The world's youngest-ever Bake Off winner is on the rise
Words: Cayleigh Bright | Photography + video: Nick Gordon
Cait McWilliams is the youngest winner of the Bake Off franchise worldwide. You know the show: The Great British Bake Off, The Great Australian Bake Off, and the one that Cait won – The Great South African Bake Off.
If this isn’t sounding familiar, all you really need to know is that this is where contestants work up a sweat creating confections that look perfect to you but get ripped apart by judges who presumably know better, someone gets eliminated, and you end up with an overpowering sugar craving. There have been twenty-three of the franchises globally, which makes Cait’s achievement all the more impressive.
“The floor manager kept commenting that I seemed super tough, with the piercing, and the tattoos, and dark hair. And then when they spoke to me I was giggly and weird. And they were like ‘This is strange. I don’t know what to do about this.’ I think that that confused people,” Cait says of her time on the Great South African Bake Off set.
That’s easy enough to understand: the grit she displayed on the show doesn’t seem quite in keeping with her gentle manner and the clear sentimentality that’s displayed when she shows us the gingerbread house she’s kept from her time in the competition. "I have my practice one up in the kitchen," she says of it fondly. "And I will cherish it forever. I mean it's my practice one, so it's not perfect." When she shows it to us later she talks us through how it's modelled on her idea of an ideal living situation: home upstairs, bakery downstairs with a serving hatch facing onto the street piled high with baked goods.
While tensions ran high on the show and contestants sweated it out, unaided by the makeup artists on set for the presenters only, there simply wasn't much time to show off a sweet nature. But as olympic gymnast Simone Biles recently and famously said, “Smiling doesn’t win you gold medals.” But neither, of course, do tears – the other response that was expected from Cait as she handled the heat in the kitchen. “They kept asking me why I wasn’t crying, because I was 18. And I was like, ‘Not all 18-year-olds cry all the time.’ Emotions were crazy. It’s not like I didn’t have them – I just didn’t cry every time something went wrong. I want to be a chef, and if I cried every time… I’d be kicked out of the kitchen in two minutes.”
“I think I was able to surprise people,” she says of another effect of her age. “They didn’t expect me to do very well, which was actually nice.” Oh, another thing: because of Cait’s age and relative lack of experience – sure, she’s always been into baking, but only entered formal training after the competition’s end – she was extra adaptable. This stood her in good stead to take on challenging tasks in the competition: rather than believing that her way to do something was the right way, or the only way, she recognised that there’s a time and place to take instruction. “A lot of contestants struggled when it was something that they make a lot, and this was different from their recipe, and then they couldn’t get their head around it… Whereas I was like, ‘Okay, this is the first time I’m making this. Let’s see how this works out.’”
Her ready-for-anything attitude sounds like a pretty chill approach to take, but keep in mind that this is a 19-year-old with a pretty solid 10-year plan that involves gathering experience through travel, training, and then opening a dessert bar – something that doesn’t exist in Cape Town at the moment, and that she feels well-equipped to bring to the city’s food scene.
Currently studying cookery full-time, Cait has a clear preference for baking over the savoury side of culinary arts. "Silwood's very understanding that I'm not really into the savoury food, but at the same time it is great to learn the skills," she says. "I'm not a big fan of savoury cooking. I'll do it for my family, but I never want to do it in a restaurant. Baking is more of like a therapy. In cooking, if you just add too much salt or something, you've completely screwed it up. You have to rely on your own thinking, whereas in baking you can follow a recipe and you know it will work."
If she seems to be keeping her cool when others can’t handle the heat, that’s the result of knowing that a well-planned formula is, if not failsafe, sure to see you through a lot.