Ben Sledge 17th July 2018
There are some people who are just annoyingly good at everything — you know the type.
Tamal Ray is one of those people. He might be familiar to you from when he graced our screens as a finalist in the Great British Bake Off in 2015, or maybe you know who he is because he treated you during a recent hospital stay. Because, not only can he bake incredibly well, he’s also a fully qualified doctor. It’s just not fair, is it?
We caught up with Ray to talk about being a doctor, a baker and now television presenter, and where it all began.
“We as a family have always been very food-focused — as evidenced by our bellies — and I’ve always loved making stuff really, not just food, all sorts of things, like models and things, I’ve always loved using my hands,” Ray says.
“It was this that got me into baking, like all little kids like making cookies and things, and I kind of just went on from there really. My mum had loads of cookbooks around the house and I used to read them, and then when I went to university I didn’t have much money, but I wanted to make nice food, and I just tinkered away. It went on from there really, just making more and more and more, and then I guess the biggest thing I’ve made past Bake Off was my sister’s wedding cake.
I was always a right little nerd at school
“They weren’t going to have one, but you can’t have a wedding without a wedding cake, so I decided to make it, and that was the first time that the baking stepped up a gear.”
Despite being recognised most often for his baking, Ray is also a doctor, and this was another thing that was influenced by his childhood.
“I was always a right little nerd at school, like I loved doing all my subjects, arts as well, but I had a bit more aptitude for the science,” he says.
Originally wanting to be a vet before realising that he was scared of animals, he turned to human medicine.
“It’s still the case, if a dog, even if it’s a dog I know really well, barks at me I’m literally absolutely terrified, so I was like ‘I probably can’t be a vet’.
“People are animals too, but they bark a lot less. So the job that I do now as a doctor is very sociable, it’s all about like talking and communicating with patients, but it’s also got that scientific and technical side. It’s quite a good fit for me.”
However, growing up wasn’t always easy and inspiring for Ray. Like many second-generation immigrants living in the UK, there were times he was faced with an uphill struggle just to be accepted as the only Asian family in the “extremely white” suburb just outside North London where he grew up. But his parents faced an even tougher time when they moved here from India in the 1970s.
My mum told me stories of how shop assistants wouldn’t serve her until they’d served everyone else in the queue first, even the people behind her
“Generally things were fine, there was a little bit of racism stuff, but what was probably more influential on me are the stories that my parents would tell.
“Our surname is Ray, quite an English sounding surname, even though it’s Bengali, and my dad would always just put his name as T. Ray on job applications, and not put his full first name down so he would get the interviews, because they would think he was white British.
“My mum told me stories of how, when she first came over, shop assistants wouldn’t serve her until they’d served everyone else in the queue first, even the people behind her. I think, growing up, I was born in the ’80s, it just seemed like a completely different world. I can’t imagine that ever happening in London now, it’s just so multicultural.”
The stories that Ray tells seem symptomatic of a bygone era, before Martin Luther King or movements preaching peace and respect.
“Yeah it’s strange. When I go back home now, because my parents live in the same house, there are so many more Indian people there now that are my generation or a bit older, and they’re starting families as well. It’s nice to see that things have moved on so much and it is becoming so much more integrated.”
But perhaps we’re still optimistically looking for the positives in a world where there is still a long way to go before equality is achieved in any meaningful way. In Britain alone, there has been a recent rise in race-related hate crimes, which UN representative Professor Tendayi Achiume called “Brexit-related”, and the Home Office figures showed an “EU-referendum spike”. However, not every BAME person in England will experience racism, and Ray counts himself as one of the lucky ones, as his suburban lifestyle grants him a level of privilege that others may not have.
I never thought baking would lead to anything other than just making nice cakes and enjoying eating those cakes
On the brighter side, Ray has had some fantastic opportunities since appearing on Bake Off, where he and fellow finalist Ian Cumming lost out to Nadiya Hussain. His best experiences include writing a food column for the Guardian and being invited to Downing Street a few weeks ago, for a reception celebrating Pride (he revealed he was gay in an interview during his time on Bake Off, to the disappointment of many female fans).
Ray, who is every bit as warm and charming in real life as on television, is still getting used to his newfound “celebrity” status.
“I get invited to celebrity things, like I got invited to Downing Street last week. I got to be there, in Downing Street, and Theresa May did a speech that was actually quite good.”
“I got into baking as purely a hobby, and I never thought it would lead to anything other than just making nice cakes and enjoying eating those cakes.”
On the subject of eating the cakes that he bakes, while filming the Channel 4 show Live Well for Longer which he presents with Kate Quilton, Ray came to the realisation that despite being a doctor he could look after his health better.
People think that doctors and nurses are gonna be really healthy people but we’re very often not
“The main point of the show was that any person could watch [it] and could make changes to their lifestyle the next day. It’s not about crazy, zany things, it’s about sensible advice that you can put into practice. In lots of ways it kind of made me think I’m really not that healthy, I really need to do something about it.
“It was definitely very much a learning experience for me. I think people think that doctors and nurses are gonna be really healthy people but we’re very often not, I think there’s a difference between having the knowledge and actually putting it into practice.”
The health secretary should be someone who has worked in healthcare
However, he believes the NHS could be in more experienced hands than those of Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who was recently appointed Jeremy Hunt’s successor in Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle. Ray has been one of the many well-known health professionals to be openly critical of Hunt.
“To me, I think the health secretary should be someone who has worked in healthcare like, at least in a management role in a hospital, but better a nurse or a doctor, someone who’s actually got on the ground experience. Not that like being a doctor or a nurse automatically means that you’re good at organising services, but you need to have some insider knowledge and understanding.”
But perhaps his most controversial opinions are in the world of baking. When Mary Berry chose to put a Jaffa Cake technical challenge in Cake Week of 2016’s Bake Off, the world (well, mostly Twitter really) went mad. The question divided Britain, but Ray sides with McVities and Mary.
“I have to take a position, don’t I? I can’t sit on the Jaffa Cake fence.
“I would say cake. Because it’s all spongy and soft isn’t it? A biscuit has got to be either chewy like a chocolate chip cookie or hard. Yeah, it’s a cake.
“I’m gonna lose half my Twitter followers aren’t I? They’ll be outraged.”
Live Well for Longer starts Wednesday 18th July at 8pm on Channel 4. Follow Tamal on Twitter @drraybakes.
Ben Sledge 17th July 2018