I am on a quest to find some of the most ambitious, extraordinary students. That is, students who are able to delicately balance studies with passions and waste no time in making a difference in the world.
October’s featured student is one who received the most sought-after handshake among baking connessiours. At 20, Henry Bird was the youngest competitor in season 19 of “The Great British Bake Off” (GBBO). Among his many great bakes, the smartly dressed, witty and talented Bird produced a dazzling “chocolate kardemummabullar,” a Swedish cardamom bun, worthy of a Paul Hollywood handshake.
Not only did Bird impress the judges with his masterful baking, but he also contributed to a British treasure that is celebrated and beloved way beyond U.K. borders. This cooking competition is about much more than scrumptious sweets, stunning showstoppers and suspenseful races against the clock. GBBO also delivers humor and charming snapshots of the idyllic countryside. And it is the unique, kind and talented people like Bird himself that make the show as comforting and delightful to watch as warm apple crisp á la mode.
“GBBO also delivers humor and charming snapshots of the idyllic countryside. And it is the unique, kind and talented people like Bird himself that make the show as comforting and delightful to watch as warm apple crisp á la mode.”
I had the opportunity to ask Bird a few questions about student life and what it was really like baking in the grand white tent. I hope you enjoy getting to know Bird as much as I did.
Kate Luongo (DC): What university do you go to/what is your major?
Henry Bird: I’m currently in my final year at Durham University, studying English Literature, and alongside this studying for a diploma in Freelance and Feature-Writing Journalism from the London School of Journalism.
Kate Luongo (DC): Can you tell me a little bit about your daily life as a student? It is your ideal Saturday evening. What are you doing for fun?
Henry Bird: O.K., it may be a little different this year because COVID-19 decided to slightly rain on the parade, but even without the pandemic, Durham is a lovely, peaceful place to study. Studying English Literature means the timetable isn’t absolutely rammed, but [I] usually wake up, go for walk, work/seminar, cook lunch, library in the afternoon, choir/writing in the evening and a big house dinner on the weekend. Ideal Saturday evening—little bit of writing, make a lovely dinner with housemates, go for a drink at the pub (next door, it’s so well placed) and writing this, I’m realizing this interview is doing nothing to make me sound particularly hip and exciting. And the fact I just used the word hip is a worrying sign.
Kate Luongo (DC): When did your love of baking begin? Do you remember your first baking triumph?
Henry Bird: I think I was around 12 years old, and by chance the second series of “Bake Off” was filming in the park at the end of my road. I had no idea what it was at the time, and I would walk past it to and from school every day. It just so happened that I looked inside one day, had a little nosey at what they were doing, and decided to go home and try a bit of baking for myself. Up until that point the only time I had really ventured near an oven was to make cinnamon biscuits which were quite literally carcinogenic charcoal by the time they had baked, but that day I attempted a chocolate roulade. It came out looking edible. That was a triumph to me.
Kate Luongo (DC): Who/what encouraged you to apply for the Great British Bake Off? Was there anyone who inspired you in the kitchen?
Henry Bird: When you’ve got five very persuasive and hungry housemates it’s incredibly hard to disappoint them. I also recently found out that my great aunt used to be the baker for one of the Dukes of Wellington, so perhaps some of her passion and expertise has been found its way down the generations.
Kate Luongo (DC): As the youngest competitor, did you ever feel intimidated?
Henry Bird: Only by the looming prospect of old age.
Kate Luongo (DC): How did you balance preparing for the competition with your studies?
Henry Bird: There was one point where I was sitting in a seminar and my housemate sent me a photo of a blackened mass at the bottom of the oven, a pavlova that I had forgotten about 7 hours earlier. I also dropped a cake in the oven and spent three hours sitting on the kitchen floor scooping it into a baking tray (shameful photo attached). So it’s fair to say there were a few bumps on the way. But got the hang of it in the end.
Kate Luongo (DC): Do you still make time to bake? Do you ever bring sweet treats to your friends or professors (perhaps before a big exam!)?
Henry Bird: Baking bribery may well be the key to a first-class degree. But each week I do try and make something, whether it’s a fairly sizable cake for someone’s birthday or a small batch of brownies. And I feed my sourdough starter each morning, which has become some kind of hypnotic ritual.
