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July 7, 2020
Vallery Lomas and Ruby Tandoh on New Cookbooks and Old Food Media

A conversation between the two Great Baking Show contestants and authors on deadline.

The popular Great Baking Show competitions in America and the UK introduced many of us to Vallery Lomas and Ruby Tandoh. Lomas won the US show’s third season in 2017, which was canceled by ABC after only one episode aired after judge Johnny Iuzzini was widely accused of sexual misconduct; Tandoh placed as runner-up in the original BBC version in 2013. Each battled in trenches lined with butter and turbinado sugar in a competition that eventually crowned a top amateur baker, leading to overnight fame and attention. But these are just a few lines in biographies that continue to be written at an Asimovian clip.

Tandoh has published three books, with a fourth cookbook in the works that will bring into focus how people, all people, actually cook day after day—in contrast to the weird assumptions and aspirational posturing. “I don’t want to be giving people another standard to live up to. I want to be letting people live in their own skin,” she says. Lomas was a lawyer working at the Department of Justice before her time on TV, and she has developed a wide following through her recipes and videos at the Foodie In New York website and Instagram account. She’s also working on a book, scheduled to be published in 2021.

As part of a new series of conversations that we’re publishing on TASTE, taking inspiration from Andy Warhol’s Interview, we’re asking leading voices in food to sit down and have a conversation about the topics that are most important to them. We feel incredibly lucky that Lomas and Tandoh, who had never met, accepted our invitation to hop on Zoom on June 18, with Lomas speaking from Boston and Tandoh from London. The conversation dives deep at parts, and surfaces with a fresh understanding of their shared experiences with regard to Blackness, book publishing, and the stress in seeking a Hollywood handshake.

Ruby: It’s really nice to actually speak to you properly.

Vallery: I know. Hi!

Ruby: How are you doing? What have you been doing today?

Vallery: Oh gosh, what have I done? I’ve answered a ton of emails, because there are a lot of people, and brands and publications, trying to figure out how to really diversify the different people that they publish and that they work with.

Ruby: That must be intense, right? From systemic underengagement to suddenly everything at once. That’s great in a way, as individuals. But then, you know, it’s a weird one to navigate.

Vallery: It really is. I mentioned to someone last week, I was like, “I’m baking as the world is burning,” which is this very interesting, yet parallel in so many ways, thing that’s happening. But I’m baking to help, A, maintain my sanity, because of the mindfulness of it. It’s why I was drawn to baking initially. And B, I’m baking because it’s a way to not just express myself but share with other people—just a bit of love.

Ruby: That ties into something that I wanted to ask you, which was about—I mean, for me, I’ve always wrestled with the fact that baking and cookbook publishing and the food world in general can be quite conservative. Like maybe not officially conservative, but you know, in its essence, it’s about maintaining something, it’s about tradition, and it’s about comfort and stability, as opposed to revolution and change. And so I’ve always wrestled with, like, how can I be in this weird, quite conservative industry and balance that with actually wanting things to be different? So I’m curious to hear from you, how does baking and cookbook publishing actually—how do you make that what you want it to be and not just fall into being comfortable and maintaining the same old stuff?

Vallery: That’s a great question and something that I struggle with personally, and I’ve watched you, Ruby, on Twitter and social media and wherever you have a platform, just using your voice to speak out about the injustices that you see and what you think recipe writing and food media should be. And I would like to hear more of what you have to say about that—because it’s so weird. Because I love cookbooks, right? I love collecting them, I love cooking from them, and I love just reading them. But sometimes I’m like, “If I, someone who is willing to devote like three days to a recipe, won’t even make this, like, who is this for?” Like, who is this recipe for? I don’t know.

But I have just tried to ask myself, or remind myself, what is my style, and how do I make sure that I’m being true to myself and what I love to bake, or even what I love to cook, you know? Because I’m from Louisiana, so, of course, Southern food and ingredients and all of that is a huge part of who I am. But I also love to travel. I majored in French, I lived in France, and it’s like, as a Black woman, am I allowed to make macarons? And am I allowed to love working with puff pastry? And, you know, are people going to look at me and be like, well, shouldn’t she be making a pecan pie? These are questions that I not only think about, but that people kind of project onto me as well. So that is a tough thing to balance.

