with kids. Leading kids clubs and teaching them about food and nutrition. My First Cook Book is a really great way for parents or guardians to spend time with their children and produce something that’s good for them too.
Cakey Caterpillar is a favourite recipe in the book. A fun celebration cake but with healthy ingredients. People wouldn’t necessarily know from tasting it, because it’s sweet, that it actually has spinach in. Kids can be very picky about what they eat but if they’ve made something and know which ingredients they’ve put in, then they’ll try it.
I worked closely with illustrator Rachel Stubbs on the book. It’s been another dream for me, like the Great British Bake Off. I lived with Rachel and her husband when I first moved to London. I’d been in rural Malawi and moved back to England, they are two of my best friends. Rachel was doing her masters in children’s illustration at the time and later as Bake Off was going on we decided together to pitch to Walker Books, who she’d worked with, with the idea of a kids’ cook book.
It’s been important for me, as a gay man with a male partner, to have representation in the book. A lot of the illustrations aren’t just about food but they’re about families too. We’ve included lots of different situations, including a childminder with different children, also showing that it’s not always just mummy and daddy, there are two dads as one of the families in the book too. Which was really important for me for kids to not always see the same family unit which isn’t necessarily their family.
The illustrations in the book are really important. We live in an era where food photography is so stunningly beautiful now, especially on Instagram, so perfect and a food stylist has spent hours on every photo. For kids especially, it can be difficult to look at photos and then find their baking hasn’t turned out quite as perfect as the picture, even if they try their hardest it’s not going to look like that because the professionals have so much equipment and time to style it. To me the illustrations are brilliant because the kids don’t actually know exactly what it should look like, so they produce their recipe, that’s good and tasty.
Some people don’t enjoy being in a kitchen, but I do and I find food very meditative. I love doing a dish where I spend ages chopping up all the vegetables into perfect little pieces, like a vegetable curry. Just listening to the radio while I’m doing it, no rush … which is quite ironic really after Bake off!
Making any kind of bread is number one for me, any kind of bread. Although Chinese steamed buns and a really good sourdough are particular favourites. I love working with a batch of scones, they are so quick and easy, perfect with jam, Greek yoghurt and a strawberry on top.
My mum makes a really good Yorkshire parkin that’s delicious and a version of it is going in my next book. And we’ve got to be proud of the Yorkshire pudding haven’t we? When there’s a roast dinner the Yorkshire pudding is all that anyone is looking at on the table. Always a fight for those. The Yorkshire pudding is the best. In the USA they have popovers, an American distortion of the Yorkshire Pudding and it’s basically a sweet as they put maple syrup on them.
When life is back to normal … Is life going to get back to normal? I’m looking forward to spending time with friends and family, and going to food markets and different restaurants. I think as part of my travelling I’m obsessed with food culture and seeing how other people do things with produce in other countries. I’ll be visiting Whitby for a family reunion. We’d arranged a get together just as lockdown came in.
For a perfect Yorkshire day out, how about Runswick Bay, close to where I’m from and voted Beach of the Year. Staithes is great too, an old smugglers cove. Some people like those long stretches of beach but I like smaller beaches in coves and I love the steep road down to the beach, with all the houses higgledy-piggledy. There’s a great coffee shop to stop at too.
Leeds is a fantastic city. I was at uni there and I’m going back soon to stay with Helena Garcia from Bake Off. We’re really close and talk every day. She keeps inviting me to Leeds. So as soon as I can I’ll be up there.
The architecture in the city is so impressive. When you’re walking down the shopping streets if you just lift your eyes above the bottom floor to the first floor, the design of the buildings is all different and I think that speaks for the city, as Leeds is full of so many different kinds of people too.
This article was originally written for This Is Y magazine digital edition – Sept/Oct 2020. To view the full magazine, click here