Great British Baking Show Power Rankings 2020 – Japanese Week

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

I know I got that out of the way in advance at the end of last week’s column, and I hate to start off another column with another concentrated blast of negativity, GBBS ostensibly being something I like and all, but I feel it bears repeating. What was Japanese Week, exactly, and what were the producers of the show trying to accomplish in airing it? Who pitched this idea, and who was around to listen to the pitch and decide that it was a good idea worth pursuing? That this episode was conceived, pitched, designed, shot, and edited is a miracle of fuck-ups, one that I did not think possible even in this ghastly, cruel prank of a year.

Regular readers will know (or at least strongly suspect) that I went into this episode with extremely low expectations. And, while I did not particularly enjoy myself the first time I watched it, I was more confused than anything. It sure seemed like the actual Japanese part of the episode – you know, the part that theoretically should have highlighted actual Japanese baking and baking techniques – was curiously absent. But, since I don’t know all that much about Japanese baking myself, my initial reaction was not one of active disgust.

Rather, it seemed to me that Japanese Week was, like Festival Week and Roaring 20’s Week last year, an excuse for the Challenges to be whatever the hell the judges wanted them to be. As a stickler for linguistic precision, these weeks annoy me enough when the stakes are low. If you tell me that next week’s GBBS is going to be Festival Week, I’m gonna scratch my head, pensively look at my feet before raising a squinty gaze toward the middle distance, and ask you, “Just what the fuck does ‘Festival Week’ even mean?”

But this example is obviously harmless. Invoking an actual culture, one with its own distinct baking tradition and style, and then using that invocation towards no discernible end, is obviously not harmless at all. I must confess, however, that the first time I watched the episode, I wasn’t able to place a finger on what exactly was fucked up about this. I could tell it wasn’t great from a cultural sensitivity standpoint, but if you asked me to elaborate I would not have done a good job in doing so. That said, it sure seemed to me like the Kawaii Cake Show Stopper was designed solely to force the bakers to make yet another elaborately decorated cake in a way that I found tacky. This whole show is elaborately decorated cakes; my thoughts immediately drifted toward this TV Tropes article. Any elements of the challenge that reflected actual Japanese baking or culture seemed to be largely coincidental.

My point is that I could tell something was off with the episode, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was, exactly. Fortunately, since Sarah is more plugged in to the outside world in general, she directed my attention to this article from the Independent (be warned – while the article itself is well worth your time, the website itself is quite a mess), which broke down exactly what was fucked up about Japanese Week in plain terms. To summarize briefly and I hope fairly (seriously, just read the dang article), the ‘Japanese’ part of Japanese Week was a vague gesture in the direction a wide variety of East Asian cuisines and traditions from a variety of East Asian cultures, which the show treated interchangeably.

That’s not great! When I went back to watch the episode a second time to take my notes, I couldn’t not consider this critique at all times, and as a result, I noticed a few more details that slipped past my notice on first watch. For one thing, the Show Stopper seemed to have even less to do with Japanese baking than even I thought at first. I thought Prue said that using some sort of Japanese flavors was a requirement, but it would even that much was just a suggestion; her exact quote was that “it would be nice” if the bakers used these flavors.

More concerning than that, however, was the way in which everyone in the Tent discussed Paul Hollywood’s recent-ish trip to Japan. Again, I must refer you to the Independent article, which you should have read it by now, but in case you haven’t, the important thing to know is that Paul’s trip was chronicled in a TV show that aired in the UK, one that showed Paul didn’t know the first fucking thing about Japan before but felt he understood its culture through the power of stereotyping. And yet, the way this trip was talked about in the Tent, you would think that this one trip had made Paul an expert in all things Japanese when really, the dude is kind of an idiot.

I haven’t been everywhere, but I’ve been enough places to know that a single trip somewhere does not make one an expert on that place. In my experience, it has underscored my ignorance of the world at large rather than resolved it, to a degree so staggering that I can’t even imagine how someone could feel otherwise. Like, come the fuck on dude. I don’t know enough about how the show is made to know definitively if it is structured to stoke Paul’s ego, but I can’t deny that it’s sure seemed that way at times since the show’s move. The whole display was ugly, regardless.

I am also compelled to make mention of Paul’s professed gherkin aversion. It is no secret that I think the judges, when confronted with ingredients or flavors that are not their thing, are duty bound to suck it up and deal. Sarah tells me that British gherkins are sweet, which makes me a bit more sympathetic to Paul’s cause, but I was still put off when he rolled up to Mark and Lottie’s tables and pitched a fit, albeit a polite one. Suck it up, buddy.