Ruby: How are you managing that with your cookbook then? Have you had to push back editorially, or have you been given the freedom to kind of do what you want?

Vallery: I think that whenever I get pushback, not just with my cookbook, but in general, I kind of try to hold back my initial inclination, which is to argue my case, because going to law school and actually practicing law for many years—it makes you argumentative, it makes you defensive about things. And I’m like, I have all these great arguments as to why my side is the right side. But what I’m trying to do instead is just let my work speak for me.

So when I do get pushback, I kind of make a mental note, and I don’t necessarily make the adjustment at that time. I’m like, I want you to see how this all fits together. And then, if you have a critique or something that we can talk through or work through then, great, let’s talk about it. Because I also value your expertise. And I want something that, in a book, makes sense and is telling a single story. So I’m trying to tamper back my initial inclination to be reactive.

I majored in French, I lived in France, and it’s like, as a Black woman, am I allowed to make macarons?

Ruby: Yeah, I get that. I mean, I am constantly just being reactive and then—I don’t always regret it—in fact, most of the time I don’t regret it—but the 20 percent of the time that I do regret it, I’m like, I really need to learn to just sit with things, even just for like a few hours before I go off.

Vallery: It’s so interesting, because when you shared on Instagram a few days ago about the topic of your next book, I had literally just had a conversation with someone about how, right now, pantry cooking is in vogue. It seems like six months ago, if you were like, let’s take food and cans and stuff in your pantry and make exciting meals out of it, people would not have been turned on by that, right? But now that it’s in vogue and it’s this thing that you have kind of been focused on for a while now, how did that feel to have that crystallized and come together as your opportunity to publish a book?

Ruby: I mean, I think I mainly just was feeling like, even with some of the cookbooks that I’ve seen come out in the UK in the last year or 18 months, some of them have been about that kind of like “economical cooking” and “cooking with cans” and that kind of thing. But even though they’ve been ostensibly made with that in mind, I just found them so aspirational, the way that they were branded, the kinds of ingredients that were used, and stuff like that. A recipe doesn’t always say, straight up, this is for someone who has loads of time on their hands or whatever, but you read between the lines, and it says so much in the details.

I noticed this host of cookbooks that were meant to make cooking accessible but weren’t really. Or they were about elevating accessible cooking, which is kind of a contradiction in terms. So I wanted to do something that was pushing back against that. And it wasn’t about like, “Here’s my beautiful life that you can mimic.” It’s, “Here’s what you can make within the confines of your own kitchen and your own life, whatever that means.” So, yeah, that feels exciting. I’m not the first person to ever do it. I’m not deluded about that, but this feels important. It feels like the way I want to do food. I don’t want to be giving people another standard to live up to. I want to be letting people live in their own skin.

Vallery: One thing I’ve also noticed during this quarantine period, with the pandemic, the idea of not having to use a lot of fancy equipment is really important, because more people are cooking and baking than have really ever even had time to before—due to working from home, due to unemployment, due to so many different things. And I remember when you were on the Great British Bake Off, you were always kneading the bread by hand. I think you were saying, this is just something you could do as you were doing other things, or in between studying and all of that kind of stuff. And just the concept of kneading dough by hand, it’s so interesting, because that’s almost been lost to the modernization of dough hooks and stand mixers. I think all of those kinds of things are slowly making a comeback, but I just remember watching it, and I was like, wow, she’s kneading the dough by hand.

I don’t want to be giving people another standard to live up to. I want to be letting people live in their own skin.

Ruby: It feels now like a statement. But the fact of the matter was that when I was filming, I was living in this rented room in a house in Northwest London, and the kitchen was tiny, and the shared space was filthy, and there were some contentious issues around my flatmates. So I did most of my prep on a table in my room. I didn’t have equipment, so I’d knead by hand, and I’d mix cakes up by hand. And I’d even whisk meringues by hand. Only a couple of times—that was plenty enough for me for a lifetime. But that was just the way that I was having to bake.

So then I got into the Bake Off tent, and they had these beautiful stand mixers and stuff, and I was like, I don’t actually know how to use this. Like, I don’t feel confident with this. So that was just circumstance. But yeah, it’s kind of, I guess it channels into the way I think about food now. I’m interested to hear more about your experience with the baking show as well. It’s such a weird thing, right? I feel like we have a kind of an understanding, having both come through that system. I’m really curious to hear: How did you find it, and did it come naturally to you? Is it something that’s in character for you to go on a baking show?

