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A bit of vitamin C gives rise to a career making plenty of dough

Date

Daniella Miletic

Celebrity baker Dan Lepard.

Celebrity baker Dan Lepard.

PRIMARY school teacher Ms Crane couldn't have known, 40 years ago, when she showed students in her tiny Boronia classroom how to make hot cross buns that the shy and softly spoken Dan Lepard would one day become one of Europe's most famous bakers.

The buns were Mr Lepard's first baking attempt and, he recalls, his first introduction to science and food.

''I still remember it today because she [Ms Crane] did something very strange,'' recalls Mr Lepard. ''She said in order to make really good hot cross buns, you have to add a vitamin C tablet.

''I often think now, 'How did she know that'? That wasn't something you read in the Women's Weekly …''

Mr Lepard says the use of ascorbic acid is now a topic of ''hot debate'' for bakers. ''I think that was my first bit of geekery in baking … and now I am king of the geek bakers.''

Born in Boronia, the 48-year-old is one of the stars of this year's Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. In London, where he now lives, Mr Lepard is well known as author of The Handmade Loaf and as a columnist for The Guardian.

But in Australia he is relatively unknown. This should change this year when he appears as a judge on Channel Nine's new reality cooking show, The Great Australian Bake Off.

Taking a break from filming at Werribee Mansion, the master baker said being home had stirred up memories. It has made him sentimental about a place he says he never quite fitted into. ''I remember seeing the career counsellor at high school with my ideas to either be a big chef or a fashion photographer,'' he says. ''I remember my teacher looking kind of wistful and a little bit depressed by it all … she explained that those weren't opportunities to be had in Boronia.''

After a year in Italy as an exchange student, Mr Lepard felt determined to save, travel and to try to become a photographer. At 20, he moved to Britain, where he held his first amateur exhibition in a hairdresser's basement.

He made a list of top London fashion magazine editors, sent them invitations and was shocked when they came to his show. Everything sold, most of it to a fashion house in Italy. The same fashion house later flew him to Italy, where a meeting with Italian Vogue led to them giving Mr Lepard 30 pages to fill.

But the glamour was short lived, and Mr Lepard found himself slowly slipping to advertising photography to pay the bills. ''I started at Vogue and I worked my way down to the bottom,'' he laughs.

In Soho, depressed about his career, he would often eat at Alastair Little's eponymous restaurant. Little, then getting famous as a chef himself, offered him a job in the kitchen. Mr Lepard packed away his camera, took the job and loved it. Slowly, his kitchen career shifted to focus solely on pastry and breadmaking. ''That was 1991 and … I'm still really happy, I love baking.''

On Nine's new show, in which amateur bakers compete in challenges, Mr Lepard hopes to be a teacher rather than a know-it-all judge. ''I didn't quite get it until after we started filming, and I thought, 'this is a big thing for these people' … and you feel very much like a mentor,'' he says.

Mr Lepard is known for using old British baking techniques and recipes. He still likes to champion Ms Crane's hot-cross buns technique, too.

''Funnily enough, I am still partial to a little bit [of vitamin C] today, because it makes them extra round, extra gorgeous and extra soft.''

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