Later in the episode, just before the Show Stopper got going, Paul also went on a mild screed about how, from time to time, he must make decisions about which bakes he preferred based on his prior opinions of the flavors being used, and while I acknowledge it’s kind of narcissistic to even think this I couldn’t help but feel it was a shot at me, personally, even though that’s impossible. I think there’s a point in here somewhere about how the judging of this show is obviously subjective, and maybe I should be patient with that, but when Paul has it out for something he’s just such a brat about it that I’m disinclined to give him much leeway. Again, the Tent is a class war, and the judges are the owners of capital. They can deal.

Despite this lingering bad taste in my mouth, I’m soldiering on to do the Rankings like normal. As befitting a season where the overall skill level is superb, and a week in which the margin which separated the bakers in danger of Elimination from the bakers in Star Baker contention was razor-thin, this week once again sees a lot of shuffling throughout the Rankings. Before we know it, it’s going to be time for the Finals; I feel reasonably confident, but far from certain, in who I believe has the best chances of making it this distance. It’s a crazy year, and a lot could happen in the remaining four episodes.

Week 6 – Japanese Week

Signature Challenge: 8 Steamed Buns

Technical Challenge

Recipe: Matcha Crepe Cake

Judge: Prue

Parameters: Correct amount of crepes. Thin crepes and strawberry slices; even layering. Properly shaped fruit decoration on top

Show Stopper: Kawaii Cake

Star Baker: Lottie

Eliminated: Mark

7. Mark

Last Week: 4th Change: -3

Place in Technical: 5th

Bit of a surprise to see Mark going home already, especially since most of his baking this week was right down the middle, and firmly lodged in the “not bad at all, but also not great” space that he could only get out of once every so often. His Signature was fine, mostly criticized with respect to the filling being dry, but everyone’s buns had dry filling so there are worse things. His Technical graded out similarly, although with his second middling Technical finish in as many weeks, I was starting to suspect that doom may be imminent. After all, Mark’s best week-to-week strength had been his high placements in the Technical, and while it’s clear that the judges don’t give as much weight to it as they have in previous seasons, doing well still provides good insulation from Elimination if the practice bakes aren’t up to snuff. And alas, Mark’s true downfall was his face plant in the Show Stopper, which has always been one of the most efficient ways for a baker to land in extreme danger. The idea of an avocado cake seems weird to me, but I suppose if avocado ice cream can be a thing there’s no reason it can’t work in theory. However it is supposed to work, though, it would seem Mark didn’t pull it off, as his cake was bland, dry, and had terrible texture; the decoration was also the sloppiest of the lot. It’s a tough break.

6. Laura

Last Week: 6th Change: 0

Place in Technical: 7th

For the second week in a row, I went into the Show Stopper thinking Laura was toast, but she pulled herself out of the fire with an excellent bake. Her cake looked the business, mostly, although there was some grousing about the scoring on the outer layer of fondant, and said fondant also smushed down the layers inside. But her flavors received a great deal of praise, as they tend to. Much more concerning were her Signature and Technical performances, both of which seemed to be the worst in the Tent from where I’m sitting. There’s not a lot for me to say about Laura’s baking game that I haven’t said already. Her flavors are usually pretty good even relative to the rest of Tent, and it seems that’s saved her more than once. But her lack of attention to detail continues to spell doom, as do her consistently low Technical placements, even if it’s the sort of doom that she’s managed to forestall time and again. Laura seems cool and nice and all, but I’m kind of surprised she’s still around, and even as I am forced to concede that her knack for pulling out a great bake when she needs it most is a skill, I still can’t giver her better than long odds for the Semis, let alone the Finals. Those kinds of performances aren’t sustainable.

5. Marc

Last Week: 7th Change: +2

Place in Technical: 6th

I also would not have expected Marc to be hanging around in the Tent this late in the season, although I do think his baking has rounded into form with greater consistency. Even with a second-to-last Technical finish, Marc had a pretty great week that sort of flew under the radar, although the judges did drop his name when discussing potential Star Bakers. His steamed buns were excellent save only for some grousing about their size and lack of definition, and his Show Stopper was, quite possible, the best and neatest looking of the bunch (it’s a puppy!). But the thing with Marc that keeps me from placing him higher is that, as I noted with Dave a few weeks ago (hold that thought), I do sort of feel that it’s been a while since Marc nailed the presentation, bake, and flavor all at the same time. The problems with the presentation of his Signature are already noted, and while his Show Stopper looked great and tasted great, the sponges themselves got dinged for being unevenly baked. Also, his Technicals have sagged as of late, and to a concerning degree. Marc has shown a lot at this point, but he still has enough problems that I can’t look entirely past his rough early weeks just yet.

