Her adorably unique creations and endearing personality made Kim-Joy a firm fan-favourite on The Great British Bake Off in 2018, but beyond the bakes she’s had social anxiety to contend with...
When Kim-Joy first took to our screens on The Great British Bake Off in 2018, she blew the judges away with her delightfully cute creations. But before she was a Bake Off finalist, Kim-Joy was working on the front line of mental health care as a psychological wellbeing practitioner – offering guided self-help to people with mild to moderate anxiety and depression. Now dedicated to her bakes – and with her first book, Baking with Kim-Joy, out soon – she’s a long way from her role in mental health care… Or is she?
We caught up with Kim-Joy to chat about life before Bake Off, the benefits of baking, and what helping others can teach us about ourselves.
Hi Kim-Joy! Let’s go back to the start. What’s your earliest baking memory?
I have two, but one is bad! I remember I used to go to Chinatown a lot as a kid, because I grew up in north-west London. We used to go to the bakery and get pandan cake, which was really soft and light – the kind of cake you really like as a kid. I got home and because my mum is Malaysian – and pandan is Malaysian – she had a little book with a recipe in there for it. So I made one myself.
It wasn’t as soft and fluffy as the Chinatown one, but it was still really good!
Now I’m curious about the bad baking experience...
It’s not really too bad! My dad wanted mince pies for Christmas every year. I think I enjoyed making them the first time, but after a few years it’s like, ugh. And also I don’t like the taste… Well, I do now but only when there’s not loads of filling.
Before Bake Off you were working as a psychological wellbeing practitioner. What drew you to that career?
I’ve always been drawn to people, and wanted to understand how they work. I grew up really, really socially anxious – but part of that makes you want to learn about people. So I think that must have started it. And also my family have a lot of mental health problems, so I grew up with that – but there was never a moment where I connected it all and thought: ‘Oh, my family has mental health problems and I have these thoughts, so I want to go into this.’
Did you enjoy the work?
I did, though there was part of me that didn’t. But it wasn’t the side that was helping people. I think it’s because your caseload is so big, and you can only have half an hour with people.
Also, because a lot of people don’t turn up for their appointments, the way the service deals with that is that you will be fully booked, back-to-back, but the expectation is that people won’t turn up – so you can do your notes. But then you get a couple of days in a row where everyone turns up. And you’re like: ‘Ah! That’s cool, but I can’t do my notes!’ I think it gets you into a negative mentality, because you’re hoping that someone doesn’t turn up.
You mentioned that you had your own problems with anxiety when you were younger. Did you feel supported?
I didn’t, because my older brother had very severe mental issues, so I felt like my issues weren’t really significant in comparison. I was also quite good academically, so the school didn’t really bother. I started not going to school for quite a while. The headteacher spoke to me about it, and I just said: ‘I’m going to the library to study.’ And she was like: ‘Oh that’s fine then!’ I had been going to the library, but not studying. I was just taking a breather – all the time!
The main thing I did was go to university and decided I was going to reinvent myself. But I didn’t really know how to interact with people very well, so I was trying to bond with people by asking them where the buses went!
Baking really links to mindfulness because you have to be in the moment
That’s a good line!
It is! I think I’m still a bit socially anxious now, but only with specific things. I think by helping other people, you also help yourself. Part of working with other people is dealing with my social anxiety fears, so I just got used to it.
And then you went on Bake Off – what a huge achievement.
Yeah! I think the reason I applied for it was partly I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.
Do you have any favourite behind the scenes moments?
I remember one of the weeks I was crying... [Laughs]. We had a lady who caught up with us after every episode to check we were OK, and looked after us. I said to her that I thought crying made me weak, and she taught me that crying is a strength because you’ve put yourself in a situation that makes you vulnerable. Then I was like: ‘Right I’m going to cry about everything!’
Do you find that baking helps your mental health?
Definitely. I think that’s probably what drew me to it. Probably not as a child, but as I grew up, because it’s something that you have to focus on. I started with getting things right, like with croissants you have to focus on folding it the right number of times, and weighing the butter and flour. I think it really links to mindfulness because you have to be in the moment, and fully focused on that thing. But as well as being mindful, at the end you get a cake.
You’re known for bakes that look impossible to eat because they’re just so cute. But when did that come in? Were you Kim-Joy-ifying your mince pies?
No, no, back then it was just a straight-forward mince pie! I think people assume this is what you have been doing for a long time, but actually I was more interested in baking bread, and getting things right. I always thought I couldn’t decorate things until a year before Bake Off when I started doing cakes. And then I just fell into this niche, which I really enjoy!
You have a new book, Baking with Kim-Joy, out in August. Do you have a favourite bake from your recipes?
I love them all, but I think one of my favourites is the pig profiteroles. They’re covered in chocolate, and look like pigs bathing in mud. I quite like those because I think they’re quite simple, even though it’s choux pastry.
What’s next for you?
There’s something else in the pipeline but I can’t really say… I’d love to do more TV and stuff like that. So we’ll see what happens!
‘Baking with Kim-Joy’ (Quadrille, £18) is out from 22 August