Home #Hwoodtimes How Nancy Birtwhistle Helps Shop Owners Thrive on ‘The Big Bakeover’

How Nancy Birtwhistle Helps Shop Owners Thrive on ‘The Big Bakeover’

By Debra Wallace

New York, N.Y. (The Hollywood Times) 6/12/2024 — When expert baker and seasoned business professional Nancy Birtwhistle steps into a bakery to facilitate a makeover, she hopes with all her heart and soul for an extremely positive outcome for the owners.

The Season 5 winner of fan-favorite The Great British Bake Off, cookbook author, and lifelong baker, Birtwhistle is on a mission, traveling across America to save struggling bakeries.  With the help of her master carpenter, Erik Curtis, and with a toned-down Restaurant Impossible vibe she reimagines and revamps recipes, renovates storefronts, and puts passionate pastry makers on a path to success.

She was asked to host the new show and is delighted with the outcome revealed at the end of each episode.

In one episode entitled Sugarbox Donuts, Birtwhistle helps a second-generation donut maker, who escaped the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, save their family business to honor her father, while in another episode called Cali Al’s Cheesecakes, she helps a talented cheesecake maker take his delicious tars to the next level to support his young family and honor his late father and brother.

Birtwhistle was born and raised in and around the city of (Kingston upon) Hull, England, and her first recollection of baking and cooking was alongside her grandmother, especially during the Christmas holidays.

“I now realize my grandmother had played a significant part in my love of food. She was a true home cook and I never saw her use a recipe book,” she recalled. “The first thing she taught me to make was a custard tart.”

Birtwhistle worked in the National Health Service for 36 years, but all the while she was an avid cook and baker, mostly for her family. She did not become known for her culinary skills until she took up baking after her retirement. Upon moving to Barton upon Humber, with her husband, Tim, they found a house with a large garden where she grows a variety of vegetables and fruit.

“I love fresh ingredients and use them as often as I can in my baking and cooking,” said Birtwhistle. “We have nine grandchildren who visit us frequently, and who each are developing their own set of baking skills.”

Nancy Birtwhistle of The Big Bakeover — Photo Credit: Cate Hellman/The CW

I’m a very big fan of the various baking shows. Let’s talk about The Big Bakeover.  The makeovers to the businesses have to work for the people, so how much pressure do you feel in helping them?

Nancy Birtwhistle:  I felt a lot of pressure because I was mindful that these people were putting a lot of trust in what I was going to suggest. And I was also mindful that I was entering a different country and a different culture, and I wanted to do my best for these people, but wanted to make sure that I was on the same sheet, you know what I mean? And not try to introduce some things that wasn’t what they wanted. There was a certain anxiety connected with what I was proposing, but everybody was amazing.

Is there something that you think that you learned about human nature from doing The Big Bakeover?

I’ve got a master’s degree in business, I have run a business, and I can bake, and so, what I learned particularly about these small bakeries is how passionate they were about what it was that they did.  They were putting their heart and soul into the business, into long days, into trying to please the customer. None of them wanted to fail even though they were on a downward slope, and it was just heart-warming to be able to give them some help.

I learned so much because, with each bakery, there was a human story; there was an overlay. There was always a sadness behind something, behind the reason why these bakeries were not succeeding. It wasn’t because of incompetence, it wasn’t because they couldn’t bake, it was because there was something else, and each bakery’s problem was different. So, it was humbling in many ways, and I got to know these bakeries and the people really quite well. Yes, it was an emotional experience.  It was nice, it was fun, it was great to do something for these bakeries, but there was sadness as well.

Erik Curtis and Nancy Birtwhistle of The Big Bakeover Photo Credit: The CW

Why were you attracted to The Big Bakeover?

Well, I was invited to join a Zoom meeting because someone thought I would be a good fit. I’d obviously demonstrated I could bake, but also, I have a master’s degree in business, so I think looking at my skill set, they probably thought I could do it.

The show was explained to me, and I said, “Yes.” And they said, “We don’t want anything brutal; we want it to be a kind, enabling show. We want it to be helpful, we want it to be kind, and we think you might be the person to do it.”  And I said, “I’d love to do it!”

What is it like for you emotionally when the reveal comes at the end of the episode?

Oh! Especially, when I see the bakery owners, and they get upset, and they put their arms around me; that becomes emotional. They’re happy tears but you still know what those people have gone through and are going through. There are the human stories behind each bakery, there’s something in each bakery that is really heart-wrenching, and it affects you. Yes, it affects you. I enjoyed my time enormously with each and every one of them, they were all lovely people.

Go back to Season 5 of winning The Great British Bake Off. I have to confess that I haven’t baked a cake in 25 years, but I am drawn like a moth to a flame.  Along with children, their parents, and grandparents; I just can’t get enough of these shows.

Well, I’m hoping The Big Bakeover does the same because I think there’s a passion for baking there, you see people struggling, and there’s some fun. I think it has all those parts that go into producing family viewing. Yes, and I love the before and after. You know when you get a glimpse of the bakery before, and then you see it, that was awesome. I thought that was fantastic. You call it The Great British Baking Show, right?

Nancy Birtwhistle of The Big Bakeover Photo Credit: The CW

How did winning that show change your life and your options?

It changed my life in a way I could never ever have imagined. I didn’t apply to go on the show because I thought I would win it, I applied to go on the show because I thought I could do it. I didn’t think I would win it.  And then when I did, it just gave me lots of different opportunities and I thought, well, all of this is new.  I’d had a long career working in the health service, the National Health Service, I’d always enjoyed baking, but you can’t apply to go on the show if you’ve got any formal baking qualifications.

