The Crumbs interview: Tom Hovey

“At this precise moment I am elbow-deep in delicious cakes and bakes, as it
 is Bake Off season, which keeps me busy 
from June until December”

Think you’re not familiar with this local foodie? Just take a look at his handiwork and you’ll soon realise who he is, says JESSICA CARTER, as she catches five with the Bristol-based illustrator

“Food and art are two of my main passions in life (my wife being the other, of course),” says Tom, although they didn’t necessarily come to him in that order. “I’ve been drawing since I knew how to hold a pencil, but food came much later. I was an incredibly fussy eater up until the age of about 16,” he admits.

Tom caught the foodie bug after getting the illustration gig at The Great British Bake Off. This newfound fascination then fed back into (genuinely unintentional pun, there) his art.

“I became really interested in cooking around the same time I got the job working on GBBO. As my interest in food has developed, it has informed my food illustration work,” he says. “I love the challenge of making a dish look as dynamic on the page of a magazine as it would if it was placed in front of you in a restaurant.”

Indeed, this city creative has become just as experimental in his artistic stylings as he has in his food choices.

“I love playing with colour and form; the more complex a dish, the more it excites me – I want to do it justice, as well as give it a new life as art. That’s one of the ways I think food illustration can have an advantage over photography: it can make you see things in a different way, gives the food a different life. There are not enough hours in the day for all the dishes that I want to illustrate, so I have a folder full of meals made by chefs that I know are just waiting for me to draw when I have a spare few hours.”

But that seems unlikely for now; Tom is stacked, being in the middle of his busiest time of the year.

“At this precise moment I am elbow-deep in delicious cakes and bakes, as it
 is Bake Off season, which keeps me busy 
from June until December. But I am now
 also producing a range of food illustration work, not just of cakes, for everything from editorial to branding.”

And how did it all come about? Turns out, it’s how all the best things that happen in life do, of course – ultimately, by accident.

“It was a case of ‘right place, right time’,” says Tom. “I moved to London to seek fame and fortune, but had not organised a job to go to. So, a friend managed to get me work helping out on the edit for a new amateur baking show for the BBC. I was working in the edit suite with the series director and editor when they mentioned that there was a visual element missing from the show, and they were thinking of including some illustration. I said I could do it, pitched a few ideas and got the gig.”

Now, six series in, Tom is still knocking out those quirky illustrations in his unique, signature style. However, as the more dedicated members of the Bake Off audience might have noticed, there have been some subtle changes in style over the years.

“The original brief was to illustrate what the baker’s planned to create for each challenge in the programme by making it look as though they had sketched it in their kitchen note books,” Tom remembers. “This hasn’t changed, and neither has the need for me to keep the homely aesthetic in mind – but my approach to creating the illustrations has changed every year. We didn’t use any colour in the first series, so I decided to use big areas of black shading to bring a bit of contrast to the bakes to help the viewer understand the different components. For the second series we introduced colour to the graphics from the start, and had a much stronger photograph to drop the images on to, which really helped the overall look.

“Every year I developed a better understanding of how to use colour to show off the components of the bakes, and by series four I felt I had figured out the key to unlocking the style I had been striving for in the first three.

“I think with every long-term project there should be a visible progression in technique and skill. I also believe that, as the contestants’ skills have improved year on year, so have mine; and, in turn, my ability to display their creations in the best possible way.”

Although now well-seasoned in his GBBO work, Tom admits that each series still manages to throw the odd curveball his way.

“Sometimes the contestants’ bakes don’t quite end up looking like they imagined, like Iain’s baked Alaska during last series, with it ultimately ending up in a bin. My job is to represent what the bakers planned to create, because my graphics will be shown before they eventually ruin it. So, I had to ask Iain to do me a drawing of what he intended to make, which was very good, and I worked from that. We always get there in the end.”

It’s not just this gig alone which has been keeping Tom busy, though; you may have already spotted a certain sculpture in Bristol with Tom’s name (figuratively) written all over it.

“After seeing the Gromit Unleashed trail all around Bristol in 2013, I was gutted that I never got round to submitting an entry for it. So when I heard about Shaun in the City I jumped at the chance. I am also a big fan of The Grand Appeal charity and all they do for children’s hospitals, so getting the chance to raise some money for them was great.”

And when it came to his design for the Shaun, Tom knew exactly where to go for inspiration.

“I decided that creating a layered cake design based on the French pastry dessert, mille-feuille, would work well on the 3D sculpture, with layers of multi-coloured fruit, cream and pastry. I also incorporated Swiss rolls and cream buns for the ears, top of the head, tail and legs, which gave the design a bit of balance, alongside the busy body. I ultimately wanted to make it bold, bright and look good enough to eat – and I think I achieved that. I’m guessing it took about 150 hours; it was a lot of long days and nights over the space of about five weeks.”

When he’s not getting his head down in the studio, Tom can often be spotted chowing down in Stokes Croft.

“I work out of a shared studio there, so I’m really lucky to have lots of amazing foodie options for lunch. I’m slightly addicted to The Pear Café’s incredible sandwiches; I usually get a Chilli Daddy at least once a week; and I’ve had Biblos’ wraps three times already this week, so I think that speaks for itself. Weekend food vibes always call for takeaway pizzas from The Park Bakery on St John’s Lane – the best pizzas in Bristol. It’s a fact.”


You can spy Star Bake, Tom’s Shaun in the City creation, at Boston Tea Party on Gloucester Road, and you can catch his illustrations on GBBO on BBC 1, Wednesdays, for the rest of this month;