When Martin Sorge, a consultant and former economic development coordinator for the City of Chicago, stepped into a picturesque English country estate to film Season 6 of The Great American Baking Show, he didn’t expect to encounter a fellow Chicagoan — let alone two.
“I was spoiled,” Sorge says. “I’m good friends with all the bakers on the show now, but [the three of us] get to come home, pop over to each other’s houses to drop off something we baked, or pick up an ingredient we might need.”
Nirali Chauhan and Sarah Chang, both graduate students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, along with Sorge, comprise one-third of their season’s cast. Although their baking journeys took different routes — from rehabbing injuries to impressing co-workers to dealing with pandemic stress — their Windy City roots bonded them 3,900 miles away.
A few weeks before the air date was announced, they hosted a full cast reunion, complete with some of their regional favorites — Chicago-style hot dogs, Pequod’s, and “an abundance of pastries.” The three have become close friends after filming, convening for game nights and even mulling over the idea of a podcast. They also have plans for a watch party this weekend.
The show was produced under the same iconic, pastel-decorated tent as the original British version. This season features the British judges Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood, and two American actors, Zach Cherry and Ellie Kemper, are the hosts. Chicago spoke with the three contestants about their baking history and hints at what happens in Season 6.
When did you first put on a baker’s apron, and how did you get to a competition show level?
Chang: I’ve been cooking and baking since I was a kid — cookies and box brownies. I started getting into baking a little more seriously as inspiration from The Great British Baking Show.
It became more of a hobby when I was doing my first graduate program, kind of a procrastination tactic. The pandemic supported my capacity to bake, but I got really into it even pre-pandemic: I would spend my weekends baking loads of things and then bring them to the office on Monday.
Chauhan: I’ve always been very creative, but scientific, and baking is kind of the perfect marriage. That, plus I always had a sweet tooth and grew up in a household that didn’t really have a bunch of sweets around.
It wasn’t until 2020, shortly after the death of George Floyd, that I saw this amazing movement called Bakers Against Racism. It dawned on me that I could use my skills for good, so I started baking out of my South Loop apartment. That first bake sale was for the Chicago Community Bond Fund, and since then, I’ve had fundraisers for other causes that I care about, including youth with disabilities, the war in Ukraine, and LoveYourBrain, an organization of people with traumatic brain injuries, like myself. It’s such a fun way to flex creative muscles and raise money.
Sorge: I always cooked, but I was a really bad baker. So about 10 years ago, I buckled down and said, “You know, if I follow these recipes, I can figure this out.” It just snowballed from there. Like Sarah, inspired by the show, I was like, “Oh, can I make this multi-layered pastry thing that takes a few days?” I love trying new things and taking them to the office or my nieces and nephew in Highland Park. For the holidays, I always tell folks, “I’m going to make the pie, and the rolls, and the stuffing with homemade bread,” and people are always happy when I offer.
How would you characterize the environment of the tent? I feel like you could put lifelong enemies in there and they would come out as friends.
Chauhan: Honestly, I would allow whoever did the casting to find me friends, colleagues, employers in the future.
Sorge: People have asked if the show’s scripted. The process is exactly like it looks on the show, and the whole crew and everyone involved is warm and friendly. The production company’s called Love Productions, and that’s really the vibe you get from everyone, even though we were baking for hours.
Chauhan: Some days are just as hot as we’ve seen on TV. I didn’t understand the heat in previous seasons until I was experiencing it myself.
Chang: Yeah, we’re absolutely baking outdoors, in an open-air environment.
Sorge: With wildlife.
Chauhan: With ingredients that are really different from the U.S. British ingredients have substantial differences from American ones: higher butter fat content or different hydration levels of flours. We all had to adapt to make sure our visions were coming through.
Were there any potential theme weeks or technical challenges that you were looking forward to or dreading?
Chauhan: The greatest room for improvement, for me, was bread. I spent a lot of time trying to learn about hydration levels of flours and rise times and proofing and baking and steaming. It’s almost like learning a different language.
Chang: I feel like there’s been a misunderstanding in the U.K. of what American pies are like, fruit pies. I’ve always been so upset when British people are like, “Oh, American pie, it’s so sweet.” And I wanted to say, “Well, the way you’re making them, it’s too sweet!” So, knowing that we were going to be baking for British judges, that was a chip on my shoulder. I really wanted the opportunity to potentially get to correct that.
How did the three of you take this experience with you post-filming?
Sorge: People ask if the American bakers are competitive and not as friendly, but it’s literally the opposite. There’s that camaraderie. Now, Nirali will be like, “Hey, I’m coming to get ice cream, do you want to join me?” And of course, Sarah and I head right over.
Chang: It’s like the ice cream signal called, and we just follow.
Chauhan: There’s some sort of light over Lake Michigan, and we converge to Vaca’s Creamery.
Chang: It’s been such a specifically crazy experience, going to the UK, spending weeks away from our families, not being able to talk about it for six months. The other bakers, we have a group chat that we’re on all the time, but like Martin said, having each other in Chicago has been a great support. Just to have that connected experience, to be able to chat and goof off.
Chauhan: Yeah, I think the greatest gift of the show is the people we walked out with, eight new best friends. They’ll be around forever.
All three of you are longtime Chicago residents. Are there any local baking or Midwest food culture elements that you were hoping to bring to the season?
Sorge: Oh yes. Lots of references. We’re excited for folks to see those.
Chauhan: We have such a deep love for this city. We had a lot of opportunities to showcase it that we did not miss. There are deep Chicago cuts.
Chang: Yeah, I think our pride and love for the city absolutely comes through. It was a surprise to us that there were three Chicagoans out of nine contestants. And I’m really proud of what we were able to represent.
Sorge: [Prue and Paul] might not have understood all of the American or Chicago references, so there were a few times that we had to explain some things. That’s all I’ll say.
Chang: We’re not sure what’s in the final cut, but I think something that was fun was sharing our Midwest experience with [Kansas City native] Ellie. That was a nice way to connect with her.
Are Prue and Paul intimidating in person?
Chang: I was nervous, because I look up to Prue quite a bit. Not only is she an incredibly accomplished person, she’s my style icon. That was one of the most star-struck experiences of my life. But she’s absolutely lovely. And Paul was really nice and wonderful as well.
Chauhan: The judges and hosts all want to see the bakers succeed as much as we, individually, want to put out great bakes. In every instance that we received feedback from them, we came away with more skills and knowledge, which is all you can hope for. From the most experienced folks in the game, people that we love, it’s pretty incredible. It was surreal.
Sorge: It felt like you were suddenly sucked into your TV. When Paul and Prue walk up to your bench the first time, you’re like, “Oh, I’ve seen this a million times, and now I’m here. Is this a dream?”
Chauhan: Paul’s eyes are even bluer in person. Prue’s outfits are even more colorful.
All six episodes are available to watch for free via the Roku Channel.