Bake Off’s firebrand Ruby Tandoh turns the gas to low

Outspoken online, the former finalist cools down to tell Laura Pullman of her mental health campaign and what she thinks of Paul Hollywood now

Arriving smack on lunchtime, my growling stomach is hopeful that there’ll be a home-made cinnamon bun, a slice of golden syrup loaf or even leftovers of last night’s pud on offer. So when Ruby Tandoh — the doe-eyed, dewy-skinned Great British Bake Off finalist — proffers only a builder’s, I bury my disappointment.

She didn’t take home the trophy but Tandoh — then a model and a philosophy student — was the most interesting baker of 2013’s batch. As well as frequently weeping, she was accused of flirting with Paul Hollywood, the philandering, goateed judge who resembles a security guard.

When, almost two years later, Tandoh came out as gay on Twitter, she taunted the “massive shitting misogynists” who thought she’d “ever bang” Hollywood to get ahead.

Once slamming a critic as a “bitter old witch”, Tandoh, now a successful food writer, is not one to hold back online.

When it was announced last year that Hollywood would follow Bake Off from the Beeb to Channel 4, she posted that he was a “peacocking manchild lingering wherever the money was”. She also mocked his naff jeans, spray tan and that he turned up to work in a rented Lamborghini. Blimey.

When we sit and talk in her Sheffield flat (what estate agents would describe as “cosy”), the softly spoken Tandoh is rather less brusque. On Mary Berry and Hollywood, she gushes: “They’re both so smart. They know everything about everything.” So would she stick to her “peacocking manchild” comments? “I like joking on Twitter, that’s all I will say,” she murmurs. Will Tandoh be watching Bake Off minus Mary on Channel 4? “I guess so. I’m curious to see what they do with it, but it won’t be the same,” she says, as flat as a pancake. Is Prue Leith, cookery doyenne for 40-odd years, a good replacement for Queen Mary? “I don’t really know anything about her.”

Tandoh, 24, seems a strange blend of an outspoken feminist and a wouldn’t-say-boo-to-a-goose wisp of a thing. Like many others, it’s on social media where she finds the courage to speak out: “You stand up for yourself online in a way that you wish you could in real life, I think.”

Shaving off her caramel-coloured curls also gave her more confidence. She has written how the act — “a rare streak of arrogant defiance” — was a recasting of her “gender, sexuality and racial identity”.

Was she trying to look more lesbian? Tandoh concedes that “to an extent” it was a way to make people believe her bisexuality was “legit”.

She met her partner, Leah Pritchard, a receptionist and musician, on the dating app Tinder just over two years ago. Surely this is a rare Tinder success story? “People talk about online dating as though it’s this awful degradation of a pure thing, but dating has always been horrific for everyone involved. Online dating is what it is. We have to make do in this world,” she says bluntly.

An example of where Tandoh doesn’t stand up for herself IRL (online speak for “in real life”) is when men heckle her and Pritchard, 26, in the street. It makes them both “furious”, but only Pritchard will tell the blokes to sod off as Tandoh “cannot deal with that kind of confrontation”.

Nevertheless, their bubble is looking rosy: the couple got engaged last December. With her gold engagement ring twinkling in the sunlight, Tandoh tells the tale as monotonously as if she’s reciting a shopping list: “I asked her. We were just in our pyjamas watching a film.”

Wedding plans are on hold while the pair undertake a daunting project — producing a one-off magazine together for charity. The “zine”, out on April 28, is called Do What You Want and is all about mental health. The idea came about after the couple started training for this year’s London marathon and decided they wanted to do more for their chosen charities — the mental health charity Mind and the eating disorder charity Beat.

Both Tandoh and Pritchard have experienced periods of depression and anxiety. Tandoh explains how her anxiety has manifested itself in a nervousness that traps her inside her home for three or four-day stretches. “You just carry this stress in you like a weight. It eats away at you and takes all your energy,” she says.

While anxiety is indisputably a genuine disorder, it has become the talked-about condition for Millennials. The multimillionaire popstrel Taylor Swift and the La La Land Oscar winner Emma Stone have shared their suffering.

“It’s really important that no matter how much privilege someone has, you can acknowledge that their mental health problems are legit,” Tandoh says. On this issue there seems to be a gulf between the generations — often crudely reduced to overindulgent, oversensitive snowflakes versus the stiff-upper-lip fogeys.

So where’s the right balance? “I understand why some people would look at this generation and see how vocal we are about our problems, how we all seem to be mentally ill, anxious, in therapy,” Tandoh says. “But most of the time it only takes looking at our parents to realise that they did not necessarily have a better way of dealing with things.”

She was the eldest of four growing up in Southend, Essex, and money was tight — Tandoh’s father worked for Royal Mail and her mother was a school administrator — so recipes were usually out of the Moosewood vegetarian cookbook. “It was a good way of feeding a big family on the cheap,” she says.

The key to helping families learn to cook and shop on a budget, she believes, is teaching children these skills at school: “Why wouldn’t you? Why do I have to know about the Vikings but not how to cook an egg?”