“The bakers really have to be engineers as well as bakers,” Paul Hollywood said about the showstopper challenge on The Great British Baking Show last week, and for a moment I thought he was going to advertise for Baking Impossible, which is also on Netflix and stars one of GBBO’s former finalists, Andrew Smyth, a “bakeineer.”
Many of the showstoppers were kind of disasters, and pale in comparison to the epic builds created over several days on Baking Impossible, a new Netflix competition that embraces the nerdy side of building things out of cake and fondant.
If, like me, you grew more and more annoyed at Lego Masters’ refusal to show us the building process, or wanted better judging from that show or Buddy vs. Duff and its sketchy outcomes, this is the competition for you. (And despite the inclusion of “impossible” in the title, Baking Impossible does not involve Robert Irvine.)
On Baking Impossible (Netflix, Wednesdays), bakers and engineers join together to build something that’s then tested in spectacular ways: a floating cake boat that traverses a small pool of water, a playable mini-golf hole, an actual car smashed into a wall.
There’s a lot of fun, nerdy conversation along the way as the engineers and bakers collaborate, learning about each other’s trades and bringing their own strengths to the conversation. How pretzel rods will absorb force, the surface area of ramen, the strength of sausage casings, the effectiveness of Rice Krispie treats for floatation: these are the concerns of the bakineers. And they’re judged by the bakineer, Andrew Smyth.
Head judge Andrew Smyth came to fame on The Great British Baking Show season seven, when he made it to the finals. His bio describes him as “an aerospace engineer, baker, presenter and producer” who “gained a nationwide following for my outrageously engineered creations” and “created the art of ‘bakineering’.”
Two years ago, he said in an interview, “I would love to do a TV series. There’s things in motion at the moment which would be amazing. It would give me a platform to do it on a huge scale really and make people think about engineering in a different way.”
This show definitely does that, even though the word “bakineer” sounds a little silly the first few times it’s said. Constructing an entire show around one reality TV star’s strengths is a terrific idea, and pays off quite well in Baking Impossible.
Smyth challenges the teams to construct a variety of things using edible materials, and also to bake actually edible desserts that fit into the challenge’s theme. (As creative as some of the pieces are, it’s painful for me to watch all of those sheet cakes be used as if they were styrofoam. So much wasted food!)
The teams’ work is tested, often in epic ways, and then judged. While the judges don’t have much to do during the build time except have some awkward interaction with the teams, they have a lot to offer when they actually judge, critiquing based on their expertise.
Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi is an astrophysicist and inventor who analyzes the team’s approaches, such as the choice of certain ingredients as building materials or the shape of a structure, but doesn’t taste-test the food. Joanne Chang is a James Beard award-winning baker who deconstructs the bakes, but doesn’t comment on the engineering. And Smyth provides feedback “from a bakineering point of view,” combining the two.
The choice I like least in Baking Impossible is that Andrew isn’t hosting his own show, but he really should be.
I can see why the show would bring in a seasoned host, Justin Willman, the host of Netflix’s Magic for Humans and, before that, Food Network’s Cupcake Wars and other shows. He’s talented and just fine here, but I honestly don’t think the show needs him, in part because—and this is not his fault—his presence brings me back to Food Network territory, when Baking Impossible show is actually more ambitious.
As Andrew talks through the challenges, there’s a slight tonal shift, and you can see how the show would have been nerdier with just him as the host. Instead it’s pulled back into more conventional territory with Willman. Both Smyth and Willman end up splitting the hosting role, which highlights the conflict at the center here. It’s like there were behind-the-scenes arguments about which direction to take the show, and some of that ended up on the screen.
The music, production design, and editing have that feel, too: sometimes there are really cute or creative touches, such as the creative ways the challenge winner is revealed and clever transitions between work days. Other times we get stodgy, predictable choices, like editing that repeats the same information—or even dialogue—moments after we’ve just heard it, as if this was a dumbed-down Food Network show.
Thankfully, none of this hurts Baking Impossible, which spends most of its time with the bakineers and their process. There are all kinds of pairings, many of which defy stereotypes about who’s a baker or who’s an engineer.
Because they’re strangers at the start of the competition, there are some teams that get along immediately and smashingly, and others have more trouble getting in sync, and watching their relationships deepen or shift over time is particularly interesting.
My immediate favorite team was baker Cindy Ngar and engineer Taylor Tabb, who immediately demonstrate the magic of these collaborations, and what happens when they bring their strengths and personalities to the design table.
As they work to build a boat that floats, for example, Taylor discusses what they need in a hull, and Cindy suggests something called dead dough: “It’s very strong, it doesn’t have any yeast or anything in it, so it’s very, very stable,” she explains, adding that “I didn’t want to use Rice Krispie treats—Rice Krispie treats are really finicky with water and just moisture in general.”
(If I wasn’t already enamored by the show, it would have won me over by allowing contestants to call Rice Krispie treats “Rice Krispie treats” instead of going through Food Network’s “rice cereal treats” verbal gymnastics.)
I just loved all the process-y conversations and demonstrations, and while their days of work have to be condensed on the screen, the show includes enough to understand what’s going on—and to build tension for judging, where their decisions and designs are tested.
A team is eliminated at the end of every challenge, and the last pair standing splits $100,000. And though there is a large cash prize at stake, not just a plate, there is very much a sense of Great British Baking Show camaraderie overall, which makes the show even more of a joy.
Early on, Taylor tells Andrew Smyth, “We’ve got some good energy flowing. Her cake artistry and my engineering skills are multiplicative, not summative. It’s great.”
It is, and I couldn’t imagine better results of a multiplication equation than this: creative, often spectacular constructions that sometimes work and sometimes fail, and that we get to see being built by talented people.
Inspired by a GBBO alum’s strengths, Baking Impossible revels in collaborations between bakers and engineers, and in testing their spectacular builds A-
What works for me:
- The contestants and their collaborations
- Actually seeing us the process of designing and building using edible materials
- The stress tests
- Building a competition around a GBBO star’s strengths
What could be better:
- Let Andrew Smyth be both head judge and host
- Lean in even more to the nerdiness and quirkiness