Vallery: [Laughing] It’s so weird. It’s kind of surreal in a lot of ways, right? Because we are just normal people. We weren’t professionals, and you’re just kind of plucked and put into this very intense environment, with extreme competition on the baking end of things—but just as big was the production element of it. And I think that’s something that I wasn’t necessarily anticipating. I was like, “Oh, it’s a baking competition!” But I think it’s a television production first.

Even though it’s a baking competition, it’s not how you would normally bake at home, because there are all of these parameters to make things almost game show–like. Can you get your flaky pie crust ready with a custard filling in this amount of time that no one would ever use to make a pie in? I just remember, being there, it was so strange. And I just felt such intense pressure all the time. I remember watching it, because there was a season that was playing while we were filming. And our production crew was the same crew of the Great British Bake Off. So I remember asking, “They look so calm on the show. Were they calm? Or were they like us?” And you learn about the magic of editing.

In some ways, it was amazing, because I was surrounded by people like me, who love to bake. And I think it’s a certain kind of person who likes to bake. So in some ways, it was like summer camp. It was like, “Oh, we’re all doing the same thing at the same time.” And I would say most people were very generous with, you know, giving advice or lending you their rolling pin. Because we were living there the whole time. We were there for four and a half weeks. It was like summer camp, but it was also like the Hunger Games, because it was just so intense, and it did feel like some people would, you know, kill you to make it on to the next level. I can think back now and look at it fondly and have positive memories. So that’s a good thing. But what about you? You were in one of the earlier seasons.

Ruby: Yeah. I had the same experience of it being like summer camp. The people who were on my season, we were so wildly different, from different walks of life and everything, but there was a really lovely bond—I think just going through something that stressful with people, you can’t help but have a rapport. So that was nice. But I’m still grappling with it now. Like, how do I reconcile the view that I have of myself, and then the reality of me being a reality TV contestant. Like, that’s so weird. And one thing that, as you mention, was the editing process—that it is a production first. My experience of that is that it was largely fine. I think, for the most part, the panic that you saw or might’ve seen on camera of me was pretty indicative of the way I was in the tent, but then there are some things that they play up and some things that they play down. And then, I dunno, I found that I had watched back on myself, and I was like, who is that person? And why does it look like this thing is happening that didn’t happen and stuff? I’m curious about, like, do you, did you feel like the editing process gave a clear picture of you, or was it a bit alien?

Vallery: My experience is different because the show never aired. So it wasn’t like there was this construct of me that was put out into the world that I then had to contend with. Like, “Is that really me?”

Ruby: There are some clips, right? Like, there’s little excerpts of it, right?

Vallery: Yeah. It’s really hard to tell, because I didn’t even see most of the episodes until maybe like a year later or so. And I’ve only watched them once or twice, because it is just an emotional thing to kind of grapple with still. But when the premiere aired, I would say it was interesting watching what Paul Hollywood and the other judge were saying, you know, when they were in their little gazebo. It was so interesting to hear what they had to say that we didn’t get to hear. After I saw the premiere, I was like, “Oh, that actually is generally about how things were.” But there were some things that I was like, how did that not make it in? That was so pivotal . . . But I think when we were filming, I did notice that it didn’t matter how great your bake was or how awful it was. Each judge would say something positive and something negative, at least. So I was like, okay, so they’re going to see how this fits into the show to see what part they need to play up.

Ruby: It’s weird. And then you’re forced to confront your own ideas about what constitutes success. Is it the judgments, which are heavily edited and constructed for TV? How do you figure out whether you’ve done a good job or not? It’s a weird one.

Vallery: That’s a really good point because I remember, I want to say, I don’t know at what point we were in the season, but there were like, murmurs, like Paul hasn’t given enough Hollywood handshakes, you know. So for the next round, it was like, “Oh, here come the handshakes.” It is interesting because, in one way, you are being judged relative to the other people who you’re baking with. And you’re also being judged relative to whatever the challenge is—because some of the challenges, like I said, they just don’t make sense with your best practices for baking. That’s a really good question. Like, how do we measure success? And I think that’s an ongoing thing that I struggle with constantly.

