Selasi Gbormittah may have missing out on winning series 7 of The Great British Bake Off (GBBO) in 2016, but he did win a special place in the hearts of the British public with his cheeky, laidback charm. Born in Ghana, Selasi grew up baking and cooking in his family kitchen. His passion for food strengthened after he moved to London two decades ago, and after appearing on the show, he swapped the world of banking for baking. In this interview, Selasi talks to me about being an optimist, cancel culture, his favourite rapper and much more.
To say that 2020 was a difficult year is an understatement. How do you maintain an optimistic, hopeful outlook when faced with such uncertainty, sadness and loss?
I’m naturally calm and jovial, and I personally find that humour is helpful in sad situations. I use it as a coping mechanism to deal with the tough stuff. I also strongly believe that everything happens for a reason, so you either learn from your mistakes or allow them to happen again.
Looking back at Bake Off, I did deserve to leave in the semi-finals. When people send me clips of old episodes, I do wonder if I could’ve been better, but I don’t blame myself because I didn’t know then what I know now. I don’t give myself a hard time for the things that I couldn’t control, like the temperature in the tent and so on.
I come from a tough love background, so I don’t dwell on things; I take them with a pinch of salt and move on. I went to boarding school in Ghana and we used to get caned when we were naughty, which happened to me often! It was tough, but it gave me a strong mentality. Working in banking also helped because it’s a very challenging environment/industry. I’m all about finding solutions instead of focusing on problems.
How would you describe Ghanaian cuisine to someone who has never tried it?
Bloody amazing! It’s very colourful and flavourful, but it can also be heavy because we like a lot of starch and carbs. We also love stews and soups. Ghanaians aren’t big on sweetness, so when I was growing up, I didn’t know much about baking or desserts.
Plantain is popular; I’d love to be a global ambassador for plantain if such a thing exists! We use ripe plantain for Kelewele – we chop it up and season it with ground ginger, garlic, salt, chilli, cloves and nutmeg (you can freestyle, but it definitely needs the key spices) then fry it before serving with roasted peanuts. Jollof rice is also a must-have dish. Then there’s groundnut soup, which is comparable to a satay sauce, but thinner.
“I’d love to be a global ambassador for plantain!”
I don’t have a problem with others replicating Ghanaian dishes, but you should do your research, know what goes into them and speak to the people first. What I can’t stand is when dishes are labelled as authentic, but they’re clearly not, i.e. Jamaican rice and peas with garden peas instead of kidney beans. It’s fine to add your own twists, but then you can’t call it authentic.
After Prince Harry and Meghan Markle got engaged, you tweeted about making their wedding cake. What beautiful bake would you have created for them and why?
I forgot about that tweet! The Royal Wedding was in May, so I would’ve gone for something refreshing, like lemon. There would’ve been a tropical element as well, which I’m sure they would’ve appreciated as it would’ve reminded them of their travels to tropical countries. So, a lemon and passionfruit sponge with a Swiss meringue buttercream (I’m not a fan of American-style buttercream) and whipped white chocolate ganache. I think they wanted some floral decorations, so I would’ve finished it with colourful, seasonal flowers.
I watched their interview with Oprah (with popcorn, biscuits, a cup of tea and a glass of water!), but afterwards, I thought, “Is that it?” I wouldn’t normally be curious about what happens in the Royal household, but over Christmas, I binge-watched The Crown on Netflix and was thinking, “Oh, this is juicy!” You get to learn about history with a dose of drama.
You have collaborated with many well-known brands, from Vita Coco to Chivas Regal. Which ones do you dream of partnering with in the future and what do they represent for you?
I’d love to work with Maggi because Ghanaians add their stock cubes to everything. Another dream would be to promote Shito, a spicy condiment made from blended garlic, ginger, tomato paste and onions. We cook it down over hours so that it becomes black, but not burned, before adding ground smoked shrimps and fish to make it even darker. Then comes a bucketload of chilli powder! It’d be great to see it on the shelves of one of the supermarkets I’ve worked with: Sainsbury’s or Morrisons.
Having a range of patisserie tins in partnership with Le Creuset would also be amazing. There are enough loaf tins out there, so the world doesn’t need any more of those from me.
How did you feel when your revelation that you had a girlfriend during a Bake-Off episode resulted in many broken hearts and #HeIsntSingle trending on Twitter?
I was indifferent to it all. I went on a baking show, not a dating show like Love Island! Even though I share a lot of Instagram Stories, I don’t talk about my private life. People tend to overshare these days, which can be dangerous because you just never know who’s watching.
I mainly post about baking, cooking and motorbikes because that’s what people are following me for, not my personal life. I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram because you can build your brand and monetise opportunities, but once you let people into your personal life, it can be intrusive, and everyone has an opinion on the Internet these days.
“I went on a baking show, not Love Island!”
We’re living in cancel culture dominated by keyboard warriors, so people can feel like they’re doing you a favour by following you, but they’re not. If you don’t like what I post, then you don’t have to follow me; I won’t be upset as the right people follow you for who you truly are and not what you’re pretending to be. I don’t pretend to be someone or something I’m not to get more followers or engagement. I’m quite jovial and honest on there, so for example, if I mess up a bake, I also show that because it’s part of reality.
Before my series of Bake Off started, the Love Productions team warned us about the impact of social media. Then each week, they’d sit down with us and talk about trolling, bullying and so on. I’ve got a thick skin, so nothing a stranger can say to me will get me down. There were a few mean comments about my girlfriend, but I just ignored them.
