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Great British Bake Off judge Paul Hollywood: 'There's two people who know the whole story about our marriage'

Ahead of tonight's Great British Bake Off final and a visit to Belfast this weekend, the celeb tells Ivan Little of his life in the headlines

Celebrity chef Paul Hollywood is a judge on The Great British Bake Off
Celebrity chef Paul Hollywood is a judge on The Great British Bake Off
Paul Hollywood with Mary Beard and television presenters Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc
Marital split: Paul Hollywood and his estranged wife Alexandra

Given all the scandal that has surrounded his extra-marital activities of late, it's a somewhat delicious irony to discover that TV's master baker and celebrity chef Paul Hollywood was once offered the job of a monk ... in Ireland.

He kicked the habit obviously and he's been living an anything but saintly existence of late but the 47-year-old chef usually adopts a monastic silence when he's asked about his private life. The Merseysider, who's now a household name thanks to the sensational success of the BBC2 series the Great British Bake Off, bats off questions about his domestic arrangements with a pointed 'No Comment'.

But getting him to talk about his kitchen passions is a piece of cake.

And that memory of his one and only visit to Ireland brings a smile to the bearded face with its piercing blue eyes so beloved of his legion of female fans who've dubbed him the thinking woman's crumpet and the George Clooney of bakery.

He recalls: "I was filming in Roscrea in Co Tipperary. I had great fun watching monks in the monastery there making bread. They even offered me a job as their main baker. One of them said I would make a good monk but I told him there was a slight problem because I was married."

The head of the monastery agreed that his marital status was something of an issue but added, 'perhaps later'.

What the abbot would think now is debatable. For it's nigh-on impossible to open a newspaper without reading someone dishing the dirt about the twists of his familial crises after the break-up of his marriage to his wife of 15 years, Alexandra, and reports of an affair with Marcela Valladolid, his co-star on TV show, the American Baking Competition.

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Such is his celebrity at present that this interview had to be rescheduled at least twice and then hastily arranged at the last moment as he flitted between enagements. On every occasion his refusal to talk about his private life was stressed.

Only once has Paul Hollywood given the case for the defence. Recently in an interview with the Times, he said his marriage broke down for a number of reasons. "There's two people who know the whole story," he said. "The people who matter know everything. The people that don't matter make up their own things and then have an opinion."

Paul also spoke of the pain of the separation for his 12-year-old son Joshua. But he said he didn't feel guilty over the situation.

"Guilt? Guilt for what?" he asked "My boy and me are very close. He's hurt. I was hurt when I was a kid. I know what it's like, more so than anybody but at the end of the day ... they don't know whether I'm back with Alex."

Speculation about a reconciliation rose after Paul and his wife went out with Joshua for a birthday meal for their son and they have also exchanged tweets.

But the proof of any easing of tensions lies in the pudding and Paul isn't giving anything away.

But he has also found himself in the headlines after he was accused of giving preferential treatment to a Great British bake-off contestant Ruby Tandoh because of her looks. He rubbished claims that he was flirting with the 21-year-old former model.

Paul also sparked controversy after he told Wendy Austin on Radio Ulster's Talkback last week that he was sceptical about the breads which people suffering coeliac disease should eat and claimed the condition was often misdiagnosed.

He also said coeliacs should try different, more expensive breads, but organisations representing sufferers like Gluten Free Ireland accused him of talking nonsense.

Paul, however, is still looking forward to his first visit to Northern Ireland on Friday when he will open the three-day Food and Drink show at the King's Hall in Belfast where he will also give demonstrations and talks along with a veritable feast of the most famous chefs in the British Isles.

But while he's here Paul also hopes to unravel one or two Northern Irish food mysteries as well as coming up with the answers to people's queries about baking.

And one of his main priorities will be to find out what Veda is all about.

"I've only heard of it recently but I have no idea what it is." Several fruitless minutes are spent trying to share with Paul the wonders of the Veda and the importance of having it toasted and swimming in butter.

"I will definitely try it when I am over. I have eaten potato bread and soda bread and they're excellent. Paul Rankin is producing them and they're now in shops and supermarkets in England.

"I'm a big fan of Paul's. I know him well through working on food shows on the television together and he is always telling me how much the culinary scene in Ireland as a whole has improved. "He says the whole thing is amazing so I can't wait to get out and have a look around."

Paul has been surprised by the way The Great British Bake Off has taken off. The latest final airs tonight but he says he never expected that the programme would provide the recipe for a major television hit.

