Tom Kerridge is looking for the best of British bakers – even if he’s not tasting much of their food himself

The Great British Bake Off goes pro with new spin-off Crème de la Crème

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“It’s huge, it’s brilliant.” Tom Kerridge is enthusing about how many food shows there are on television and just how good they are. “There’s some very good cooking on television right now,” says the remarkably slimmed-down 42-year-old, who may well be brilliant but certainly isn’t huge any more, after losing eight stone in the past three years. “Look at Jamie Oliver driving people to cook simple food really quickly, and enjoy the process of cooking,” he says. “And the Nigella effect, the fact that you buy into the wonderful dinner party lifestyle so that you have a go at cooking something, even midweek, not just weekends. I’m talking about the shows that first and foremost encourage people to cook for themselves.”

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Not many of us, however, will be knocking out versions of the dishes on his new BBC2 show Bake Off Crème de la Crème. The show is a sort of supercharged spin-off, where all the contestants are experienced patisserie chefs producing the sort of technically demanding dishes that only royalty and presidents of Fifa regularly encounter.

“Well, it’s about improving your skill levels and little tricks you can pick up along the way,” says Kerridge. “But no, you’re not going to be able to do it as well as these people, and the judges are the best there are. These guys have won world pastry championships.” These guys are Benoit Blin, chef patissier at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons; Cherish Finden, executive pastry chef at the Langham, and two time British best pastry chef Claire Clark.

Less surprising than the revelation that there is such a thing as a world pastry championship is Kerridge’s enthusiastic support for The Great British Bake Off. “Bake Off has made having a cake an event for the family,” he says. “Rather than opening a packet you are getting the ingredients and actually making it. It brings families together.”

Kerridge’s own family history sounds tough. When he was still at school his father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and, when his health deteriorated and he went into a care home, his parents separated. Kerridge’s mother was obliged to bring up Tom and his younger brother Sam on virtually no money. But where Kerridge comes from, that wasn’t a unique hard-luck story. “I went to an all-boys’ comprehensive, Saintbridge School, in the middle of three council estates in Gloucester,” he says. “It wasn’t odd to come from a single-parent family. It was standard. Probably 30-40 per cent of kids had single parents.”

Does he feel he missed out on what more privileged kids had? “I don’t think so at all. My mum was very clever and was very good at making things work with no money. We would go on holiday to the Isle of Wight because it felt like we were on a ferry going abroad.”

With a mother like that Kerridge was never going to lack self-confidence, and he’s as happy mixing with heads of state as he is with head waiters. “David Cameron came along when we did a Great British Menu for war veterans,” he says, “I was blown away by how amazing Cameron was in that room, he wanted to know the stories of every single person he met. I didn’t know whether it was real, but if it was an act it was a really good act.” When he’s chatting with prime ministers he must feel he’s come a long way from the estate. “Yes I do, sometimes. How on earth have I got here? How has this happened?”

There’s a part of Kerridge that doesn’t quite believe how far he has come. “I recently picked up an honorary doctorate in philosophy from the University of Gloucestershire,” he says. “Quite a moment for someone who never went on to A-levels or university, and actually I felt a bit of a fraud. You’re sat there at Gloucester Cathedral with all of these guys who are receiving their degrees for all the incredible hard work they have put in for three years, and I’ve got the same hat and get-up on. I do understand that mine is for 24 years of hard work but it’s kind of weird because I don’t feel I’ve had to work to be a chef. It’s a career that I love. So it’s not a job, is it? It’s just what you do.”

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Kerridge with Crème de la Crème judges Cherish Finden, Claire Clark and Benoit Blin (L-R)

What he does includes owning two pubs in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, the Hand and Flowers, which has two Michelin stars, and the Coach. I suggest they run smoothly. “No! No, no, no,” he insists. “It’s been bumpy, incredibly difficult. We’ve been through recessions and there are all sorts of issues every single day. I still find myself rodding drains with my head chef and saying, ‘Why is it the two of us are doing this?’”

Apart from backed-up drains, there are other dangers in owning licensed premises. “I own pubs and, you know, I’m quite good at tasting. So I knocked all booze on the head. Stopped drinking, went completely teetotal.”

In the past Kerridge has admitted to “drinking massively… barrels of beer”, so how did he do it? Cut down gradually or stop suddenly? “I went, right, I’m not drinking. That’s it. No more. Then for Christmas my wife Beth bought me tickets to go and see a live band once a month. So I said, ‘I’ll have a drink on those nights.’ But it petered out pretty much after that and now I don’t miss it. Every now and then I think, ‘I could have a drink,’ and then I just think, ‘There’s no point; I won’t have one.’”

When he gave up alcohol Kerridge cut a lot of empty calories from his diet. He puts the bulk of his weight loss down to the low-carb diet he began when he stopped drinking. Looking at him today, apparently half the man he used to be, it obviously works. “Carbs are a big thing,” says Kerridge. “The more you understand it and the more you look into it, you see that there are so many carbohydrates involved in sugar as well.”

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So how did he taste the results of the on-screen Crème de la Crème competition, which often amounted, in essence, to sheets of white carbs covered in sugar? “I didn’t. I was very well behaved.” Not so much as a teaspoon in the tarte tatin? “I wasn’t a judge, they were the guys who had to judge it and eat it and test it. I worked really hard to not eat anything.”

When I ask about poor Beth, married to a man who has given up cakes and ale, it turns out that for a while last year she wasn’t drinking either. The pair welcomed a son, Adey, just before Christmas. “So the future of England’s football is in safe hands,” bubbles the keen Marlow FC fan. “And pastry making.”

Has he got him down for Eton yet, where David Cameron was taught how to look people in the eye and make them feel like they mattered? “No, and you know what?” Kerridge says, “I’d be very happy for him to go to an all boys’ comprehensive school in the middle of three estates. It did all right for me.”

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The Great British Bake Off: Crème de la Crème begins on BBC2 tonight (Tuesday 29th March) at 8:00pm