Published Feb 11, 2021Practically every successful reality show relies on a some toxic combination of tension, conflict and consumerism — except, of course, for The Great Canadian Baking Show. Now in its fourth season, the CBC cooking competition (a spinoff of England's beloved The Great British Bake Off) has found a niche as one of the most comforting, wholesome shows on television. Each year, a diverse group of loveable amateur bakers from across the country gather in a tent in North York for eight weeks of challenges to test their creativity and technical baking skill. At stake: a cake stand. That's it. That's the entire prize.
Even though they are technically in competition, the 10 contestants befriend and encourage one another, making The Great Canadian Baking Show a refreshing reprieve from stress-inducing cooking contests like MasterChef and Chopped. Even when bakes go disastrously wrong, as they inevitably do, there's always laughter and comforting words.
For the show's fourth season (premiering on CBC on Valentine's Day), judges Bruno Feldeisen and Kyla Kennaley return alongside two new hosts: comedians Alan Shane Lewis and Ann Pornel. Exclaim! phoned up the French-born Feldeisen at home in Vancouver to discuss what "Canadian cuisine" actually means, why baking is so different from cooking, and being in awe of the show's former host, Schitt's Creek creator and star Dan Levy.
So many other reality shows thrive on drama and conflict — what is it that makes The Great Canadian Baking Show so different?
I think, at the core, for the human being, you cook to survive. Baking is different. I think you bake to share. You bake for a special occasion. Nobody bakes a cake because they're starving to death. So I think it's more about celebration, about sharing. Bringing stuff to your office or bringing people together. So I think the approach is different. And also the way it's formatted. Baking is all about planning. Chemistry. Cooking, it's whatever, whenever, however you can do it.
I know because I do both. I'm trained as a pasty chef and as a regular chef. I always move back and forth, because sometimes I need that rush of energy and stress that I don't find as a pastry chef. But sometimes I love that serenity, that moment where you feel anchored in a specific time. I think baking gives you that joy.
There's always a sense of creativity. Baking a loaf of bread is like giving birth to something. There is an element of shaping with your hands, and an element of patience. You have to wait for the bread to proof and bake. So I think it brings different components to the table. I do both — I think there is value to both, but, definitely in baking and pastry, I think the core is that we do it to share with family and friends.
What's the most difficult part of a being a contestant on The Great Canadian Baking Show?
For them, it's a ton of stress. They are star-stuck, pinching themselves. "Is this for real? Am I here?" For me, I try not to make them feel uncomfortable, make them feel shy. We want to see that personality right away. We don't want them to be stressed. We don't want them to be scared by my presence or Kyla's presence. We have to give them room to be who they want to be. So it usually takes one or two episodes to really feel comfortable for them. I make them understand that we are all grateful for them to be here. If there are no bakers, there is no show. So I tell them, "We are super grateful that you took the time and you give us the energy and your passion to be here today." They come with us and spend a lot of time. Shooting days are long. Being in a different environment can be challenging. And then the weather: it's under a tent, and we shoot in Toronto in August, and it can be very hot. And it does effect everything: your energy level, your bake. We had a few times when it was 35 or 40 degrees Celsius under the tent, so you can imagine the added component of stress and challenge you have.
And you know what? There is some failure, but they all did it. We've never had a baker not do it. If you compare to other shows, there are often people who walk out, people who cannot do it, people who just throw their aprons on the floor. For us, in four seasons, we've never seen [that].
This show is based on the The Great British Bake Off. What makes the Canadian version different from other iterations of the concept around the world?
When I moved to Canada 15 years ago, my idea was, it's all about maple syrup and butter tarts and Nanaimo bars. But then you realize, no, it's much more than that. We have bakers with spices and flavours from faraway places and that, today, are part of the Canadian culinary tradition. There's immigrants coming from all over world. It's very diverse. Canadian food today is a huge spectrum, from spices to recipes. It's very complex. I think the Canadian version really shows that aspect that people from outside Canada will not grasp right away. We've seen it through the first three seasons, and it's in season four: it's very diverse, very rich in culture. That's the beauty, I think, of the Canadian version — there is room for everything.
