Co Down baker Andrew Smyth engineers new Netflix cookery show
Jenny Lee chats to Andrew Smyth, the former Great British Bake Off contestant from Co Down whose baking flair and enthusiasm for engineering has now won him his own Netflix series, the wacky new cookery show Baking Impossible
EVER wondered what would happen if you crossed the Great British Bake Off with Scrapheap Challenge?
The answer is Netflix's new series Baking Impossible, which fuses food with science in a series of gastronomic challenges.
The competition sees bakers and engineers join forces in order to construct edible creations, which are then put through a series of punishing stress tests.
A floating cake boat that traverses a small pool of water, a playable mini-golf hole and an actual car smashed into a wall are just some of the jaw-dropping creations.
"What sets Baking Impossible apart is that we're not just after great looking bakes, we're asking our 'bakineers' to make creations that do something," says the show's executive producer and judge Andrew Smyth, from Holywood, Co Down.
Many will recognise Andrew from being a former finalist in the Great British Bake Off. He was applauded in the 2016 competition for his outrageously engineered creations, including a gear-shaped savoury pie, inspired by the technical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci.
Having studied aerospace engineering at Cambridge University, Andrew works four days for Rolls-Royce in Derby, as a research engineer looking at future aircraft.
Outside his day job, 30-year-old Andrew has been blending his two loves of engineering and baking in developing 'bakineering' shows at science festivals, most recently his Baking in Space event, featuring astronaut Helen Sharman.
It's a genre which he has now transferred to the screen, after capturing the attention of television producers in America.
"I've had the pleasure of being involved from day one - formulating the idea, finding a production company, pitching it to Netflix and developing and starring in it. It's genuinely been the dream project for me," says Andrew.
Making Baking Impossible, which was shot in Los Angeles, hasn't been without its challenge, including, of course, the Covid pandemic.
"Filming was postponed twice, and then I had to get a special exemption visa to be able to fly over as we filmed in September 2020 when US entry restrictions were extremely strict," he says.
It's the kind of programme Andrew wishes he could have watched as a child.
"Often engineers have an unfair stereotype of being boring or computer-based. I think the show champions the creativity and problem-solving skills engineers bring to the table in a family-friendly way," says the passionate STEM ambassador.
With power tools aplenty, driveable cakes, moving robots, edible clothing and creations the size of small buildings, Baking Impossible certainly makes desserts worthy of the tagline 'showstoppers'.
So, what does Andrew think his former Bake Off judge Mary Berry would have to say about it?
"She might say some of the creations are a bit extravagant, but I'd ask her: 'At your next dinner party, would you not love to have your dessert sail to you on an edible boat?'," he says.
Andrew delighted in creating the various challenges the contestants face in the eight-part series; though he admits there were times he would rather have got his hands dirty and got involved rather than sit in the judges chair.
"There were times during the challenges where I wanted to be in their shoes and taking part - I think that was when I realised I'd created a show that I would've loved to compete in."
Baking Impossible is hosted by Justin Willman. The rest of the judging panel is made up of award-winning baker Joanne Chang, who judges the bakes on taste and astrophysicist Dr Hakeem Oluseyi, who analyses the team's approaches, such as the choice of ingredients as building materials or the shape of a structure.
As head judge in the $100,000 prize competition, Andrew provides feedback "from a bakineering point of view", combining the two ,and he admits he has been impressed by the ingenuity shown.
"A key rule for me was that each challenge had to result in something edible performing a 'function', it couldn't just look or taste nice. That meant we could get really creative with ways to test, we touch on every corner of engineering in this series, from structural and electrical to materials and even the geometry of edible tailoring," he says.
"As I'd helped design the challenges, I had ideas in my mind of how I'd approach them, but some of the solutions were utterly ingenious. I guarantee that some of the things you will see in this show have never been seen before.
"Part of doing something innovative is that it's risky, and we have our fair share of trials and triumphs on the show.
"One moment that stuck out was when teams were developing their own edible glue formulations to build an edible skyscraper - it is incredible."
To the home cook, engineering and baking may seem poles apart, but Andrew believes the two have lots in common.
"Cooking is an art, baking is a science. But there are a lot of shared ideas in both baking and engineering: precision, time management, understanding the principles. These are all keys to success," he explains.
Andrew still enjoys baking in his spare time and last month was delighted to return home for his brother Jamie's wedding, where as well as being best man he had the honour of baking the wedding cake.
"I'm very selective when taking commissions, particularly for wedding cakes as they involve so much pressure. It was a pleasure to be asked to make Jamie and Claire's cake," he says.
The triple-tiered semi-naked design of lemon, red velvet and Victoria sponges with Swiss meringue buttercream had a special surprise topping.
"Jamie has been a long-time Lego fanatic so it was finished with white chocolate bricks and handmade fondant Lego bride and groom figures," he explains.
Having presented Prince William with a rotating jet engine cake in the past, has he any Baking Impossible creations he would like to try to create himself in the future?
"I've had a long-time dream of making something 100 per cent edible that can fly. Be it a rocket or airplane, I've done the calculations and it looks nigh-on impossible," he says.
"But with enough time and determination, I'm sure I can get something edible to perform as an aerospace engineer would like it to."
Whilst "crossing fingers" for a second series, a UK version of Baking Impossible, or both, Andrew is already working on more television ideas.
"I'm hoping Baking Impossible can act as a springboard to get into even more engineering presenting as that is where my passion is," he says.
"But my ambition is that Baking Impossible inspires kids and adults alike to take an interest into the creativity of the engineering all around us that defines our lives."
:: Baking Impossible is available to stream on Netflix now.