Kate Luongo (DC): How did Paul Hollywood compare to your most stringent professor?
Henry Bird: Paul is genuinely an absolutely lovely man, but my God, there’s something about watching him slowly chew down on a bite of your cake that instills a fear in you like no other. Thankfully, I’ve never had to watch any of my professors slowly chew cake, but if I had done, I doubt they’d do it with as much nerve-inducing sincerity as Paul. Also, stringent is a really lovely word.
Kate Luongo (DC): Did you take away anything from your experience on GBBO that has applied to your student life or life in general?
Henry Bird: I’d say every now and again, to take a step back and assess. Don’t storm into something thinking it’s all going to work out without giving it some proper thought first. Once or twice I’d be in the middle of a challenge and think to myself “How did I possibly think I was going to be able to make a four-tier cake in three hours?” It’s a bit like in a seminar, sometimes if you’re the first one to say something and then you just keep talking and talking until you realize that you’ve drifted so far from your original point and that you’re now talking crap and then you realize that this sentence started well but has gone on far too long and now I should probably stop. That sort of thing.
Kate Luongo (DC): What is your dorm/apartment like? Can you describe your ideal study space?
Henry Bird: Durham is an incredibly small and cozy cathedral city, and as such, demand for student housing is astronomically high, so we were very lucky to end up with the house that we did. It’s situated next to the river, which is absolutely lovely to swim in, and all the windows overlook the countryside just beyond Durham. I usually divide my work time between my room and the main university library, which overlooks the cathedral on top of the hill—it’s a pretty special place.
Kate Luongo (DC): Do you have any advice for students seriously pursuing a hobby/passion during university?
Henry Bird: O.K., I know this question is geared to have a really inspirational and motivational answer, but I’m going to be a right killjoy here and say always remember why you went to university in the first place. I know that I want to enter the world of journalism and possibly television production when I graduate, but in the back of my mind I know that at the core of all that is doing myself proud with a good degree. God, I sound dull. Apologies for that.
“I know that I want to enter the world of journalism and possibly television production when I graduate, but in the back of my mind I know that at the core of all that is doing myself proud with a good degree.”
Kate Luongo (DC): What are your future plans after college (no pressure!)? Did GBBO alter your future aspirations?
Henry Bird: GBBO came along at the perfect time, in that once we finished filming, I immediately went into internships at “The Times” and “The I,” two national newspapers here in the UK. I couldn’t say anything about my involvement while there, but writing for them felt very natural, and having features published for the Arts desk convinced me that this was where I wanted to be. After “Bake Off” started airing, I pitched articles to them about all manner of things—musicals, organ-playing, baking, interviews, university life—and the more I wrote the more natural it became, and from there I began studying for a journalism diploma alongside my degree. None of that would have really been possible without the kickstart “Bake Off” gave me, and I am incredibly grateful for that.
Kate Luongo (DC): Have you remained friends with some of the contestants? If there was a GBBO contestant reunion show, would you be excited to return to the tent?
Henry Bird: “Bake Off” is the sort of show where, although 12 complete strangers are brought together to compete against one another for 10 weeks, the environment is conducive to friendship. You’re doing something you love, surrounded by people who love it as much as you, with a brilliant production team in the most beautiful countryside. Along the way you meet some people who will end up being friends for life and if there was ever a chance to have another day in the tent, we’d all absolutely jump at it. As I write this, I’m about to drive back up to university, and stopping off at Michael’s, Helena’s and Priya’s front gardens along the way, three bakers from our series (household mixing is banned at the moment because of COVID-19, so there’s a lot of sitting in front gardens going on!). Just need to wait for one of us to have a wedding, the wedding cake display is going to be quite something.
Kate Luongo (DC): And finally, what is your current favorite thing to bake (and eat!)?
Henry Bird: Genuinely in the last half an hour I have eaten close to half a kilogram of homemade baklava. It’s thin crispy pastry, it’s pistachios, it’s buttery, syrupy, scented, it’s manna from heaven, it’s perfect, and it’s also the reason I am now on a massive sugar high.