As well as being a judge, you've competed on cooking TV shows. What did you learn about being a contestant from those experiences?
Nobody wants to go first — I think that's the biggest challenge. I tell the bakers, "Look guys, nobody wants to go home first, because you feel like it's raining, you're the worst of the worst." I'm like, "No!" First, to be there — the 10 best bakers in Canada are there, so that means a lot. To go home first, don't pay attention to it. You're given a beautiful a beautiful moment in time — enjoy it. That space and time given to you won't happen again. Don't waste it thinking, "If I lose in the first round, I'm a bad baker." It's not important. 'Cause I've seen it. I've done Chopped Canada, I've done Beat Bobby Flay. Of course you don't want to go home first because your ego's a bit bruised from it. But it's part of the game. It's mathematics: somebody has to go first. I always embrace it as the experience more than to win it. I never look at it like I'm going to win that $10,000 or that prize or whatever. For me it was that the experience is so unique. You cannot even describe what it is. It's like you are on a cloud for the moment of time you are there. That's more important.
What was it like filming this latest season during the pandemic?
We all went through specific training about COVID. So there were new rules and regulations. I took online classes, just to learn, because there was so much unknown about it. Once we were on set, it was a bit difficult at the beginning, because we should be distancing from the camera crew. The last three seasons, we were always hanging out, a very social group. On season four, we had to enforce a lot of rules on social time together.
Overall, I would say that it was 80 percent the same as previous years. Just a lot more hand-washing and sanitizing than we are used to, but the experience was as good. For me, it's always like a dream job. COVID or no COVID, we did it. We managed to create good TV. I think we were one of the first shows in production. Of anything that's shot in Toronto in August, I think we were one of the few ones to be back in business.
This season has new hosts. What was it like working with Alan Shane Lewis and Ann Pornel?
It's always hard for any host to move into a show that's four seasons in the making. They are all different: from Dan and Julia [Chan] in season one, to Aurora [Browne] and Caroline [Taylor], to Ann and Alan.
I've got to say: they studied, they did their training, or I don't know what they did. But they came in on day one and felt at home. That's a sign of a great personality and host. For me, I'm the oldest one on the show; I'm the only one [of the original cast]. I tried not to tell them what to do. I let them find their own groove, their own momentum, their own timing. I love television because it's truly magical how a camera and sound stage can create something very unique. They were, from day one, at ease, relaxed. If they were, they never showed it to me.
And they love cakes. They were craving cakes all the time. Because we eat a lot of cakes, I gain a few pounds during the filming. And sometimes I'm like, "I don't want to eat cakes anymore." It's a lot. We have 10 bakers, so you're talking about 30 cakes and sweets to try. So you're all wired by the time we wrap up filming, we're going crazy. So they were rock stars from day one, and they had a good time.
I'm not from the TV world, so just to be on-stage with people — like when I was with Dan, I watched Schitt's Creek and I never thought I would be sitting next to him doing a TV show. In season one, I was so stressed, I'm like, "Oh my god, Dan is next to me." So, for me, I take it as a blessing to work with great people. To work with professionals from diverse backgrounds.
And since then, Dan has become even more successful. Schitt's Creek just won nine Emmys.
Television crews, I always call them the crazies. People coming from all over, all walks of life. I think it's a very inclusive space. And when you talk to them: "Oh I worked with on that show with this guy." I'm a small guy from a small town in France. Right now I'm like, "Oh my god, what's happening to me?" I'm living the life. I'm grateful.
But, for sure, to be next to Dan — that was before, now he's on Saturday Night Live. I worked with two seasons with Dan on the show. I worked with Julia, who has done great on the CW [in Katy Keene]. I worked with Aurora and Caroline from Baroness Von Sketch. Every time I watch the show with my son, I'm like, "I can't believe we've hung out four seasons together." They all bring something different, and now with Alan and Ann. I'm immensely grateful for that experience and opportunity.
What advice would you give to home bakers?
Don't compare yourself to other bakers, other people you see. In baking, your biggest challenge is yourself. Any success is based on trial and error. Even for me — I do bake a lot and cook a look and, believe me, I do have my share of disastrous recipes myself. Over-proofed, over-baked. So, trial and error. Don't give up.