Baker, businessman and witty tweet maker Ali Imdad on Bake Off, Brum and burying a few ghosts to rest in that tent
Ali Imdad baked his way into the hearts of Great British Bake Off fans on series 4 of the hit show and while he didn’t win – he came ninth – it was the beginning of a career in food he’d never dreamed of. His established Ladypool Road dessert parlour, Artisan, opened 18 months ago and is thriving – so much so that Ali has launched high-end pop-up patisserie Cocoa in the Bullring which opened in December cannily timed to coincide with his stint on the GBBO Christmas special.
The combination of a degree in business management and marketing teamed with the exposure from GBBO is proving a success. Ali’s already contemplating larger premises for Cocoa plus there’s a restaurant on the horizon too. Having started cooking out of necessity when he moved to Leicester to study, it quickly became a hobby for Ali. “I started making chicken pie and fish pie first of all then moved on to cupcakes,” he said. Necessity soon became pleasure and Ali found his baking feet. “It was nothing more than a hobby until I entered Bake Off on a whim and got accepted. I’d never wanted to be on TV – that wasn’t the motivation and I didn’t know what to expect.”
The application process was tougher than you might expect with several rounds, interviews, challenges and even a chat with a psychotherapist! Filming was a bit alien initially for Ali who’d never been in front of a camera. He explained: “Filming the first episode was daunting. The cameras are in your face, but I quickly got used to it and as I focused more on baking the cameras and the producers just blurred into the background.”
The programme sounds as idyllic and wholesome as you might imagine and while the producers did ‘television-y’ things, Ali said of the experience: “It’s just an honest, innocent, family-friendly show and everyone involved was so lovely. Mary Berry is even nicer than you see on TV. She is sometimes encouraged to be more critical, but she’s just really lovely.”
Largely disappointed with his performance in the tent, Ali was thrilled to get the call up for the Christmas special in 2016. He thought he could ‘lay a few ghosts to rest’. “To be only one of eight people to be called up was great,” he said. “It wasn’t daunting this time, so I just enjoyed the experience and it was great to get to bake with Norman and Mary Anne.
“I don’t think I did that well first time round, so it was good to go back and do better. I’ve got closure now!” Many fans took to social media outraged that he didn’t win typically saying he was robbed which he’s flattered by and more importantly he got the ultimate seal of approval from Paul Hollywood – his signature handshake.
Before Ali opened Artisan he was working out of his mum’s kitchen in Saltley. Once he’d found the right premises the business really took off, appealing to the sweet teeth of Brum although customers have been known to travel from as far afield as Manchester. The desserts aren’t cheap – that’s not what it’s about. Ali spends hours baking every day with is growing team and everything is handmade with top notch ingredients. Cocoa is a high-end affair because Ali felt there was nothing like it in the city. He explained: “High end pastry houses are everywhere in London and doing well, but there wasn’t a single one in Birmingham.”
Aside from that, Ali’s impressed and excited by his home town’s burgeoning food scene. He said: “Go back five years and the city was full of chains and that was it. Now we’ve got thriving independents and a great street food scene. People like the Original Patty Men are doing great things. Digbeth Dining Club is hugely supportive of independents and the scene is getting stronger and stronger.” Ali’s vision for his restaurant is an American Diner with a twist. “People know I can bake, but I can really cook too. I like the idea of fusing an American diner with flavours from Muslim countries such as the flavours of Malaysia.”
If you follow Ali on Twitter you’ll know his feed is a mixture of wonderfully inviting snaps of his creations, funny observations, a smattering of politics and a place where he confronts racist attitudes of which he experiences around the city more than we ever imagined. He shuts it down with witty retorts and good humour. Mourning the Bake Off’s move from the Beeb and the departure of the magic making trio Sue, Mel and Mary, Ali’s sure it won’t have the same charm and warmth, but he’ll be watching all the same. Won’t we all.