UIC graduate students mix it up on ‘Great American Baking Show’
It is a remarkable coincidence that among all the contestants who could have been selected for “The Great American Baking Show” — a spin-off of the beloved “The Great British Bake Off” — two are graduate students at the University of Illinois Chicago. Complete strangers when they met, UIC College of Nursing student Sarah Chang and UIC College of Medicine student Nirali Chauhan were among the nine amateur bakers sourced from across the U.S. to compete in the show’s iconic white tent in England under the watchful eyes of judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, and with cheerful (and comedic) interruptions from hosts Ellie Kemper and Zach Cherry. The series, which debuted May 5, streams free on the Roku Channel.
UIC: Did you know each other before the show? When did you find out, and how did you react?
Sarah Chang (SC): We did not know each other. I was accepted and ready to start my program when we met. I’m a first-year at the College of Nursing in [the graduate-entry path of] the master’s program. We met over the summer  when we were filming. We were actually on the same flight to the U.K. from Chicago. I didn’t realize she was someone who would be at the show. We ended up getting picked up by the production company, and we were in the same car on the way to the hotel. Very quickly, Nirali said she was a medical student. I said, “Oh, where?” She said, “UIC.” I said, “Get out!”
Nirali Chauhan (NC): I am in my second year at the College of Medicine. I started in 2019 and took medical leave two years after starting to address a head injury that I had back in college. I’m in the Urban Medicine Program as well, and that’s why I chose UIC. The special curricular track was very important to me. Sarah and I realized we had so many more overlapping interests than just being graduate students at UIC and bakers. We both have master’s degrees in public health, and public health is really important to both of us. Sarah also has an MS in nutrition. Being students and being people very invested in the Chicago community was always at the forefront of our minds, even in the tent.
UIC: Nirali, you were on medical leave at the time, but Sarah, how did shooting the show fit into your schedule as a student?
SC: My first week of classes was the last week of filming. I was absent for that, but I only missed two lectures. I was catching up on assignments on the flight home. I had things due the day after I arrived. My classmates can attest, I attended my group project meetings from afar, and I was able to still complete all my assignments.
UIC: What made you each apply for the show?
SC: I’ve been really into cooking for most of my life. I didn’t really get into baking until I started watching “The Great British Baking Show.” It was really cool to see normal, non-professionals making all these really incredible things, and it inspired me to want to do it. I lived in Los Angeles, where I had a pretty extensive commute to my job. On the weekends, I would want to hunker down at home, so I did a lot of baking then, which gave me an opportunity to expand my skills and interest. My husband suggested I try to be on a baking show. I didn’t make it the first time around, which was in 2020. I moved back to Chicago two years ago [Chang is from Rogers Park], and I saw the casting call, and I was like, “Well, this is probably the last chance I could do this,” because I had already gotten into the UIC Nursing program at that point. I was like, “Let’s give it a shot and have the time of my life.” And I did.
NC: Growing up, I enjoyed tinkering around in the kitchen, but it wasn’t really a more serious hobby until about three years ago or so in 2020. Soon after the murder of George Floyd, I was inspired by an Instagram account I saw called Bakers Against Racism. I started holding bake sale fundraisers out of my small kitchen. I live in South Loop right now, and I grew up in the northwest suburbs. For the fundraisers, I would secure a corporate match, bake hundreds of cookies, and deliver them around the city and suburbs and donate all the funds to The Chicago Community Bond Fund. Since then, I’ve done more fundraisers for more causes dear to me.
What I learned was that baking was a passion that married my creative and technical brains, but it was also another tool in my toolbox that allowed me to help address a need in my community — allowed me to do some good.
UIC: Do each of you have a baking specialty?
NC: Much like other amateur bakers, what brought me into the kitchen were birthday cakes. I love cake. It makes any day a celebration — any lunch meeting, a fun time. Cake is probably my favorite, especially for breakfast.
SC: I love making and eating pie. I don’t know if it’s the best thing I make, but it’s the thing I like making the most.
NC: She makes very good pie.
UIC: What brought you to UIC for medicine, Nirali, and for nursing, Sarah?
NC: My decision to pursue medicine crystallized in college. I took a class called, “The Environment and Your Health,” at Johns Hopkins, and it opened up the world of public health for me. It wasn’t a discipline that I even knew existed, but it provided a context for some of the lived experiences that I had up until that point.