I was self-taught, and then when I won, I was offered all sorts of opportunities, and I didn’t turn anything down. I figured that I would just do everything and see which bits that I like. So, I was writing recipes, I’ve done some daytime TV, I’ve written five books, and I’ve done an American show, so it can’t get much better than that.

Thinking back to baking with your grandmother, could you share some fond memories?

Yes, her name was Elizabeth, but she was always known as Bessie. But I always called her nan. She taught me so much. I think as a child you don’t realize that you’re absorbing all this information. It’s only when you grow up and you have these recollections of your grandmother doing this or your mother doing this, that I’ve realized that I retained all those memories.

One thing I always remember her saying to me is you should never throw away pastry, and she used to use the last scrap of pastry, and I still do now.  Pastry dough, raw pastry dough. And I do the same.  But you know, she’d lived through two world wars, so they had to learn to be thrifty.

Is there something that you particularly enjoyed?  One or two things that you enjoyed baking together that you still would make, or you’ve made in recent years.

Yes, we always made jam tarts together.  I used to roll out the offcuts, and then she would make jam tarts. She didn’t make many cakes; it was mostly pastries.  The other thing I remember that she always did, was to make bread and save the butcher paper to rub over the warm crust to give it a shine, and I still do that to this day.

I recently interviewed Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood for The American Baking Show, and it was such a delight. What were some of your favorite aspects of working with them?

Well, I didn’t work with Prue because when I did The Bake Off, it was Paul and Mary, and then it moved channels, and it became Paul and Prue. I worked with Prue once when I was invited to do a Christmas special. I can remember saying to Paul, “I never expected in my whole life to ever be standing on this side of a bench again, trying to please you,” and he started to laugh.

I called Paul “the male judge” when I was on the show. I pretended that I had forgotten his name, and I’d just referred to him as the male judge after that. But he took it in good spirits; it was all in good fun.

Did you find, as I do, that all of these baking shows seem very stress-ridden at times, but then when they interview some of the bakers, they say how much they love baking, and it relaxes them?

Yes. I must admit, before I went on the show, I used to watch these bakers on TV and say, “I could easily do that. What are they doing? Why is he or she doing this?” Then when I was in that tent myself with the pressure, because obviously as the weeks go on, not only do they make the challenges harder, but they also shorten the time, so you’re always under pressure with time. That’s when you start making mistakes, and that’s what makes good viewing.

Back then in the thick of it, I can remember, I think it was during the semi-finals, I melted chocolate and it needed to solidify slightly so that it would pour over these domes, and it just wouldn’t.  I mean, the tent was hot, I tried putting it in the fridge, it was pouring down on me, and I just couldn’t think straight. And you realize that once you lose your head, you’re nearly losing. You just haven’t got to be the worst, and fortunately for me, I wasn’t the worst that week, but I completely lost my cool. Whereas in the final, I seemed to be in control.

Clean And Green Book Jacket

Do you have any more cookbooks coming out soon or in the future?

I have a series of books, and they all have something green about them. So, the first one is Clean & Green, the second is Green Living, the third is The Green Gardening Handbook, because I grow my own food. The latest is The Green Budget Guide, which again is doing things on a budget, and the next one is My Green and Easy Kitchen, coming out in February 2025. You know that the emphasis now is on ultra-processed foods and how we need to really be cooking from scratch but in a simple way. That’s what my next book is going to be about.

Overall give me a few reasons, that we’ve talked about, or we haven’t talked about, why you encourage my readers to watch The Big Bakeover. What do you think they’ll appreciate and enjoy?

I think they’ll enjoy The Bakeover, both the bakes that they’re producing and the makeover of their premises. The transformations are unbelievable, and you get to know the bakers, the owners of the bakeries, and their families, and you get to understand their problems. There are tears in every episode because the backstory is quite heart-wrenching. Each baker has a problem, and all the problems are different, which affects their business. But then there’s a happy ending to each one, I think that’s what I enjoyed most about it.

I go in and I can see all the different problems, the structural problems, the problems with their equipment, or limited space. There’s one bakery that’s had a fire and she just couldn’t re-open. It’s really sad, yet their heart and soul are into their business and it’s all that they know.  They know how to bake! They’re excellent bakers, but they’ve just lost their way a bit as far as the business goes because the problems are too big. And that’s where me and Erik (Curtis) go in, and between us, we sort of transform it and it’s wonderful, and there’s such a happy ending. I know your readers will enjoy it!

If you had to come up with a couple of life lessons to share with your nine grandchildren, what would a couple of them be?

I would always say to them, “Just do your best.” I’ve always tried to do my best. Another piece of advice to share is, “Don’t say anything to anybody that you wouldn’t want said about you.”

After a successful career with the Health Service and now winning The Great British Baking Show, your cookbooks and everything that followed, and this show, what would your grandma think?

Oh, she’d be proud. Because she always used to say to me, “Just do your best.  If you’ve done your best, nobody can ask anymore,” and I think that’s true. I think it’s not fair to put pressure on young people, we just ask them to do their best and not be afraid of hard work.  She used to say, “Don’t be afraid of hard work.”

Is there anything you enjoy baking at home just for the family or when you have a little time?

It depends really on my mood, I think. Some days it might be something just as simple as a loaf of bread, another day it might be a cake. I think the baking discipline that I enjoy the most is pastry, and again I learned that from my grandmother. She made fantastic pastry, and I think mine is pretty good, too.

Promotional material for The Big Bakeover Photo Credit: The CW

The Big Bakeover premieres on The CW on Friday, June 14, at 8 p.m. ET