Discover Rowan Claughton’s journey from University of York student life to the famed Great British Bake Off tent. Rowan shares his best bakes, insights and memorable moments with Alumni Voices that illustrate the power of pursuing passion and seizing unexpected opportunities.
Listen to an audio clip of Rowan’s chocolate cake and life advice below:
“I graduated in June. I was in Derwent College, reppin’ D block and studying English Literature.
I had that party lifestyle in Derwent; then I went to my lectures and seminars in English. It felt quite yin and yang having the evening to go wild and then reading books and being all literate in the day.
I should say all the seminars and the reading and the books and the lectures but it wasn’t – it was afterwards, in the house. My favourite memories were just getting back to our house in year two and three; sitting down after each seminar, watching telly and – it’s so cliche and it does make me want to barf saying it but – having our little family time. After you’ve had a stressful day, you sit down together and we’d get ready for a night out or we’d always be doing something in the evening. I think that day to day life spent with people you love, who I met at York was just the pinnacle. I spent the first two years in lockdown so it was hard to have a normal university experience without those by my side.
I’d advise current students to say yes to things, (within reason, of course) but if there’s something you want to do, if you’ve been invited somewhere or you want to take an optional module out of curiosity – just do it. Life’s too short to say no to these things. You’re at university for three years – this isn’t your life forever. I think York is a really great place for that because it has places you can go out to eat, there’s classes out in your community like portrait painting or cooking, and it does break up the academic side of university because it can be quite intense to have all this workload put on you, so to break it up say yes to fun things as well as doing your work.
I’ve always baked. I’ve never been a footballer or into sport so for me it began by learning different types of baking and it became my hobby. When I got to university it died down a bit. I got busy. You do think, ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered to make a 40 tier cake in this uni kitchen’. But it was at university that I started picking up baking again for my friends that made me think I’d apply to the Bake Off. I’d already applied before and I just wanted to see what would happen because I was really getting back into it.
We used to do bits and bobs at home when I was young like every family but I used to go deeper into how to do different elements of baking. I started cooking by learning from YouTube – basically I’m an annoying Gen Z who learned how to live on YouTube and social media; Cupcake Jemma was the woman who taught me everything I know. Practice makes perfect and I didn’t get it right the first time. I’ve had some terrible baking faux pas as we’ve seen on the big screen as well as in my kitchen privately but you just have to keep at it and if you do enjoy something, it doesn’t matter if it does go completely wrong, because you’ll do it again and it’s still as fun as the last time you ruined it. Trial and error. You can’t be afraid to fail.
I wanted to apply because I was doing English literature and I didn’t know what I wanted to do after my degree. I don’t want to be a teacher, or write novels, or go back to academia. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place of working in a shop or becoming a teacher; I didn’t want to do either of those things. So I thought, ‘You know what, I’ll apply for a bake off and that can be my gap year after uni.’ I never thought I’d get it. I’d applied to a journalist job actually with the BBC and on the same day I was declined from that (thank goodness! I did not want to do it, it was just what I felt like I should do) I was accepted by Bake Off. It was a real full circle moment. In the morning the BBC told me I’m not good enough and then in the afternoon Channel Four told me I was going on the Bake Off.
The application process lasts six months so I was at university doing what I needed to do to get my degree thinking I’ll never get on Bake Off. The whole time I was saying to myself, ‘Look, it’s just a fluke. They can see straight through you. I’m not good enough.’ You have to go to London and take different bakes and be filmed doing a technical live – I think it’s just to tell if you’ve got a personality. At the end of the day, they need to make a TV show and, well, apparently I’ve got a personality and lord knows I can bake so there you are!
“I feel like it’s reflective of the real world as well, because people are nice and people do get on. The Bake Off is a real life representation of different people from different backgrounds all getting on and that’s why I love it.”
I think for the first week we had two months to send in our preliminary recipes to a food producer so it can be gone through to check that you’ve actually written the recipes yourself and it can be done in the allocated time. That was the hardest part; not the going on telly, not the baking in a boiling tent. It was that I’ve got a dissertation to write but I’m going to bake four loaves of bread instead because I’d rather do Bake Off than pass my dissertation. It was an awful mindset but you only live once!
My first memory of the show was standing on the bench on the first day – we had to do different shots of us just standing at the bench and you had to stare at the front of the tent. It’s all very still and serious. And we just heard Alison’s voice laughing and I just broke down and was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s Alison Hammond – my idol!’
After the first challenge on day one, it all went very well and I was shocked. I didn’t understand how it had gone so well because two days ago I was at a party (steaming) – I shouldn’t say that – but now I’m in the Bake Off with celebs and producers and really important people and I’m just winging it. That was a moment for me which I’ll never forget.
The chocolate torte was my favourite signature bake – it had a very Ritz or Claridges vibe and was really well received. It’s bad to say but everybody else didn’t do as well from that challenge – it was the only standout one which is the only time that ever happened for me. Again it was a fluke. But it was quite nice to be recognized for that by Paul and Prue and it did look beautiful. It’s on my Extra Slice Cake; forever immortalised in sugar.