My parents emigrated from India in the 80s. Every summer we went to India. I was acutely aware of the fact that someone could be my age, my race and ethnicity, but just because they lived elsewhere, their life circumstances were hugely different than mine. It created a tension in my mind, and I wanted to work to do something about that in my career.
I had my accident my senior year of college [Chauhan was hit by a car and suffered a traumatic brain injury.]. I decided to pursue a master’s in public health before medical school. I knew my body needed a little more time and grace, but I also wanted to continue to do work I was passionate about.
[After that program], I really wanted to come back home [to Chicago] to apply my skills here. UIC was really important to me because of the patient population, the Urban Medicine Program, and the ability to be among other students that really cared about longitudinal partnership and community work. Also, I wanted to be closer to family. UIC was the perfect everything in that sense.
SC: I’ve had a very winding road to where I am now. When I graduated college and moved back to Chicago, I was interested in health, and had ideas of medical school at the time, but I wanted to give myself time to explore options and interests. One of them was food. I started to realize the disparities around nutrition access and physical activity, which led me to teach [those things] to young people in Chicago and in the suburbs. I ended up going to Tufts University for a dual masters: a Master’s of Science in agriculture, food and the environment and a master’s in public health, focusing on nutrition. I moved to Los Angeles, working at the Social Justice Learning Institute on those issues of food justice.
I started to have nursing in the back of my mind during that time as a potential next step, mainly because of the role nurses have played historically in organizing and fighting for progressive health care changes in our country. I think that was something that very much solidified in 2020 during the pandemic and the uprising after the murder of George Floyd. I became really convinced nursing was my next move as a way for me to fulfill my interest and passion for caring for people on an individual, clinical level. But also, the power nurses have as a collective is really inspiring.
I was moving to Chicago and looking for Chicago-based nursing schools. The College of Nursing at UIC has a fabulous reputation so that was my top choice. I think its connection to community opportunities and the various opportunities for clinical experiences were really attractive. The health campus does fabulous work staying connected to the community, where there are a lot of academic institutions that don’t do that.
UIC: What were some of the most surprising things about being on the show versus watching it on TV?
SC: One of the surprising things for me, certainly at the beginning, was how much it was like what you see on TV.
NC: That’s exactly what I was going to say.
SC: It’s really quite stunning. It made the experience so surreal. I really had moments where I felt like I was watching the judges on TV, but I was in it, and they were eating my food.
NC: But for weeks on end.
SC: There may be speculation: Is it really a tent in the middle of a field? Yes, it’s a tent in the middle of a field, which no one really has experience with, unless you do campfire, Dutch oven-type baking, which I don’t. You’re dealing with all the elements, which is definitely a new experience and really tested a lot of us and how we were able to adapt to those situations.
NC: It is unscripted. The panic you see is real panic. The joy you see is real joy. Everything is very authentic. It was so surreal. I am still processing the fact that we were there. I’m just as excited to watch the show as anyone else. I’m still in disbelief, to be honest.
UIC: What, if any, are some skills that cross over between medicine and nursing and baking, or being on a high-pressure baking show?
SC: They were asking me the same question when I was on the show. I was like, “I don’t know yet!”
Now, after just a year of school and I’ve had my first clinical rotations, there are so many parallels to baking, certainly, and being in the tent. You’re utilizing a lot of knowledge that you’ve learned and engrained in your brain over the course of training and practice, but you’re adapting it to the situation, and responding to different outcomes, some expected, and some unexpected. I think that’s absolutely something you find in nursing.
Even though this was an individual competition for the show, I felt very much that it was a collaborative experience in the sense that the nine of us really became quite close, and we were sharing things with each other and learning from one another. That’s definitely what you’re doing in a nursing environment, or health care in general, trying to work as a team to really solve and address problems.
NC: From the provider aspect, there’s something very nurturing about making a baked good, especially when you want to make something delicious and maybe nostalgic. It hits a really warm spot in someone’s heart. The same thing can be said about caregivers, whether in nursing or medicine. We’re trying to care for people in a way that heals or nourishes them on different levels, from more than a physical aspect.
I think the through line between baking, public health and medicine is this idea of community. I bring my bakes to my Urban Medicine partner site, which is Deborah’s Place over in East Garfield Park, and to South Loop Community Table, which is down the street. Basically, I love baking because I get to do something that’s really fun, joyful and meditative on my part, and then share it with people in my community, including my loved ones.
