Jo Wheatley from Essex – mum of three boys – watched the Great British Bake Off and decided to enter last year. She became the show’s 2011 champion and got “the biggest confidence booster of my life”. Jo talked to Mojomums about her life-changing win, the little black dress of chocolate cakes and how it’s all in the preparation…
Q: When did you first become interested in cooking?
A: When I was about 3 years old, my nan has always been a keen baker/cook and I used to stay with her most weekends.
Q: Has the way you cook changed since you had children?
A: I was very young when I had our first son so my cooking has evolved a lot in the last 2 decades, I think it’s very important to know what we are feeding our families.
Q: Lots of busy mums find it hard to balance work/children/home and still get decent nutritious home cooked meals on the table – what advice could you offer?
A: I think it is all in the preparation, I know how tiring it can be if you have had a busy day at work or with the children, so I’ve always found it quite good to prepare the basis of the meal in the morning, if I know I have a really busy day ahead.
Q: Is it possible to have a house filled with home-baking if you’re short on time?
A: I think it is possible with a little organisation. For example, I make up a batch of cookie dough then pop into freezer bags and you have a constant supply. Also lots of the recipes in my book are for mums like me who haven’t always got the time to shop for exotic ingredients or to spend hours in the kitchen. Scones for example take about 25-30 mins from cupboard to table.
Q: What are your food cupboard staples so you can always knock up something tasty?
A: Flour, dried fruits, coconut, demerara and caster sugars, vanilla bean paste, and a selection of nuts.
Q: When did you decide to enter the Great British Bake Off?
A: It wasn’t so much of when I decided, a friend told me this new show was starting up on BBC2 that I’d like – before series 1 – so I googled it and applied. An answer came back to say the vacancies had all been taken, but would I like to be on the list for the next show in 2011. I clicked yes and the rest is history, as they say.
Q: What did your family and friends think of your chances of doing well?
A: I think my family thought I I’d be in the final 4 but never in our wildest dreams did any of us think I’d win.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge for you being a busy working mum?
A: The biggest challenge for me is knowing when to switch off, I am enjoying this new career so much that I seem to sleep, eat and breathe it at the moment.
Q: How do you deal with that?
A: I am just going with it, because while I’m enjoying it I think it must be a good thing, it has been the biggest confidence booster in my whole life.
Q: Although your children are older, how do you manage your work/mum balance?
A: I don’t sleep that much!!
Q: Lots of mums get involved in blogging as a way to release their creativity or sound off about things – how has your blog helped you?
A: If anybody asks me about starting a business, a blog is the first thing I recommend. I think it is a great way to develop your interests and to get a good idea if people find it interesting.
Q: Since winning the GBBO you started cookery courses at your house – tell us a bit more about them, and what kind of people attend?
A: The classes are run from my kitchen and it’s really informal. When everyone turns up we have a coffee and a little treat freshly baked by me, a chat so everyone feels on a friendly basis and then we bake. Each week it’s different, and the range of people has been amazing from an 81yr old man to an 18yr old lady – I have had professionals to students. It is mainly female but we have had our fair share of men too. It’s such a wonderful feeling when somebody books to come back because you know you must be doing something right.
Q: Have you been surprised at the interest in baking? Does it feel like there’s a home-baking revival?
A: I think there has been a massive revival of home-baking, what surprised me more is that it didn’t happen sooner. To know exactly what you are feeding your family and friends is a wonderful thing, and also in most cases with a well-stocked cupboard it’s quicker to bake something tasty than to pop to the shop.
Q: Did you work before the GBBO? How has your life changed since winning?
A: We had pubs when the boys were small, but mainly I have been fortunate enough to be a stay at home mum. My life has changed dramatically, I say it’s like being me but better!
Q: Lots of mums find their life gets put on hold when they have children and some fail to pick it up again. How would you advise mums to get into doing what they really love?
A: I think with all of the social networking sites, having a part-time career in something you love has never been more accessible. Self-promotion and advertising is now so easy to do and for something like baking start-up costs can be relatively low. If you call your local authority they will come and give your kitchen an inspection and then there are lots of places that run the health and hygiene course, insurances are relatively inexpensive if you shop around and then you can just build as you go along and as your children become more independent.
Q: Now you’ve got your first book out – how did you choose which recipes to put in it?
A: I know it sounds corny but it was truly a love affair I never expected to have, I have always been aware of my limitations and knew I wasn’t academic, but the moment I started to write A Passion for Baking it just totally consumed me, it gave me a pride like I’d never known, I wanted to give a bit of myself so that’s why lots of the intros have little bits about where the recipe had come from; lots of the recipes are family favourites and the new ones were such a joy to develop.
Q: What’s your favourite cake recipe?
A: My chocolate mud cake, it is like a little black dress – one you can dress up or dress down and it never lets you down!
Q: What’s the strangest aspect of your new found fame?
A: I’ve been really surprised by people’s reaction to me. A lady grabbed my arm as I passed her in the supermarket – it was with such force I had bruises in the shape of finger prints for about a week! Other than that it always amazes me when people are surprised when I respond to them on my Facebook page or Twitter. If I spoke to somebody and they didn’t respond I’d find that really rude, so I don’t see why Facebook or twitter would be any different.
Q: And what’s your next project?
A: I will soon be on a baking roadshow around the UK and I ‘ll also be baking on stage at The Cake and Bake Show on 22nd September (Earls Court, London). I would love to write book 2, really just to keep learning and sharing and doing what I’m doing.
Jo’s book ‘A Passion for Baking’ can be bought exclusively at Sainsbury’s.
Treat yourself – try Jo’s Rocky Road cupcakes…