I think the bread was the most challenging bake. Let’s be honest, it was monstrous. I didn’t want to do a normal cottage loaf, like a white or wholemeal bread and make it look perfect. I wanted something different. I did a very awkward dough which was quite wet and loose, more of a focaccia dough which isn’t meant to be stacked on top of each other, so that was a bit of a letdown for me. I was good at the signatures and all of a sudden I’ve got this huge monstrous loaf looming over everybody else’s.
I learned a lot from Paul about how to make bread when mine didn’t go too well. In biscuit week somebody had used marzipan and I overheard that Prue loves a bit of marzipan. I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to put marzipan in my bread next week.’ So I did my final tweaks, got the recipe into the producer and the only redeeming quality for my bread showstopper was the fact I put marzipan in a challah loaf, and Prue loved it so that’s probably what kept me in – making that last minute decision to put marzipan in the bread. I don’t really like marzipan to be honest, but in bread it adds a bit of flavour.
Chocolate week was the most difficult technical challenge. We had to make caramelised white chocolate cheesecakes and I approached it with fear and anger and came third. So if that tells you anything about the world, be an awful person and you will get far! I remember saying, ‘I’m going to set up a charity for anybody who’s worked with caramelised white chocolate,’ and I stand by it because it was a horrendous task; in the heat of chocolate week, bending over a microwave with the caramelised white chocolate slowly melting away and cracking at the seams. It was horrible. I’ve never done anything like that. Because it’s a technical, I couldn’t turn to whoever was behind me and say ‘Look, I need help,’ because everybody can hear you – it’s proper serious. You can’t speak to people during a technical. I thought it was fake and all for TV but you really can’t speak to anyone.
“Every first draft that goes wrong that doesn’t dishearten you, just means you get better and learn from those mistakes.”
We all forgot we were in a competition. We knew we were on telly but we just helped each other. We guessed what the different technicals were going to be and how to make them. It was that camaraderie and wanting to help each other, which trumped any sign of competition. I’m sure towards the end people wanted to boot each other out, but I didn’t get that far. So what I felt for my 5 weeks was pure joy and actual friendships being formed. I’d rather have left myself than booted somebody out.
I feel like it’s reflective of the real world as well, because people are nice and people do get on. The Bake Off is a real life representation of different people from different backgrounds all getting on and that’s why I love it.
My favourite showstopper has to be the lobster cake in week one. I mean, why would I choose a lobster? It was the weirdest split decision I’ve ever made in my life. But I thought it’s different, it’s unique. I could toy around with different flavours and make it look as good as possible. We had to make a 3D animal and I made it as flat as possible to get the upper hand and it worked. I was proud of that one. It was my first as well so it will always be dear to me.
The hardest ones were every single showstopper after the first week. You just don’t get enough time and the pressure gets to you. You’re tired, you’ve just done a 16 hour day before and before you even start the showstopper you’d been awake for four hours at five o’clock in the morning so they were tricky. I remember chocolate week was particularly grotesque. It was boiling hot. Tasha just passed out for God’s sake! It was so dramatic and I’m just flailing about with chocolate. Honestly, I was losing it. I’d gone a bit hyper manic laughing with people. I find the ones that go wrong the funniest and most enjoyable ones because when everything goes right it is so boring. Nothing really went wrong with the lobster. It was great and it is my favourite but it was just ‘cake’; put some icing on, looks great – Bon appetit. I want some drama.
Nothing goes to waste. All the crew have forks or spoons in their back pockets and we’ll be sent back to our dressing room in between bakes and the producers will bring in a big tray of bakes so we can try them all.
We used to go back to the hotel and get slightly merry in the bar. After a 16 hour day it was necessary, having a little drink together and just feeling that relief of the day and supporting the person who had left as well was always nice. It brought us together even more because over that weekend we did spend every second with each other which is why we’re so close. Similar to my favourite memory of university, just having that close, chilled out bonding time with people rather than the actual thing itself.
It was a learning curve and I think now I’d bake more to have fun. I’m not too serious about it. Whereas before Bake Off everything had to be perfect, I’ve realised now after going on telly and it not being perfect it still tastes good. It can look good but there’s no point putting so much time and effort into something which is going to be gone in seconds. Unless I’m going to sell it to someone then it’s going to look incredible and be perfect but baking for four hours frantically teaches you to slow down and just enjoy it rather than be so intense about how good how spot on it’s got to be.
Alison came into our dressing room and told us that she was second to leave Big Brother and look at her now so we’ve got every hope in the world to do something afterwards. She’s just the best.
Since Bake Off I’ve worked with a lot of cool brands and people on different recipes and hopefully doing a bit of food writing this year in a couple of magazines, sharing my recipe secrets. I will be the new cupcake Jemma, people can come to me. But for now I’m keeping it chill, making some videos.
My advice to aspiring bakers who’d like to go on Bake Off is just keep baking and keep applying – you probably won’t get on your first time. If you’ve only just started baking or you want to be baking give it a couple of years and try different things – look at what people from Bake Off have been baking and try, fail, try again. Just don’t be disheartened when it goes wrong because it will go wrong. I bake, I do recipe testing and developing. Every first draft that goes wrong that doesn’t dishearten you, just means you get better and learn from those mistakes. Apply, apply, apply for every series you possibly can and you will get on.”