He's worked 70-hour weeks as a project manager on large-scale constructions and infrastructures, is a busy stay-at-home dad and single-handedly founded the Oke Charity, which funds and builds vegetable gardens in schools so kids can take an active role in growing their own food. But nothing could prepare Paul Dickson for the pressure of baking up a storm on a reality television show!
"I've loved baking since I was a kid," says Paul, 45, who is one of 10 amateur bakers vying for the top spot in the new season of The Great Kiwi Bake Off on TVNZ 1. "It's always been my way of de-stressing.
"I was the guy who brought baked goods into the office for the team and I really enjoy baking with my son Taylor. We have a lot of fun in the kitchen. I've watched the show for years and all the contestants always look so together, so I figured – how hard could it be?"
Little did Paul realise, however, that baking in a confined space, surrounded by a television production crew, with cameras, hosts and judges close by – not to mention a bunch of other talented bakers – would be a whole different slice of cake.
"Baking at home is so different to doing it on the show," admits Paul, who made the decision to stop work to look after Taylor in 2014 after he and his wife Anj, 46, underwent a long and difficult fertility journey. "At home, you don't have any time restrictions – if you do something wrong, you can just start again. On the show, you only get one chance to get it right, and you're in an entirely unfamiliar environment, using equipment you've never used before.
"As a project manager, my job was to be unflappable and make sure things finished on time, with the least amount of stress," explains Paul. "Baking with cameras pointed right at you, next to nine other very talented bakers, with constant distractions… It's a completely different situation to making scones and cookies at home with Taylor.
"Once you're under the lights, all those delusions you have of wowing the judges, winning the competition and becoming an international YouTube cooking sensation suddenly don't seem all that realistic!"
Paul says that prior to filming, he wasn't too concerned about baking on screen. Quite laid-back by nature, as well as his own skills, he'd taken advice from Anj, who worked as an executive chef in London before her current job as a wound care specialist nurse at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland.
"Anj is an amazing cake-maker. She makes incredible birthday cakes for Taylor and for her godchildren, and I got a bunch of cake-making tips from her, including how to use fondant and how to decorate. Maybe she should have gone on the show instead of me!"
While Paul says he was as prepared as he could be, some things were out of his control.
"At the beginning of day two, I woke up with a migraine that lasted for the best part of two weeks. I've had migraines for years, so I know when they're coming on and can usually rest until it's better, but that's not an option when you're filming. It's really hard to think straight with a migraine – even a basic cake recipe doesn't make sense as the words swim in front of your eyes."
But while Paul enjoys baking, he admits his charity Oke is the project that's closest to his heart.
"The idea started in 2015, when I learned the principal of Papatoetoe West Primary School wanted to build a garden for the kids, but they had to jump through loads of hoops before they could get it made. Because I worked in project management for over 20 years, I told them I could build it for them – and I did it in one day."
Since then, Oke has built 37 gardens across Auckland, plus one in the Waikato, with more than a dozen schools on the waiting list.
"We provide the schools with everything they need to get a garden built, from garden sheds and tools, to raised beds and fruit trees," he says. "We now employ people to help with the builds, including a 'school mate' who goes around checking the gardens to make sure they have everything they need to keep the garden productive."
And in an ironic twist, it's not the first time Oke has been mentioned on Bake Off, with Breakfast host Anna Burns-Francis choosing it as her chosen charity on last year's The Great Kiwi Bake Off Christmas Special.
"That was great – although Anna's baking didn't go quite as she expected either!" laughs Paul. "I think we both learned that even if you're good at baking, things don't always go according to plan when you're in front of a camera."
The Great Kiwi Bake Off screens Thursdays at 7.30pm on TVNZ 1.
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