Author: Michael Harden
4:37PM, Mar 13, 2013
Dan Lepard is looking calm and collected, despite the six television cameras and barrage of lights trained on him. The expat Aussie, renowned in the United Kingdom and Europe for a series of lauded and awarded cookbooks and a long-running baking column in The Guardian, is temporarily back in Melbourne working as co-judge on the new Channel Nine cooking show The Great Australian Bake Off. And by the look of it, he's finding the on-camera role a piece of cake.
Based on a ratings-busting franchise that started in the United Kingdom in 2010, The Great Australian Bake Off sees 10 home-baking enthusiasts compete to produce the most delicious breads, cakes, slices and pies. And while the filming occurs in a whimsical pastel-coloured set in the beautiful grounds of Victoria's historic Werribee Mansion, there's no doubt that this series is a cooking-show behemoth, complete with big-name sponsors.
It's a little surprising that Lepard, a gently witty, self-confessed baking geek, should be so nonplussed by the massed cameras. And that this baking geek, whose acclaim has come largely from a crusade to revive the traditional techniques and ingredients of baking, is even taking part in this highly commercial televised competition. But despite the flour-dusted, slightly Luddite impression his profile might suggest, Lepard's success would not have come without technology.
"My books tend to be a bit old-fashioned and bookish," he says. "They're for people who like reading rather than just looking at pictures. My book The Handmade Loaf, where I really went into the complexity of sourdough baking, wasn't a great success to start with. But with the internet, people who were into traditional baking were able to communicate with one another about the book, and it started to sell really well. And, in part, because of these online communities, it keeps selling." Lepard's latest book, Short & Sweet, is also a bestseller and "covers baking in the broadest sense, everything from simple flatbreads to very complex pies and cakes". It's a how-to kind of book and one, he says, he "should perhaps have written first". But his has not been a career with a logical trajectory.
After "sort of" running away from Melbourne where he, the son of a New Zealand mother and English father, "never felt at one with the Australian countryside", Lepard arrived in London and began working as a photographer. A favourite on fashion shoots (Isabella Blow was a fan) as much for the baked goods he brought as for his photographic skills, Lepard soon realised that he was more interested - and better at - baking.
He began working in restaurants, including those owned by Fergus Henderson and Giorgio Locatelli, and joined the team at Baker & Spice, a bakery that was all about traditional treats.
"At first it was about the photography," he says. "Because I wanted to make a record of the bakery, of how we were working and how we were doing things. It was about slowing the process down, keeping things simple, that's what really spoke to me. I really don't care how many bottles of food colouring you have or what kind of invert sugars and glucose you're using - I care about fresh and honest flavours."
The book that emerged from his time at Baker & Spice, Baking with Passion, struck a chord with the public and "totally eclipsed" the photography.
Becoming the baking writer for The Guardian - where he has come up with a recipe each week for the past seven and a half years - was also a sign he was on the right track.
When it comes to his latest gig as judge on The Great Australian Bake Off, his first dabble with the small screen, he describes his role as "being the senses for the viewers", the person who "shares with everybody what things taste like".
But Lepard is certainly not abandoning his baking ideals for a spot of TV stardom. "I'm feeling like a very old-fashioned baker," he says. "I believe that everything that is on the plate and near the food must be there for flavour. Flavour is more important than the way it looks. If it doesn't taste good, I don't care what effort went into it, I really don't."