“Rahul, can you come here a minute, please?”
It was in the “Cake Week” episode of this sixth season of The Great British Bakeoff on Netflix (in real life, the ninth season of the show to air in the UK) that I thought to myself, “Paul Hollywood is that motherfucker.” Because for all the absurdity of Paul Hollywood—his grumpiness, his glares, his Blue Steel default face, the affair we know he had with Food Network’s Marcela Valladolid, his choice to stay with GBBO after hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins and co-judge Mary Berry left—my heart swelled for him that day when he called contestant Rahul Mandal forward and shook his hand. I might have cried. (LOL WHO AM I KIDDING OF COURSE I CRIED.)
Is the momentousness of the Paul Hollywood handshake totally overblown? Of course! Is the fact that Rahul got one during his Showstopper bake, the first time that happened in GBBO, wonderful regardless? Also of course! This latest season of GBBO that hit Netflix on Nov. 9 is full of brown-people-pride moments, and man, I just loved the whole damn thing.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THIS LATEST SERIES OF GBBO, BE AWARE
I’m always amazed (and depressed) by the contrast between how much narrative television loves to shove brown people (and by brown here I mean Middle Eastern, Arab, North African, Iranian, Muslim, you get the gist) into the “terrorist” box (I’m still salty over Roseanne, but I would like to note that Mr. Robot absolutely does not do this) and how often reality television, especially food television, loves to gush over brown people flavors, operating as a gateway into that region of the world. Saffron, cardamom, rosewater, pistachio, sour orange—these are the flavors I grew up with in my Iranian-American Muslim home, the ones that fellow Iranian-American Samin Nosrat speaks of lovingly in Netflix’s hit Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, and that are featured so often in various seasons (or series, if you’re British) of GBBO.
There is no reality show as diverse as GBBO, and that’s what keeps me coming back, even though I miss Mel, Sue, and Mary Berry. (Although I admit I’ve grown to adore Noel Fielding, and if he wants someone to give his leftover tunics to, I am available.) We’ve talked about the appeal of the program before here at Pajiba—the camaraderie between contestants, the intimate feeling of that white tent, the intricacy and effort required for those lovely and challenging bakes—but really, I’m always looking for the next Nadiya Hussain.
Because Nadiya’s season of GBBO is my constant, the one season of television I always cue up when I’m feeling down, honestly the thing I’ve probably rewatched most this year as our national nightmare has grown more bizarre. When Nadiya says “I’m never gonna say ‘I can’t do it.’ I’m never gonna say ‘maybe’”—I just dissolve and am then reborn. To see a woman in a headscarf, who just won a series of television, say that to countless viewers while asserting her selfhood and her strength—it means hella lot.
(Also shout out to Tamal, who could still get it.)
Rahul Mandal, the winner of this most recent season of GBBO, reminds me so much of Nadiya that I suppose I should have instantly known I would love him. He’s like Eeyore and Paddington put together into the body of an Indian research scientist who left his parents behind when he came to the UK, who calls his mother every day because he misses her desperately, and who cooks cakes and delivers them to strangers as a way to make friends. (Seriously—he takes a cake to the gym to befriend the people who work there.)
He is kind of neurotic and always apologizing for himself and never quite sure that what he’s done is right, but he just keeps going and keeps winning. As isolated by MissKayvee over at Tumblr,
He wins Star Baker in that “Cake Week” episode, when Paul shakes his hand for his Chocolate Orange Layer Cake, and then he wins Star Baker again the next week during “Bread Week,” when he bakes Mango and Cranberry Chelsea Buns (yum) and Garden Wedding Korovai (a Ukrainian wedding bread). In subsequent weeks, he returns to the flavors of ginger and cardamom and coriander; he pulls from his Indian heritage when making samosas and tartlets; when asked to bake a pastry in the form of a person, he chooses to create the look of an Indian king.
This is what we talk about when we talk about “representation.” Rahul is representing his cultural and national and ethnic and familial background with these bakes, and he’s joined by other contestants on this season who are doing the same thing and also happen to be brown: banker Antony Amourdoux (dreamy) and project manager Ruby Bhogal (dreamiest). How are these people so damn attractive?
I mean, how?
But Rahul, Antony, and Ruby aren’t monolithic. Antony notes during a naan challenge that the region of India where his family is from prefers roti, a round flatbread; Ruby complains later about the tediousness of making samosas; and when Ruby and Rahul have to use a stone slab over a fire in the final to make pita, they go through varying stages of irritation and amusement. They’re not immediately good at this stuff because they’re brown, but that GBBO included these recipes and these challenges is, again, representation, an acknowledgment that these baked goods require skill and nuance and perfection. You know how people complain about how “ethnic” food should be cheap? GBBO is undermining that (racist) idea by showing the complexity required to master these flavors. Yes, all the contestants struggle when Paul tasks them with making Ma’amoul, ancient Middle Eastern pastries filled with walnut and date paste, but that Paul chose a celebratory Arab cookie (eaten during Ramadan by Middle Eastern Muslims and Lent during Middle Eastern Christians) was unexpected in a way I appreciated very much.
There is this moment in the finale when Neil asks all the contestants to describe themselves in one word, and Rahul picked “Depressing,” and I’ve never felt more seen in that moment—I identified so strongly with Rahul and yet I so desperately wanted to reach through the television and give him a hug. Buzzfeed has already named him as one of the “most pure” GBBO contestants for admitting that he starts each morning with a glass of milk and for the friendship he developed with Ruby (and with the strangely lovely Noel, who declared himself Rahul’s “English Mummy” and kissed him on the cheek after his win) as the season progressed, but there’s more to Rahul’s appeal than that.
His story, like Nadiya’s, is about someone who never expected to be successful in this arena and yet who kept pressing forward, kept melting and stirring and proofing and baking, kept being surprised every time someone liked their bake, kept cynicism and negativity at bay. Rahul’s victory, in this season of GBBO that seemed to embrace brown representation so strongly, was a joy and an inspiration. Nadiya’s season has a new companion in my forever-rewatch list.
Image sources (in order of posting): Netflix Media Center, GBBO/Netflix, GBBO/Netflix, GBBO/Netflix, MissKayvee.Tumblr.com, MissKayvee.Tumblr.com, GBBO/Netflix, GBBO/Netflix, GBBO/Netflix, GBBO/Netflix, GBBO/Netflix, GBBO/Netflix