Andrew Smyth on the Great British Bake Off

An interview with the baker and aerospace engineer

Great British Bake Off finalist, Andrew Smyth, captured many a heart back in the 2016 Bake Off tent. Now the aerospace engineer is set to take Ireland by storm with his series of Baking in Space shows, which fuse his two passions. Andrew hails from Holywood, Co. Down and studied engineering at the University of Cambridge. Whilst at university, Andrew specialised his studies into the area of aerospace engineering. “I’ve always had a fascination with aircraft. I started training as a pilot before I left for university. I did some solo-flying when I was younger and always had a passion for aviation. I was one of those children who was always asking a lot of questions about how the world works so engineering seemed like quite a natural fit.” 

Throughout his degree Andrew realised that the engineering and designing of aircraft was even more appealing than being in the pilot’s seat. He now works as part of a jet engine design team within Rolls Royce. “At the moment I’m working in what we call a future platform team.” The work aims to look towards aircraft of the future, and how developments in hydrogen or electrical technology will change aviation. On changes towards greener air travel, Andrew comments: “There’s clearly going to be a huge move in that direction. It’s acknowledged across the industry that long haul travel is very difficult to do [sustainably] because the energy that you get with fossil fuels is hard to beat. Things like sustainable aviation fuels are getting a lot more attention. Everybody here wants to make things more green.“

When he’s not working with engines, Andrew divides his time up to continue pursuing his love of baking. What drew him to baking? “Well eating has always been a passion,” he jokes. “My parents and grandparents, mainly my mum and my gran, taught me the basics and then when I went to university I did a little bit more. “But he remarks it was really when he graduated and had a kitchen of his own to play around in that baking became a priority. “I started doing more and more complicated stuff and had always been a huge fan of the show [GBBO]. Then, at the end of 2015, I just decided to take the plunge and apply for Bake Off.“ He was surprised when at the end of the application process he was successful. “Once I got there I was like this is when I really need to know my stuff! I went into a sort of turbo practice mode!”

“It was just work, eat, bake, sleep during the whole period! It was very intense but incredibly fun.”

This clearly paid off with Andrew reaching the final, and surviving ten weeks of tricky technical challenges scrutinised by the watchful eyes of Paul and Mary. “It was just work, eat, bake, sleep during the whole period! It was very intense but incredibly fun.” An average of around 13.8 million people tuned in to each episode in 2016. “It was a lot of pressure, you get the brief and then having to try and meet the brief in a very short period of time.” Whilst on the show Andrew was known for his attention to detail and precise designs. He notes that on Bake Off all the competitors have to play to their strengths and that precision designing and complicated structures were somewhat in his comfort zone as an engineer. Despite the intense competition the bakers have remained a close-knit bunch, according to Andrew: “We have a big WhatsApp group and we talk pretty much every day!”

Andrew has managed some pretty fantastically engineered bakes since Bake Off too, including a rotating engine cake for Prince William. “I’ve had ambitions to do a hovering cake at some point in the future! I did another one, a wind turbine cake which was completely edible. You could rotate a little wind turbine model, with biscuit bearings and some candy cane welded together.” On stumbling into this hybrid baking slash engineering career, Andrew says his goals evolved along the way. “Bake Off just happened. It’s such a whirlwind and then I realised afterwards there’s such an opportunity to do something. I’ve always had an interest in presenting and doing STEM stuff and a few opportunities presented themselves. I thought actually that’s what I’d love to do now, I can use my platform … what I’ve found since I kind of fell into this science communications world is just how willing everybody is to share their ideas and collaborate. I feel like I’ve found my people, curious people who ask questions and love learning. That’s what I’ve always been about. It’s nice when you find your tribe.“

Andrew divides his time between his science communication, baking projects and engineering “day job”. “I work four days a week in my job as an aerospace engineer and then I have one day for other projects. It’s called a braided career, where you follow two career paths at the same time. I think for millennials we call it the side hustle! I obviously want to progress in both and this is enabling me to do that. I’m able to say yes to those opportunities whilst still working in the area I love.” Andrew completely breaks the mould of what a stereotypical career in engineering looks like. He represents a significant move towards the blending of STEM and more creative fields and shows that you simply don’t have to pick one. 

If he could give a piece of advice to his undergraduate self it would be: “Don’t worry about having a huge master plan of what you want to do in five years or ten years time. If you had asked me what I’d be doing in ten years I wouldn’t have said working part-time as an engineer and doing baking and presenting on the side. So there are options for you to carve out your career. You have time to work out what you enjoy, you don’t have to have it all planned out. “ In the future, Andrew would love to return to the television screen, this time to bring the joy of engineering to the masses. “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. The live show is kind of a stepping stone towards that, but I’ve got plans for much bigger things further down the line.”

“When I started in the industry it felt like nobody was really taking about it, to the point where I was like is there anyone else who’s gay and working here?”

Andrew is a passionate advocate for inclusivity of members of LGBTQ+ community in STEM. He feels that the field has come along way in the six years he’s been working in engineering. “When I started in the industry it felt like nobody was really taking about it, to the point where I was like is there anyone else who’s gay and working here?” He acknowledges that a conversation really needs to start, as LGBTQ+ scientists are not as visible as other minority groups. “For the LGBT side of things it isn’t as clear. You want to spread the message but you don’t want to feel like you’re shoe-horning something in.” He describes how he makes an effort to include a rainbow prism cake, which he baked for LGBT STEM day in presentations about his work, in order to highlight the issues importance within a normalised, informal context. 

Andrew and Irish scientist and performer, Dr Niamh Shaw, along with some special guests from the European Space Agency, will bring their exciting Baking in Space show back to Dublin, Galway and Cork after a successful run last year. “I’m really excited we’ve got great support from Yakult and the British Council. The ticket price is five euros and we wanted to keep it affordable for everyone to come along to, but that’s only because of them that we’re able to that.”

Andrew says the idea behind the show is to enlighten people about space through the non-threatening medium of food. While we might not all understand designing shuttles for atmospheric re-entry, nearly all of us can appreciate a classic Baked Alaska. I’ll leave it for the trained experts Andrew and Niamh to explain that connection at their show. The audience can expect an exciting show of family-friendly fun, live cooking demos and some edible treats. “There might even be some real astronaut food from the same batch that’s been up to the International Space Station. It will be engineering meets food and how we eat in space. Our aim is to spark curiosity and just have a really good time!” Baking in Space will take place in the Smock Alley at 2.30pm and 7.30 pm on the 11th of November, with performances in Galway and Cork on the 12th and 13th respectively.

Lucy Fitzsimmons

Lucy Fitzsimmons is the SciTech co-Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister student of Chemical Sciences.