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Calcutta boy Rahul Mandal lifts The Great British Bake Off trophy

Finalists were given four-and-a-half hours to make a landscape dessert, painting a picture with cake, pastry and biscuits

By Amit Roy in London
  • Published 31.10.18, 8:40 PM
  • Updated 1.11.18, 12:45 AM
  • 6 mins read
Rahul Mandal flanked by The Great British Bake Off judges Paul Hollywood (left) and Prue Leith Agency picture

Calcutta boy Rahul Mandal snatched victory from what appeared at one stage to be certain defeat when he beat fellow finalists Ruby Bhogal and Kim-Joy Hewlett to win the final of The Great British Bake Off on Channel 4 on Tuesday night.

All seemed lost for 30-year-old Rahul when a storage jar exploded in the extreme heat in the kitchen tent, showering glass all over his ingredients.

“This is a sign from God that I need to stop baking,” was Rahul’s first reaction.

But as the producers cleared up, the judges, Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, gave him an extra 15 minutes to finish his triumphant showstopper.

The finalists were given four-and-a-half hours to make a landscape dessert, painting a picture with cake, pastry and biscuits. Rahul created a rock garden, inspired by Victorian explorers bringing back exciting plants from around the world.

All three contestants struggled during the technical challenge, when they had to leave the tent and bake outdoors for the first time. Tasked with cooking six pitta breads and three dips on top of a campfire, the trio found managing the flames to be an unexpected difficulty.

Rahul branded his breads “an utter disgrace”, while Ruby said hers were “diabolical”.

Kim-Joy fared slightly better and went on to win the challenge, with Rahul coming second.

As Rahul was named the winner, Ruby, 29, a Punjabi project manager with London Underground, and Kim-Joy, 27, a mental health specialist who is the daughter of an English father and a Malaysian-Chinese mother, very sportingly joined in the applause.

But Rahul, recipient of many handshakes over the last 10 weeks and now a hug from the normally very demanding Hollywood, seemed lost for words.

“I talk so much, most of the time, and I just don’t know what to say now,” he said.

“I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry, I just feel I need to talk with my mum,” he wailed.

An ecstatic Rahul, seen here with the other two finalists, Ruby Bhogal and Kim-Joy Hewlett
An ecstatic Rahul, seen here with the other two finalists, Ruby Bhogal and Kim-Joy Hewlett Agency picture
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Which is what he did by calling Calcutta.

Leith said: “I think the amazing thing about Rahul and why I am so proud of him is that he came in unconfident, but he just kept going, and he never reined in his ambition, he always tried to do a bit more than everybody else, and it paid off.”

Hollywood added: “He is one of those characters that you will miss when you are not with him. You know his intensity sometimes is amazing, and he is so good at what he does, but I don’t think he realises still how good he actually is and I think that’s what’s magic about Rahul.”

His victory is all the more remarkable as he did not even start baking until two years ago. He moved from Calcutta to Loughborough University eight years ago to do a PhD in “optical metrology”, and now lives in Rotherham in Yorkshire with an English couple, Liz and David. He works in Sheffield University’s Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, where he specialises in “light-based measurement of engineered components”.

It was his wont to start each day by drinking a glass of milk, apparently following his mother’s instructions. Her daily prayers from Calcutta have clearly paid off, with her son’s victory proving a popular one, not least because he came across more often than not as little boy lost.

“Rahul Putter”, as he was dubbed by one food critic, admitted it was “magic” to get a pat from J.K. Rowling, who has been among the nine million viewers of Bake Off.

The Harry Potter author tweeted: “And in a hundred years time @qikipedia will do the space age version of a tweet explaining that turmeric first became an essential component of Yorkshire pudding when Prime Minister Rahul Mandal (2019-2028) added it during a cooking competition he won before running for office.”

Narendra Modi needn’t worry. Rowling’s reference is to 10 Downing Street, rather than 7 Race Course Road.

With three contestants of Asian ethnicity in the final, it is inevitable some conclusions are being drawn about the nature of modern Britain, much of it favourable.

