I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten cake at 9.45am before. But when former Great British Bake Off winner John Whaite passes you a slice of his freshly-baked spiced pumpkin and whisky loaf, suggesting you slather it in damson jam, it’s not something you say no to.
It’s been a while since his time on Bake Off – seven years, in fact – and he’s recently written about how the show “derailed him from a steady lifepath”. He was a 23-year-old law student from Wrightington, near Wigan, at the time, who was thrust into reality TV fame, only to watch his appeal shrink year-on-year, as each new batch of baking stars emerged.
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He’s since written five cookbooks and set up his own cookery school in a converted barn on the family’s farm, but now aged 30, he still battles with his own demons.
It was during the production of his latest book, A Flash In The Pan, when things got so tough, contemplating suicide became an everyday thought.
“I was doing my barrister training in Leeds, so I was getting up at 5am and getting home at 10pm, and for me, that was a really stressful time,” says Whaite. “I was going through real bouts of depression and it was really hard.”
After developing pneumonia and being forced to drop out of his course, things took a turn for the worse. It was New Year’s Day when he realised life had got a bit much. “I took a break and headed for Canada,” he writes in his book. “At times, even the mundanities of everyday life are mountainous and for me, I’m afraid, it was a case of do or die. I had to escape my life, take stock and recover.”
He’s had depression for years, he tells me, now looking the picture of health on a blustery autumn day when we meet for this interview. “I’ve just come off anti-depressants and I actually feel quite stable. I think they’ve knocked things about in my brain and I hope it lasts forever,” he says.
But the depression, he adds, can be all-consuming. “It just happens. At first, I don’t feel it, I just feel very tired and flat and then, more and more, over the past couple of years, it’s become suicidal tendencies and thoughts. And that’s why I had to get to Canada,” he says, explaining that having these thoughts on such an everyday basis really “scared him”.
Whaite is serious as he talks, but his voice doesn’t tremble with emotion, nor do his eyes well up, unlike mine. Here is an enormously intelligent, beautiful and kind man who’s dragged himself out of some very dark spaces, getting on with his life as we bake and eat cake.
“Canada was really recalibrating,” he continues, “and I don’t mean that in a poncy way. It reset my values and reminded me of who I am as a person. I grew up on a farm, so I’ve always been keen on nature, animals and the simpler things in the life – that simple existence.
"Being around animals and having lives that were entirely reliant on you – if I woke up and thought, ‘I can’t be arsed’, the cows wouldn’t get a drink that day. That responsibility imposed on me is what every human being needs.”
The depression slowly subsided on the farm and he talks about it being a very purposeful time, getting up at 5.30am, having breakfast with the family he lived with, respecting them and having that enforced discipline, with very little contact with the outside world.
He’s grateful for every day, and for the love and support of his partner Paul (who he might even marry on the farm in Canada), dog Abel and his family. They’re a really important part of his life and he’s close to them.
The renovations on the barn were done by his brother-in-law, who made the chopping boards too, both his sisters have worked at the cookery school, and his mum pops her head round the door just to check how everyone is.
His sister, Victoria, clears up after the bakers on a cookery course (Whaite refers to her as his “little kitchen bitch”), makes cups of tea and chips in as we chat about life and food. She’s had a tough year too, suffering with premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which led to her going missing and her family using social media to help find her.
But she’s safe and well now, and enjoying eating her brother’s cake. “We’re all very greedy,” he says. “I learned my love of food from my mum.”
And food is very clearly something that ignites his soul. His shiny hazel eyes squint as he gets animated talking about it, and he clenches his fist in excitement as he describes browning butter, cracking jokes as he cooks.
When I ask him if baking is his self-care, he nods approvingly. “Baking is very meditative. It’s precise – you have to weigh out the ingredients, follow it step by step and focus on everything, so it’s just right. It also brings you out of your shell, because if you’ve made a batch of brownies, you share them and its really sociable like that.
"Churchill used to build walls for his depression and I find that baking is just as creative an output. It’s important to use that destructive energy and turn it into something.
“I think we need to focus less on ourselves and be there for other people. Actions speak louder than words. Act on love. There’s too much. ‘I love you, darling’. and it’s all fur coat and no knickers. Actually be there for people,” says Whaite. as he clasps his hands together at the dinner table.
And of course, we must all eat cake. It helps with everything. He tells me that “calories don’t mean anything, it’s all about quality”, and as I box up 10 cakes and a slab of apple crumble chocolate fudge blondie (try saying that when you’ve got a mouth full of one), I conclude that’s just as well.
A Flash In The Pan by John Whaite, photography by Nassima Rothacker, is published by Kyle Books, priced £20. Available now.