It was like summer camp, but it was also like the Hunger Games, because it was just so intense, and it did feel like some people would, you know, kill you to make it on to the next level.

Ruby: Not just success now, but—like, in this industry now, you’ve come out of the competition and, you know, that was so complicated for you because of the show not airing and everything. And now you’re in this position where you’re writing a cookbook, and I guess you’re being faced now with, like, what will constitute a success for this cookbook? What means that I’ve done it right? What means that I haven’t done it right? Like, how do you calculate that for yourself?

Vallery: I mean, yeah. I’ve realized—it’s so interesting because I think the process of writing, it’s so, in a way, isolating, but also you kind of shine a spotlight on your own life. And I’ve realized that I’m a perfectionist in many ways, which is kind of ironic because I’m an all-over-the-place, messy-room kind of person. But I have this layer of perfectionism that I can’t let impede me putting something out into the world, which I have done in the past. And I actually think the baking show helped me with that, because I was so focused on my baking being perfect. So when I left the show, I was like, I don’t care if something isn’t just right. Like, it doesn’t even matter anymore [laughing]. If I bake something and it’s not perfect, it actually doesn’t matter.

But as far as the cookbook and other terms of how I measure success, that is something that I’m still figuring out. And as far as the process of writing my manuscript, I just told myself, “I want to write the best book that I can write.” I want to set internal measures. I want to write something that I am like, “I am so proud of this. I know this has my best, most favorite recipes that are written the best way I can, with me telling the most honest, authentic, yet still uplifting, story with a happy ending.” Because it is a happy ending. And I think that that’s how I want to view my life, like just with an optimistic viewpoint that even though you hit little bumps along the way, things can still come out of the oven and taste delicious.

I would love to sell copies of books, because, you know, I want to, like, pay my rent and save money for retirement and all that kind of stuff. That sounds like . . . [laughing]

Ruby: I mean, that stuff is important. Isn’t it? Like, at the end of the day, everyone needs to pay their bills as well. And it’s really difficult to balance that with the idealism that we have as, I feel like, as food writers. Everyone’s such a perfectionist, and everyone cares so much about what they’re doing, and you want to make cooking better for people, but you also have to confront the reality of like, I need to be able to pay my rent, which is a weird position to be in. And it’s weird. I don’t know, I find it difficult thinking, how can I make food better for people in general? Like, I really want to strip away the elitism and strip away this idea that to eat well, you need to be earning loads of money or whatever. And I’m having to do that within this really rigid capitalist framework, which feels like it’s such a barrier to so many of the conversations that we want to be having. So that is the eternal dilemma, isn’t it?

Vallery: When you got your column with the Guardian, were you like, “Yes!”? Because that’s so huge. Or did you have those markers, where you allowed yourself to celebrate a big win?

Ruby: Do you know what? When I got the Guardian column—so it was shortly after my season of the baking show went out. I don’t think I realized how big it was. And so I was really happy with it, and I loved testing every week. Loved coming up with new recipes, loved writing them—but I didn’t realize quite how big it was. But I think in a weird way, that was a blessing, because after maybe 18 months, they replaced me with someone else. And then I got brought back for a short period of time, and then I quit. And the fact that I wasn’t too tied to the prestige of the thing and that I hadn’t really clocked just how rare it is to get that opportunity meant that when the time came that I was like, “Do you know what? I’m not actually happy doing this,” I didn’t feel like I was throwing my whole life down the toilet. I was just like, “Do you know what? This is . . . Alright, I’m not happy doing this, so I’m not gonna do it, and it doesn’t really align with what I value at the moment.” So that was a weird thing. But every now and again, I look back, and I’m like, shit, like, why didn’t I enjoy that? Like, why didn’t I ride around like a queen while I had that? But you know what? It comes with its own set of conflicts and stuff.

Vallery: That is such a good point, because even when you’re living the dream, and you are at this place that so many people in our industry are aspiring to get to, and it’s like, “How did you get there?” You know, nothing is gonna ever be just smooth and all, you know, gumdrops and sugar flowers and whatever else.

Ruby: To what extent do you feel like Bake Off has been instrumental for you—like getting this cookbook out and everything? Like, do you feel like you would have got here eventually under your own steam, or was Bake Off crucial for you?