For example, Indian origin author Sathnam Sanghera observed: “An Indian engineering researcher living in Sheffield with an English couple and winning a British baking show by making mango-filled doughnuts. Nice to be reminded that despite our stupid politics, this is Britain in 2018.”

One viewer agreed: “I cannot express the ways I love Rahul — this show is everything I love about the UK and being British in all its diversity.”

Perhaps they do have a point. In 2015, when Bake Off was still on the BBC, Nadiya Hussain, a Bangladeshi mother in a hijab, was the winner, edging out another Calcutta boy, Tamal Kumar Ray. Nadiya has since become a very successful author and TV presenter. In 2014, Chetna Makan, an Indian-origin contestant, did very well to survive until week eight.

Their success can perhaps be explained by their willingness to add Indian spices, especially cardamom, to traditional English recipes.

In the case of Rahul, though, his very haplessness and inability to get along without his mother appears to have endeared him to many.

According to The Independent newspaper, “perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment this year was Rahul’s calling his proud mother to say he won. A lovely moment to end the series on.”

The Daily Mail said: “One thing is certain: if it takes a nervous disposition, a slightly nutty character and a disarming lack of self-confidence to make a Bake Off hero, then Rahul Mandal, who emerged blinking and victorious at the end of this series, fits the bill perfectly.”

The Daily Telegraph did an in-depth analysis of Rahul’s victory: “Rahul’s signature doughnuts were decent — all the more impressive when you consider that he’d never eaten a doughnut, let alone made one, prior to this challenge. In the campfire technical, he blinked and whimpered in the smoke like a startled dormouse in a stubble-burnt field, but somehow came second.

“Ultimately, though, it was that Rock Garden dessert showstopper — touchingly designed as a metaphor for how Rahul himself had blossomed since coming to the UK from India on a university scholarship eight years ago — that propelled him to victory.

“Parts of it looked like a sludgy mess but as ever with Rahul, it was ambitious (featuring an astonishing 200 individual items) and packed with wow-factor flavours: buttercream plants nestled between cardamom-filled choux rocks, perched atop a chocolate orange cake and lemon jaconde sponge. Not to mention an orange curd pond with ginger biscuit stepping stones. You don’t find those down at Homebase.”

“His win was a triumph of unassuming talent and made for a magical TV moment. Besides, it would take a heart of stone to begrudge Rahul victory after seeing him Skype his proud mother back in India and hearing the tributes from his Yorkshire ‘family’, colleagues David and Liz, who first encouraged him to take up baking and apply for the show.

“When (knocked out contestants) Jon Jenkins, Luke Thomson and Antony Amourdoux hoisted the reluctant Rahul onto their shoulders, it had the air of an Indian wedding and made a lovely final frame.”

The paper summed up why Rahul was so likeable: “Apologetic to the end, Rahul managed to mumble: ‘I’m going to learn how not to say sorry so much. Sorry about that!’ It’s such modest charm that makes him such a refreshing winner. In a reality TV landscape of Love Island poseurs, Apprentice boasters and X Factor wannabes with pound signs in their gimlet eyes, both Bake Off and Rahul are breaths of fresh air. They’ll be dancing in the streets of Rotherham and Kolkata tonight.”

Rahul responded: “I have no idea what the reaction will be back home. An Indian paper published a story recently about me taking part, and the family were surprised as I didn’t really tell anyone at home that I was taking part, so they will get a shock when they see the result.”

The final was recorded in the summer with the results kept secret until Tuesday.

Rahul revealed: “I watched the final with my parents who are over from India, and friends and colleagues. It was very emotional but it was lovely to have the people who have helped me throughout my Bake Off journey watch it with me.”

What next for Rahul who can expect a book deal at the very least and a possible TV show or two with trips to Calcutta to do programmes on Bengali cuisine?

It does not look as though he will abandon his career as a scientist: “Bake Off has given me a new family, I felt I had a mum, dad, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, as everyone in the Bake Off tent supported me in a weird and wonderful way. It was a very lovely experience with so many happy memories that I will never forget.

“I love my work as a research scientist, and I think baking is a combination of physics, engineering and chemistry. Baking and science are very related, the ratios have to be correct to make it work. I would like to make the science behind baking more accessible to everyone.”