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20 August 2015

“Mary Berry is sweet and gentle, but I’m tough“: meet Kerry Vincent, the Simon Cowell of cake

The Australian star baker who has built a reality TV empire out of delivering tough love.

By Helen Thomas

“I’ve been called the ‘Simon Cowell of Cake’, the ‘Dominatrix of Decorating’, ‘Sugar Tsar’. You name it.” So said reality TV star and celebrity baker Kerry Vincent in an episode of 60 Minutes Australia back in 2012.

The Outback baker appeared on the television show to promote her involvement with the Great Australian Bake Off, which she co-judged with Guardian food writer Dan Lepard.

Many journalists (myself included) make the mistake of trying to build a direct comparison between Vincent and the soft-spoken Mary Berry.

“The roles got reversed, where I was the tougher one and Dan was the gentler side of the partnership,” reflects Vincent. When they sent me the video of the Great British Bake Off, I said, you’re barking up the wrong tree. [Mary] is sweet and gentle, but I’m tough, the mentor. I say it how it is.”

Kerry Vincent has built an empire out of being the “tough judge” on American reality TV shows of the culinary genre. She’s been involved with the cable channel Food Network for 15 years as a resident judge on the Food Network Challenge, where bakers compete for a $10,000 prize for their incredible, towering, architecturally baffling cake structures.

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In 2014, she hosted the reality show Save My Bakery, which is essentially Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares set exclusively in shops which sell cake, with the participants working out their differences over snide eyebrows and afternoon tea. However, Vincent would never liken someone’s cake to “dehydrated turd”.

What else do these presenters have in common? Kerry Vincent, Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsay and even “Queen of Mean” Weakest Link presenter Anne Robinson all received a helpful leg-up when their shows received the Transatlantic treatment. “A voice with a funny accent is useful and gets people’s attention. If I was just another American, maybe I wouldn’t have achieved the notoriety that I have,” says Vincent.

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The Sun told readers that Vincent was “famous for making baking contestants cry”, but she tells me that, “after several hundred television appearances, I can only remember four contestants who cried, because they were upset at the standard of work they had produced.

“There’s a perception in the US that I’m mean,” she tells me. “Rubbish. I’m not mean. Mean is personal. I, however, am honest. I don’t comment on anything other than the work you put in front of me, and if that is a cake which is supposedly worth $10,000, it’s up to me to say if something is short.”

Olivia Goldhill at the Telegraph boldly labelled Vincent “by far away the greatest judge to ever grace a TV screen”, given her “disdain for anything that isn’t absolutely perfect.”

And Vincent is adamant that offering up the “coup de grace” when needed is necessary to be respected as a television personality. “Like Simon Cowell, I sit in the last chair, and I’m the last word. The contestants are quite clear; they don’t want to hear what anyone else has to say. They only want to make me happy and please me, so they just wait for my comments. That is because If I say they did something really great they know I mean it.”

Kerry Vincent in muppet form on the Food Network Challenge.

But even take-no-prisoners cake queens have soft spots. “I do sympathise with the competitors when they’ve planned something which doesn’t work out, and the cameras are right there filming a big fat mistake. The pressure of the studio and the interruptions and scripting by editors is horrible. I do take that into account. I’m not stupid.”

She adds: “And the producers know I won’t work from a script . . . the whole setting is artificial.

“But I don’t get warm and fuzzy over contestants who have just oversold their ability to get on TV. The problem is when casting producers contact people and get an immediate positive answer. They never say no to any query about experience. People fall through the cracks, and as an expert in the field, you realise that some of these people are in over their heads. They deliberately put themselves in over their heads because they wanted to be famous in five minutes. Do I have to be really nice to them? I think they need to be reminded that they bit off a bit more than they can chew.”

Kerry Vincent poses with her complex “python” wedding cake.

So how does the “cut-throat reality” of US television adapt to something as cosy and comfortable as Bake Off? With difficulty, says Vincent. “I was shocked to see that The American Baking Competition was offering a $250,000 cash prize and book deal.”

In Australia, the successful contestant was rewarded with a holiday and a new kitchen, while the British winners receive a bunch of flowers and an apron. Broadcasters of the US network CBS also ran into difficulty when they found that “bake off” was a copyrighted phrase in America, so the programme didn’t experience the same level of brand recognition as the UK and Australian formats.

“There’s a translation with things that are British that the Commonwealth and Europe understands, but I’m not sure that the US version was interpreted in the same pastoral sense,” remarks Vincent.

The poorly-rated American Baking Competition fizzled out after just one season, but the Great Australian Bake Off is scheduled for a second season judged by Maggie Beer and Matt Moran, to be released later this year.

Vincent says: “The lovely thing about Bake Off, in all of its global guises, is that it has this gentle pastoral sense about it. People are sick to death of everything being so graphic and in your face. With Bake Off you can have an easy evening where you can just sit down and watch this thing unfold in front of your eyes. That is why it is so successful.”

I wrap up out chat by asking Vincent how to separate egg whites from yolks. She responds with a two-word answer: “Be careful.”