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Bake Off winner David Atherton: ‘Food’s got to be fun’

By Features Reporter

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Illustrator Rachel Stubbs and cook David Atherton. Picture: Text © 2020 Nomadbaker Ltd/Illustrations © 2020 Rachel Stubbs/Additional Illustrations © 2020 Walker Books Ltd/PA
Illustrator Rachel Stubbs and cook David Atherton. Picture: Text © 2020 Nomadbaker Ltd/Illustrations © 2020 Rachel Stubbs/Additional Illustrations © 2020 Walker Books Ltd/PA

Great British Bake Off 2019 winner David Atherton was “already having a bit of a crazy year” – so throw in the pandemic and “it’s just added to it”.

The Whitby-born health professional was that rare contestant in the feted tent: a calm, collected baker – qualities that have bolstered him during the post-win melee. “Everything is all new and very exciting, but also you feel very lost and you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing,” he says frankly. “You just want to be able to take the opportunities without burning out, basically.”

It’s a pragmatism that has also served the 37-year-old well during the pandemic. He’s been teaching his partner Nik to make sourdough (“Now I can’t get near the bread!”), crafting (they made a quilt together), cooking (“There’s been a lot of positives, as well as all the scariness”) and encouraging people to sign up to a symptom tracker. And now, he’s celebrating his debut cookbook – although it might not be what you’d expect from a classic Bake Off winner.

For starters, My First Cook Book is for kids, and second, it’s not a glorification of sugar-spun, candied concoctions. Instead, its bedrock is Atherton’s nutrition background, and his interest in how “people who had an upbringing like myself, where their mum was in the kitchen with them all the time, tend to understand food and diet better”, he explains.

“My mum was very different, it’s funny because she would definitely be called hipster now, but back then she was called ‘hippie’,” he says fondly. “She had five kids and had to feed us all, and cooking from scratch is obviously the cheapest way – and also the healthiest.”

Atherton recalls how they had a small house but a big garden, which was filled with vegetable patches, chickens and an apple orchard: “Food was just one of the things we did. We weren’t allowed to watch TV really,” he continues, “so we had to spend our lives playing with each other and cooking and baking. It was idyllic.”

The most amazing thing, he says, was that his mum whipped up homemade bread for the seven of them. “We never had shop-bought bread – and she saw that as a way of keeping us entertained. She made massive batches twice a week, and as kids we would spend the whole morning playing with bread dough. I’m not sure how much of that got cooked and eaten…”

She didn’t shy away from letting them use knives either. “We were allowed to stir pots on the stove, use a knife to cut things, and crack our own eggs – and yes we would get shell in, but by the age of three you can crack an egg!”

He says he still meets adults today “who can’t crack eggs properly”, and so the idea of My First Cook Book is to get all ages in the kitchen, learning about food, and spending time together. “It’s really important to capture kids young, and instead of trying to make it seem like a chore, food’s got to be fun,” Atherton enthuses.

The book is charmingly illustrated by Rachel Stubbs, a friend Atherton lodged with when he first moved to London, and funnily enough, the pair of them bagged their cookbook deal even before Atherton appeared on Bake Off.

Stubbs’ illustrations are key to the book’s whole ethos; they’re an antidote to the heavily curated, highly stylised, impossibly beautiful food photos you scroll through on Instagram and leaf through in cookbooks.

“For kids especially, to see that and then to try and mimic it – when even if they follow the recipe perfectly, it can’t look like this Instagram-standard photo – I just thought it’d be so nice to have an illustration where it’s not a real representation of the final thing. So therefore, whatever the kids produce, that’s what it should look like.”

There’s a mix of sweet and savoury dishes to try, from a ‘magic’ tomato sauce Atherton makes all the time, to octopus-shaped pizzas, tacos, sushi and veggie summer rolls. They largely offer an alternative route, one that moves away from capturing kids’ attention purely through sugar.

“In the same way that if a child is brought up with McDonald’s, they probably think a dried fig is disgusting,” muses Atherton. “I remember physically feeling sick when I’d see people spreading butter on bread before jam. We just put peanut butter or jam straight on, without anything else. It’s just, you’re conditioned. That’s why it’s so important to start with kids, because if you condition people to think that lots of refined sugar is normal, then your tastes will be very, very sweet.”

Atherton himself was the kid who preferred dense wholemeal loaves to pappy white bread, and didn’t hanker for Happy Meals. “Even now, Coca Cola, I just don’t understand it, because I never had it growing up. It just seems to be such a strange sweet taste to me.”

It does frustrate him that, although people are increasingly baking and cooking rather than relying on shop-bought, “there has definitely been a skewing towards these brightly coloured mountains of buttercream, which are just not good for anyone.

“There’s no reason to always use just butter, sugar and eggs,” he continues, “when we have amazing vegetables like sweet potato, butternut squash and bananas, that can mimic these things and give you really moist tasty bakes, but be a lot healthier.” Take his super-sweet brownies (that contain sweet potato), a sweetie birthday cake (laced with avocado), and a ‘cakey caterpillar’ cake that features spinach.

Fortunately, Atherton’s health slant – in life, and the cookbook – doesn’t come off as sanctimonious. He considers the book “a little more wholesome” but notes the food doesn’t “taste healthy”. You get the sense that, although he champions courgette in cake, he’s not the type to force-feed your child broccoli, or make you feel bad for nibbling a biscuit (he makes dog bone shaped ones packed with peanut butter, after all).

It helps that he’s so zen, amiable and such a believer in the sheer joy of kitchen dancing. “You have to have fun and dance around the kitchen – especially when you’re drying up,” says Atherton impishly. “When I was a kid with my twin brother, we used to actually pretend we were on Blue Peter. We would always be handing over to each other while we dried-up. You’ve just got to make it fun.”

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