4. Hermine

Last Week: 2nd Change: -2

Place in Technical: 4th

I’ve been high on Hermine for most of the season, so it was concerning to see her have one of the worst weeks of anyone. That said, I’m a bit put out by Prue’s comments on her Show Stopper, as she criticized the cake for “not enough Japanese-ness”, like she knows the damn difference. It was an ugly and stupid comment on its face, made even more so by the fact that, as established already, there wasn’t much to do with actual Japanese baking to be found in the design of the Show Stopper. Still, Hermine has had minor issues with decoration for most of the season which continued this week. Her buns were a bit of a mess and it seemed that she didn’t pull off the look she was going for with her Show Stopper. But her flavors and the actual quality of her bakes remained top-notch, as they have most of the season. This has been a season of chaos, but I do feel like I know the general shape of Hermine’s game, at this point. Great bakes, great flavors, not so great presentation. I still like her chances, and I think she could easily end up in the Finals, but I also feel like I’ve seen a lot of seasons where there’s a baker with a similar skill set who makes the Semis, then performs a clear cut below everyone else and gets bounced as a result. I’m inclined to believe Hermine’s superior consistency can help her avoid this fate, and I also wonder if perhaps I’m overreacting to the sort of easily survived tough outing that happens to lots of eventual Finalists, but doubt is creeping in.

3. Dave

Last Week: 3rd Change: 0

Place in Technical: 3rd

So like I was saying earlier, a couple of weeks ago I was openly concerned that Dave hasn’t had an all-around great bake since Biscuit Week. With the way this season has gone, I should’ve known that this meant he would immediately step up and go on a mini-tear. While it remains the case that his bakes still usually get dinged for something, it’s also the case that those problems have tended towards the minor since I made my musing out loud. His steamed buns looked great and were well baked, but didn’t have quite enough filling for the judges’ liking. His Show Stopper was excellent all around, save for some visible creases in his fondant near the bottom; it’s also worth pointing out that he used rosewater in the flavoring of his cake, and it worked out for him. Pretty soon, I’m gonna have to stop calling its use a trap. My point here is to emphasize that the problems Dave has had the past couple of weeks have been decidedly minor, and even his Technical placements have been trending upwards in that time. Of the bakers who I wasn’t all that high on in the early season who are still in the Tent, Dave has shown the most organic, sustainable improvement. If he keeps it up, he could easily snag a spot in the Finals.

2. Lottie

Last Week: 5th Change: +3

Place in Technical: 2nd

It feels a bit weird to slide Lottie up 3 entire spots in The Rankings after one measly Star Baker turn; I thought I was above that sort of thing. I think I have a tendency to fall back on my established impressions of each baker’s skill level from the first couple of weeks, and while I try to step outside of that, the appeal of falling back on those impressions in a season of chaos is all too great. Oddly enough, Sura’s Elimination the week after I placed her in the top spot has only accelerated this trend, when a more sensible person would realize assuming to much about what will happen in the Tent is folly. But I liked Lottie’s chances early in the season, so for her to come out and do well in all three Challenges is enough for my confirmation bias to kick in. Her Show Stopper certainly seemed to be the best of a strong bunch, and received nothing but praise. Her steamed buns had dry filling, but again, so did everyone else’s. She snagged 2nd in the Technical in a week where most bakers did a decent job – it’s not like she leaped over a glut of decidedly inferior crepe cakes to do so. I’m not going to call Lottie a lock for the Finals or anything; this season has been too weird and these bakers are too close in skill level for me to be comfortable doing so, and it is worth remembering she’s coming off a couple of tough weeks. But this week was a good reminder of why I liked her chances initially.

1. Peter

Last Week: 1st Change: 0

Place in Technical: 1st

I can’t tell if Peter had an off week or a low-key great one, leading me to believe that the answer is neither. Being top in the Technical is always a huge plus, but the judges didn’t seem to love either of his practice bakes. In particular, Paul seemed to take umbrage with the quantity of filling in his steamed buns. He did that thing where he cuts a cross section open and points out something about the bake and gets into exactly why it happened and exactly why it’s undesirable, and that’s often bad news. His Show Stopper was praised for its look (although if you ask me, the sparklers were tacky; upon seeing them, my brain inevitably and inextricably turned towards this scene, and its poignant reminder of the dangers of trying too hard) but not much else, at least from Paul. Prue seemed to like the flavor well enough. Still, none of this put Peter in any sort of danger, and he’s still baking at the highest level of anyone. The King stay the King and all that.

Next Week: I’m back to not knowing, just like with everything else going on these days.

3 thoughts on “Great British Baking Show Power Rankings 2020 – Japanese Week

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