The production company behind the show clearly knew what they were doing when they auditioned Paul as one of the judges and took the idea to the BBC, though reports say the Beeb weren't initially convinced that it would be a winner because they thought it would only appeal to a limited market.How wrong they were. Now in its fourth series, the programme has attracted audiences of almost six million, a remarkable figure for a cookery show.

And while he has become something of a sex symbol, he reckons it's a taste of the past which has whetted the appetites of viewers.

"I think it all boils down to nostalgia," he says. "Everyone has a favourite cake, pastry, pudding or pie from when they were kids.

"And it's great to get everyone baking again because everyone can do it with the bare essentials that they will have in their cupboards. It's something that can be done fairly immediately without endless preparation."

The series, which is recorded mainly at weekends, takes around four months to complete, with two days spent on filming each of the episodes. And it's not as easy as viewers think to co-ordinate all the ingredients of the programme. "It takes time to re-set the cameras and get everything set up. "That is basically where the time is lost. But it gives the bakers the opportunity to chill out and relax." And that's something which Paul rarely gets to do. "It's all a bit manic with work at the moment. But I'm not complaining. "However, when I do get some time to myself I like to watch movies and football and I'm also into my cars."

Paul's love of baking comes from his dad who owned a chain of independent bakeries. "I grew up to the smell of doughnuts, scones, pies and bread."

Initially however, Paul who was also interested in sculpture, didn't think it would be a case of like father like son. "No, I wanted to be a fireman," he says, "but I soon got the passion for baking from my father and realised that I had an aptitude for it and that I enjoyed doing it." Paul became head baker at a number of England's most renowned hotels including the Dorchester, the Chester Grosvenor and Cliveden.

But as the cult of culinary programmes on the television soared, it was probably that inevitable that given his brooding good looks, Paul would be recruited for the box and a Hollywood star was born.In 2002 he co-hosted Carlton Food Network programmes with James Martin, who will also be appearing at the Food and Drink Show in Belfast over the weekend.

Paul was soon a regular on shows like Richard and Judy, Ready Steady Cook and This Morning and women quickly voiced their appreciation for his buns, and not just the ones he was baking.

Paul, who runs an artisan baking business, is currently trying to build on his TV appeal with self-branded merchandise – including underwear – and next year he will embark on a British tour. However, he says that he still loves baking and that he is still learning. "You never get the same day twice and I am always finding out new things about baking."

While he may have followed in his father's footsteps, he very definitely didn't inherit his dad's love of Everton Football Club. For Paul is a fanatical Liverpool supporter. "Maybe it was the rebellious streak in me that made me a Red. I don't get to see them playing as much as I would like but I am relishing the prospect of taking my young lad to Anfield."

Paul admires what Carnlough man Brendan Rodgers is doing as manager of Liverpool. "I like the way they are playing this year and the players seem to have bonded around Brendan. If they can just settle down and the confidence can increase, we will do alright this year. I grew up with the likes of the Keegans, the Dalglishs and the old school who were dominating everything in English football."

Paul's teamwork with his Great British Bake Off co-presenter Mary Berry has been one of the major reasons why the programme has gone down to well with the Great British public.

"Mary has been fantastic. We are like-minded and we agree on most things. The partnership just seems to work as a package. We get on well together."

The perfect mix, you might say.

Stars to cook up a storm

Some of the best-known chefs from Northern Ireland, the UK and the Republic of Ireland will be taking part in the Food and Drink Show NI this weekend.

Local chefs Paul Rankin and Jenny Bristow will be joined by Paul Hollywood, James Martin, Nick Nairn, Rachel Allen and Neven Maguire in the Moy Park Celebrity Chef Theatre which will feature a three-day programme of cooking and baking demonstrations.

Tickets for the event, which will be the largest indoor consumer event of its kind to be staged in Northern Ireland, are available at

In addition to the Moy Park Celebrity Chef Theatre, the show will feature the Love Food Hate Waste Open Kitchen stage, sponsored by the DoE's Rethink Waste campaign, The Taste NI Artisan Village supported by Tesco, Foodwise sponsored by Safefood and Kitchen Living, which is being supported by pottery firm

Jane Boyce, Master of Wine at Co Down company JN Wine, will be recommending wines to complement the dishes created in the theatre.

The Food and Drink Show NI will take place on Friday, 10am-9pm, Saturday, 10am-8pm and Sunday, 10am-9pm at the King's Hall Pavilion, Belfast.

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