Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain on why 2020 is the best time to bake: "It allows me to feel peace"
Claire Webb chats to Nadiya Hussain about Bake Off and her new series.
Nadiya Hussain doesn’t seem to have an off switch. Minutes before we connect over Zoom to talk about her new TV baking series, she’s busy clearing out her fridge. “I refuse to do a weekly shop when we have odds and ends lying around. I put on a timer to see if I can do it in five minutes – I often do that to test myself.”
She’s not boasting about her thriftiness or zeal for housework, but explaining why the kitchen is her happy place. “There’s something about being in the kitchen that is really relaxing because you can focus. You can challenge yourself to use up what you’ve got and that allows you to be creative.”
She’s not the only one who’s found solace in the kitchen in recent months. Social distancing has given the nation an appetite for banana bread and spawned a new generation of home bakers, so it’s a good time for 35-year-old Hussain to be presenting her first baking show, especially as The Great British Bake Off has been delayed by lockdown.
In July, she decamped to a house in Devon with a camera crew to film Nadiya Bakes and spent a fortnight whipping up cakes, tarts, biscuits, breads and pastries. “We had no contact with anyone apart from each other for two weeks. It was lovely, because to be working felt so invigorating, but it was weird, because we were social distancing and everyone had masks on.”
Given that being obese is a major risk factor with COVID-19 and the Government is trying to persuade the British public to lose weight, some may question the show’s timing. But Hussain doesn’t think we need to throw out the kitchen scales. “I know we have a problem with obesity, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that cooking and baking is a life skill. Baking brings lots of people joy, especially somebody like me who suffers from mental health issues. It allows me to find peace when I’m feeling very anxious.” She stays in shape by working out on a cross-trainer in the garage and fasting for two days a week between sunrise and sunset. “That’s basically God forcing me not to eat.”
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It might be five years since she presented her bakes for Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry’s scrutiny, but she’s been anything but idle since she was crowned Bake Off champion.
As well as numerous television series, she’s written cookbooks, children’s books, fiction and an auto-biography, put her name to a homeware collection, and baked a cake for the Queen. Last year she was awarded an MBE for services to broadcasting and the culinary arts. She admits she’s a workaholic. “I’m not good at giving myself breaks and when I do, I just feel guilty for having a break – mentally that’s exhausting. My husband tries really hard to get me to relax. I’m just not very good at it.”
She gets her work ethic from her parents, who emigrated from Bangladesh to Luton, where her father owned an Indian restaurant. “They didn’t fit in, so they had to work ten times harder to achieve a lot less than the people around them. Even now, my mum works six days a week, doing 12-hour shifts in a linen factory where she cleans hospital linen. She tells me, ‘Don’t ever talk about my job. I don’t want to embarrass you’, but I’m proud of what she does and the fact that she is one of the people keeping this country going.” Her parents are also to thank for her frugality. “Saving, budgeting, never wasting – that’s part of who I am.”
Hussain lives in Milton Keynes with her husband Abdal and their three children – Musa, 13, Dawud, 12, and Maryam, 9. Although her career has skyrocketed, they haven’t moved to a bigger house or bought an expensive car, because she “can’t see the value in constantly upgrading everything. I quite like that nothing really does change.” She avoids red-carpet dos and celebrity shindigs. “I get asked so often and I always say no because it’s just not where I’m comfortable. We get asked to go to the premieres of cartoons and my daughter hates that I don’t say yes to every single one. There’s a balance that you have to strike with your kids, so they don’t get caught up in the glitzy part of it all. For me, it’s really important for them to be rounded human beings with good morals and I hope that I’m teaching them those things.”
Unsurprisingly, she reached for a wooden spoon and mixing bowl when she found herself at a loose end at the start of lockdown, but by the fourth week she’d run out of flour and had to ration the eggs from her chickens. “It became, ‘Am I so anxious I need to bake a cake or can I avoid it today?’” Last year she made a documentary about her lifelong struggle with anxiety and recently there have been days when she couldn’t get out of bed. “Lockdown caused a massive decline in my mental health, and I have really, really bad days and sometimes I have really good days.
“We know lots of people who have been diagnosed with COVID. We also know people who are not following the rules, so there’s this constant anxiety, which has been really tough. I have really big down days where it dawns on me that we could get to the end of the year and still not have seen our families. We’ve got two boys with asthma so we’re being really careful.”
She became a household name when she reduced Mary Berry – and millions of viewers – to tears with her heartfelt Bake Off acceptance speech, in which she declared, “I’m never going to say I can’t do it… I can and I will.” Since then, her candour about her mental health and the racism she’s faced has won her more fans. Does she worry that she gives too much of herself away? “Yes, to my own detriment, sometimes. Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a famous person. I give of myself knowing that somebody will relate to me and say, ‘I get her and I’m not alone’. Suffering with mental health and suffering racism is quite isolating, and to be able to share that is therapy for me as much as it is for other people.”
Recently, emboldened by the Black Lives Matter movement, she’s started to talk more about what it’s like being one of the few women of colour and faith on primetime TV. “I’ve experienced racism throughout my life in different situations, be it job interviews, college, school. I now work in an industry that’s very much middle-aged, Caucasian, male, and there I am – a five foot one Muslim brown girl, and it’s not my world. We have to question why there aren’t more people of colour working in television, publishing, the hospitality industry. When I did this show, I looked around and I thought: wow, there’s literally just me and the home economist, who’s Korean.”
Hussain says she finds speaking out hard, “because if I ever feel like I’m complaining about anything, I have this god-awful fear that nobody will want to work with me ever again. So I’m really scared.” She admits she’s “definitely not quite there yet” when it comes to having the courage to call out racism. “The times that I have called it out, I’ve met with some serious negativity… I’m trying to get better.”
It’s little wonder she’s apprehensive about sticking her head above the parapet. Ever since her Bake Off win, she’s been hounded by online trolls, such as the time she posted a Cornish pasty recipe where she’d replaced traditional swede with apple.
“I got so much abuse on social media. What I constantly read was, ‘What gives you the right to make a Cornish pasty?’ And that really affected me. I’ve definitely experienced more racism in the last five years than I have in my whole life. People get away with being racist and if you say, ‘Well, that was racist’, then it’s ‘Take it on the chin’ or ‘Oh, she’s got a chip on her shoulder’. There’s definitely a sense that I should be grateful for what I do. I’ve had to learn to have a thicker skin over the last few years, but I’ve also learnt that it’s really important to voice things and not just hold back.”
When she was growing up in Luton, she never “dared to dream” of being a TV presenter or an author. “I’ve been writing since the age of 17 and, secretly, part of me thought, ‘I’d love to have something published one day’. But I did not see myself reflected in publishing. I did not see myself reflected on television. How could I possibly aspire to be a part of something I never saw myself in? So the problem starts there. There’s not enough diversity in television and publishing, which means people do not aspire to work in those jobs. Now people say to me, ‘My daughter wants to do exactly what you’re doing’, and that is a lovely thing to hear.”
Now that she has a stellar job beyond her wildest fantasies, Hussain dares to dream about having a career as long as Mary Berry’s. “In the hope that if I get to do this into my 80s, that there will be a stream of women just like me who can say, ‘I did it because she did’. That for me is the dream.”
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV guide.Buy Nadiya Bakes on Amazon now.