Vallery: I definitely think competing on a popular television show gives you a launching pad and is a catalyst—I just don’t see how I could have gotten in the door otherwise, because I’m still struggling so hard to get into doors. Even with that, you know, that title under my belt and all of that other stuff. I think it’s something that—I think, in a way, I always knew I wanted to write a cookbook. I mean, I had been blogging for years. I had been writing about food and traveling and being inspired by the food in different places. So I think the stories have always been in my heart, but would I have even been able to envision that reality of it? As something that was actually possible? I just don’t see how it would come together otherwise, without having that launching pad and that catalyst of giving a publisher something to hold on to and say, “Hey, this person has a story that people might want to read.” How do you feel about that?

Ruby: I feel like it was definitely instrumental. I wouldn’t have been doing any of this without Bake Off, which is annoying to have to admit, but it’s the truth. I definitely wouldn’t be doing this, and every now and again, I feel really guilty about it. Like genuinely, I think, I got here because I was on a reality TV show. To what extent have I earned my place? And, you know, there are people who start at the bottom, and work and work and work doing blogging, and then whatever, and their career builds. And I kind of feel like I skipped a lot of that, but then at the same time, I feel like, to be honest, I came from a working-class family, and I’m a queer woman of color. And so I’ll give myself this stepping stone, like, I’ll take that. Like if that has to be my launchpad, that unfair advantage to get me to the point where so many other people just start at, then, yeah, that kind of counterbalances my weird guilt.

Vallery: That’s interesting, because I would think that—like me understanding the pressure and the stress of being a part of that show, I feel like it’s a very intense but quick way of paying your dues. Because I don’t know about you, but I had nightmares, long after the show ended, like that I was in the middle of a challenge, or the judging—it’s such a stressful thing. And then, even being a person of color or being queer, and feeling like you’re representing so much more than just yourself on this huge platform of a television show is an extra layer. I know I felt like, “I have to make Louisiana dishes because I want to make the hometown proud.” So I think it’s a fair way to pay your dues, for sure.

I definitely think competing on a popular television show gives you a launching pad and is a catalyst—I just don’t see how I could have gotten in the door otherwise, because I’m still struggling so hard to get into doors.

Ruby: Do you know what? I love that way of looking at it. It’s true, it is so intense. Actually, even today, when I was having to look at clips from your season of the show, and, the music, the theme music came on, and I instantly felt like my chest tightened. And obviously, I just breathed through it. I was like, it’s fine, you’re not in any danger. But it still brings that feeling out in me, which is attesting to what a stressful experience I think it is.

Vallery: And even though it was a reality TV show, it did have an element of working your butt off the whole time you were there. And I’ve watched my fair share of reality television. But I think that this one—and again, it’s like, we were not professionals. We were literally people who liked to bake at home.

Ruby: And they’ve always painted a line just the wrong side of impossible, right? Like, you might have two hours to bake bread, which is pretty much just under the amount that anyone would need to bake a decent loaf of bread. All of this stuff, it’s set up to be as stressful and as suspenseful as it can possibly be.

Vallery: Right. And also, there’s a proofing drawer, right? You have to use all of these little technical things—like, who at home is using a proofing drawer for bread? So you really have to come to terms with and rely on your baking instincts that you haven’t had to use before. And I do really appreciate that from the show—learning to trust my instincts when it comes to baking.

Ruby: How are you going to share some of that in your cookbook? I know there are so many different approaches to doing a cookbook, right? Some people like to lay out the science of it really clearly, and other people like to teach people how to follow their own instincts and their senses. How are you going to be doing that in your cookbook?

Vallery: I’m the person that a lot of my friends call, if they’re baking something and they have questions. So I kind of look at it like I’m talking to a friend on the phone. I just kind of want to walk people through and be like, yeah, that might look weird, that that’s happening, but that should be happening. Or, you know, that pancake batter, it should be lumpy. That’s what you want. So I would say it’s not technical in the sense that I’m laying out charts and graphs. I’m trying to do soft teaching, where I’m just kind of a friend explaining what’s happening. But I just want to give people confidence, and I want to empower people to bake—to try things that they haven’t tried before. Because I think with baking, especially, people get very comfortable, which is fine, but it’s like, “Oh yeah, this is my dish that I always bake and bring somewhere.” But what if you have a taste for something with apricots, and that’s not your dish? I want you to be able to go in my cookbook and get excited and try something new.