UIC: In the show’s trailer, Paul Hollywood corrects a contestant’s pronunciation of “basil” (from the U.S. [BAY-sil] to the British [BAS-il]). Were there differences between British and American ingredients or cooking styles that affected you?
NC: The big difference are those Britishisms vs. Americanisms — biscuits vs. cookies. If you’re using cilantro, they’ll say coriander. When they say pie, it’s a very different thing to what we think of as pie. The ingredients were very different. When we got to the U.K., we quickly realized we need to adapt our recipes to account for higher butter fat in the butter. There were environmental differences in the tent, heat and humidity. The ovens are very different from the ones we use and we were baking in Celsius.
SC: It was fun to try to translate some of the words they used to describe our bakes. I had to ask for clarification multiple times.
UIC: Was it distracting when the hosts came around for conversation?
NC: Both Ellie Kemper and Zach Cherry are kind and hilarious, and their whole job is to come exactly at the moment where you’re doing something really technical and have to be focusing. That is the job description. They know that. We know that. Because we’re all kind, respectful people, we just have a lot of fun with that, joking around. The moments they came around were a nice opportunity for me to soak in what was actually happening. In those moments of making something very complicated, in a time crunch, when they interjected, it was, “Oh my goodness. I’m talking to Ellie Kemper, who I love, and Zach Cherry, who I just watched in ‘Severance.’” And then you’re like, “Huh, I am here!” And then you get back into it.
SC: Overwhelmingly it was a decompressing experience from the high-stress, high-stakes situation. Both the hosts, but also the crew, and everyone around the production, was so encouraging and kept me in a good mood. The reason people have such fond feelings about this show in particular has a lot to do with the cast, the hosts and the judges. Everyone involved in the production is wonderful and I had such fun being around them.
The thing I did — that I didn’t anticipate doing, but it was very helpful — I watched the entire season of “The Last Dance,” the Chicago Bulls documentary. I’d watch one to two episodes before every day of filming.
NC: Sarah would always come in with a pump-up song. Gotta go in with game time mindset.
UIC: Tell us about your experience as UIC students.
NC: I have found the school to be so incredibly supportive. In medical school, my physical abilities were stretched yet again to their edge and I needed to take some time away to get care at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. I can’t say enough good things about UIC. I have so many resources especially in the form of mentors and connections to community work. That’s really important to me. I love the school and I can’t wait to finally one day complete it. I’ll start third year later this summer. I’m at the end of second year, studying for Step 1 board exams. Once that’s completed, I’ll be considered a third-year student.
SC: So far, I’ve been really happy with my experience. The professors have been really wonderful. The clinical experience has been so gratifying for me. I just feel very gratified in this second semester of how I’m able to do this work, and I’m very passionate about it and excited to move forward.
UIC: How much baking do you do in your everyday lives as students?
SC: It’s been more of a capacity issue. I have not been able to bake as much, especially in this last semester because of the course load, but I do try to give myself some time to do it because of the therapeutic benefits. I made a cake last night and am bringing it to my classmates today. The shift I made this winter was, “OK, I’m not going to have time to make a five-layer cake, with 12 different components, but maybe we’ll do a fun riff off of Rice Krispies treats.” It’s very easy, and quick to do, but also satisfies that creative process in brain and is a nice, tasty treat to have.
NC: Similarly, for board exam studying, I find myself stretched for time and energy, but on Friday nights, I usually take some time to relax, have a bath running, do some sort of baking, and share it with friends or community members over the weekend. If I have a weekday meeting, then I’m up at 4 a.m. That’s the only time I can get to make sure I can bake and have it cool and ready by the time I’m out the door. I love an early morning. It’s such a nice quiet time. I feel like I’m in the zone. It’s dark out, and just allows me to bake at a pace that feels good while also having my day available to me.
UIC: Have you stayed in touch since the show?
NC: In addition to the group chat we have with all the other bakers that we love, we have a Chicago specific one with our third Chicago baker, Martin Sorge. We talk every day, nearly constantly. We see each other many weekends. We go to ice cream shops, Cubs games, game nights at each other’s houses. We’ve really all become family at this point. That’s the biggest treat of all from the show, is to be able to come home with two incredible people. Unlike any of the other bakers in the series, the three of us are the only ones that come from the same city. It happens to be Chicago. We love Chicago, that really connects us and keeps us together.
— Written by Deborah Ziff Soriano