You have previously said that music helps you to relax, and you certainly have great taste in music based on what I heard at the Comté shoot! Who are your favourite artists and why?
I’ve got a lot, and it’s pretty varied, because when I was growing up, my dad was a big fan of legends like Paul Simon, Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Ritchie, etc. I also love R&B and hip hop, and oddly classical music! When I’m running or working out, I play gangster rap, like The Notorious B.I.G or Jay-Z, although I do sometimes listen to the same tracks when I’m baking. It depends on what I’m making because classical music like Andrea Bocelli or classic R&B might feel more appropriate.
I listen to rap the most and my favourite artist is Jay-Z. A lot of people think that rap is about killing people and degrading women, but Jay-Z has a clever way of delivering his messages. Some people call him a hypocrite because he used to rap about money, cars and so on when he was younger, but now he’s focused on building a lasting legacy for his children and their children, which I really admire. I want to read his book Decoded about his life in the Marcy Projects [a housing project in Brooklyn, NYC], the meaning behind his lyrics and more.
Alongside baking, you are very passionate about motorbiking and travelling. When have you felt your biggest adrenalin rush and why was that experience so memorable?
In Germany! Before lockdown, I used to visit my family in Switzerland every summer. I’d take the ferry or train from the UK then cross Europe, starting in Belgium then through France, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Portugal then back into France. Germany was always the fun part because technically there are no speed limits on the autobahn, so it’s the perfect time to go for it – with caution, of course!
But then once you’ve had your adrenalin rush and are just taking it easy, someone will pull up next to you in a car or on a bike and they’re expecting to race you. They look at you and you’re thinking, “I’ve just done 120-150mph and that’s enough for now!” There were so many times when I just looked the other way and avoided eye contact because I just wanted to enjoy the ride.
My dream would be to ride on the Nürburgring Grand-Prix track, which is very popular with petrolheads. As soon as you go past the barrier, it’s you and fate! I’ve done a couple of track days in a controlled environment, which have been fun.
What lie do you repeatedly tell yourself?
I procrastinate a lot and I hate that about myself. I tell myself for weeks and months that I’ll get things done, knowing full well that I won’t. I also kept saying for ages that I’d get a daily planner or diary, which I finally forced myself to do last year. Now that I have one, I do use it to keep track of everything I need to do. I used to be good at remembering things, but as you get older, you just forget everything if you don’t write it down, whether it’s in a diary or on your phone, and you’re constantly playing catch up.
“I procrastinate a lot and I hate that about myself.”
My agent is always chasing me about responding to emails, so she created a special inbox and calendar for me, which I stopped using as I got better over time. I need to make myself do things instead of putting them off and then I can just forget about them.
I bought a Clever Fox Planner, which you can start on any day of the year. Each week, I write down what I want to achieve in the goals section, like running 25km or reminding myself to drink 3 litres of water a day, which I forget to do now that I’m working from home so much. I map it all out and then tick it off as I go along. I’m on a journey!
Among other philanthropic activities, you are an ambassador for World Vision UK. How did this opportunity come about and how has it impacted your life?
They approached me and my agent and I had a lengthy discussion with them about their expectations. We wanted to make sure that the partnership was beneficial for both parties. I didn’t want to simply post about their fundraising projects; I wanted to be involved in them and make a change. In the end, I said yes because they’re also a religious charity; I’m Catholic, so it was a perfect fit. I haven’t been to church for a few years, but I do believe in God and know right from wrong – I think.
In 2018, I travelled to Uganda with them to Bidi-Bidi, the largest refugee settlement in the world at the time. We filmed a short series there to raise awareness of the refugees’ lives, who all fled conflict in South Sudan. The Ugandan government gives them the same five rations of food every week, so I was there to show the community different ways of preparing the ingredients and making the dishes more nutritious. It was an eye-opening experience. I want to use my platform to highlight certain issues in other parts of the world and make a positive impact on people’s lives.
“If you’re in a position to help others, you should.”
I wouldn’t call myself a philanthropist as that’s just a fancy title, but I’ve been involved in charity work since I moved to the UK [in 2000]. When I was in banking, I’d take part in fundraising efforts for chosen charities by doing bake sales or running, from 5K to marathons.
I believe that if you’re in a position to help others, you should. I don’t do it for recognition, but to pay it forward. So, if I do a favour for someone, I don’t keep a mental note of it and then expect them to do something for me in the future. I do it because they need my help and then forget about it. I hope that if someone else is relying on that person later, they’ll be equally generous.
2021 has already got off to a challenging start. So, to lighten the mood, tell me what is the funniest that has happened to you recently?
What happened earlier [Selasi’s girlfriend’s dad walked into the room topless as he was sunbathing outside and was caught on camera as our conversation was over Zoom]!
Lastly, you are clearly a talented person, but what is the most useless talent you have?
I’ve got 12 fingers, which is more of a random fact than a useless talent! When I was a baby, the extra two fingers were cut off, but if you look at my little fingers, they’re not straight and you can see where they were. I think they should’ve left them.
I’ve also got two left feet for someone who loves music. I should be able to dance because everyone else in my family can dance. I can move my head to the beat, but that’s about it.
If you enjoyed this Selasi Gbormittah interview, you can read many more interviews in the Spotlight on Chefs series here.