Ruby: I’m so excited about your book. Like, for real, I’m very, very—I’m just looking forward to it, and it feels like there are so many people kind of doing good stuff in baking, and cooking more generally as well. But just, I don’t know, I’m excited about the stuff I’m reading. Sometimes there’s spells, you know, like when books come out and you’re like, “Okay, I’ve seen this before,” or whatever, but I don’t feel like that at the moment, which is—it feels good.

Vallery: Can you tell me a little bit about your upcoming book? I don’t know how much you can share, but is it going to be just really kind of a nourishing type of book, or is it going to have a lot of desserts that we get to treat ourselves with as well?

Ruby: Well, it’s going to have a lot of desserts because, no matter how sensible I try and be, my sweet tooth drags me kicking and screaming to the baking cupboards at every opportunity. So there will be a lot of that, but also it’s just more general cooking as well. I mean, it’s called “Cook as You Are,” and the main idea behind it is that I want cooking to be not just accessible and affordable—that’s crucial to the book—but I also want it to be enjoyable. And I want to find some joy in those everyday kitchen routines that we usually overlook. It’s easy to get excited about a big dinner party menu or something, where you’re using ingredients from the farmers’ market or whatever. That’s easy to get excited about. But I want to tune into those tiny things, like when you’re, I don’t know, stirring risotto or something like that, or even just chopping an onion really fine. Where can we find some meditative joy or interest in these really, really normal things? So that’s the heart of it.

Vallery: I love that, because that just comes through in your social media posts and stuff. Like, I love that you’re posting pictures. I’m like, that’s all of us. Like, some of us might have half the table that looks staged for our Instagram shots, but the other half looks like what Ruby’s posting. And you were doing on Twitter these little happy food moments.

Ruby: Yeah, I loved doing those.

Vallery: I loved reading those, because it was just so relatable, and I think it is important that we do find joy in the small things.

And it wasn’t about like, “Here’s my beautiful life that you can mimic.” It’s, “Here’s what you can make within the confines of your own kitchen and your own life, whatever that means.”

Ruby: Like, what’s your favorite little kitchen thing? Like, what’s your favorite food moment? Like, underrated food moment.

Vallery: Oh, God, you’ve caught me off-guard. Um, oh, okay. This might sound . . . I’m privileged to have access to vanilla beans sometimes, but not all the time. I love scraping the seeds out of the beans. I will do anything with an empty vanilla pod. Like, I will do anything with one, and they end up blended and processed and put in so many things that I make—which, I don’t know if that’s okay or not.

Ruby: Can you share any recipes you have been working on?

Vallery: There are some recipes—for me, I really think a lot are the stories behind the recipes, because I want people to feel a connection to not just ingredients, but also technique and the people who made this possible. So, even though my book is very much a story about making the best out of things, I kind of relate that to my heritage. I recall this story about my great grandmother making biscuits for my dad and his brothers, and then I share a biscuit recipe that I’ve really honed in on, and I’ve talked to my dad. And I’m like, “Okay, so then what did your grandmother do? And then what?” To be able to bring everything together into one place—and biscuits, they’re just so uniquely Southern, I think. When I moved to New York, I realized, you can’t get a biscuit—or a good biscuit—just anywhere. It’s safer for me to make them. So I am really excited about that recipe. There are a few other savory baking recipes where I’m excited to just kind of showcase my heritage a little bit in those also.

Ruby: I’m very excited about the biscuits recipe because, as a Brit, I’ve never had proper biscuits.

Vallery: They’re actually really—it’s beautiful because, and I think this is just the beauty in baking, you have this handful of ingredients, and you can do so much with them. It’s alchemy, right? You just take this handful of things, and you can make so many spectacular things.

Ruby: I love that. That’s a beautiful closing note.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Matt Rodbard

Matt Rodbard is the editor in chief of TASTE and author of Koreatown: A Cookbook, a New York Times best-seller, and Food IQ: 100 Questions, Answers, and Recipes to Raise Your Cooking Smarts.