Life is what you bake it . . . Former St Kevin's College pupil Alby Hailes is a contestant on the new season of The Great Kiwi Bake OffPHOTO: SUPPLIED

On the surface, medicine and baking might not appear to have a lot in common.

But mental health doctor Alby Hailes says balanced nutrition and a positive relationship with food can go a long way to improve people’s mental health outcomes.

Dr Hailes, a former St Kevin’s College pupil, made his reality television debut last night in the new season of The Great Kiwi Bake Off. The third season of the show features nine episodes, and Dr Hailes is one of 10 contestants testing their baking skills.

“I’m super interested in cooking. It’s been one of my passions for a while, and I thought it was a unique opportunity to push myself outside of my comfort zone, meet some awesome people and learn some new skills and see how I get on,” he said.

Dr Hailes grew up in Oamaru and it was in the North Otago town that his passion for cooking really developed.

He had always enjoyed baking at home, and through Youthtown, he did a cooking course at Sally-Ann Donnelly’s Portside restaurant – and ”that really got me into cooking”, he said.

When he left St Kevin’s at the end of 2012, Dr Hailes moved to Dunedin to study medicine at Otago University. Outside of study, he enjoyed cooking for his flatmates and started an Instagram page called Scarfie Kitchen, posting easy and affordable recipe ideas for students. He also published a recipe book.

As his interest and experimentation in cooking developed, and he graduated from university, Scarfie Kitchen evolved into trEAT right, a platform that focused on the cornerstones of living well and inspiring a creative and balanced approach to nutrition.

Dr Hailes is now based in Whangarei, working as a doctor for the Northland District Health Board and specialising in psychiatry and mental health. Cooking was a great outlet for his creativity, and he was interested in the connection between food and mental health.

“What people put into their bodies is huge, in terms of not just your physical health, but how you feel and your mental health, and I think there’s so much more research and work that can be done in that area, in terms of how that affects people’s mental states.”

Food also brought people together, and that sense of connection with whanau and sense of belonging was “hugely important”.

Dr Hailes was “nervous but excited” to see the first episode of The Great Kiwi Bake Off last night.

“It’s a strange feeling to have gone through the filming of something and to then have an extended period before it actually gets aired,” he said.

“It’ll bring about lots of memories of the actual filming – and probably some new feelings.”

The competition was a “pretty intense environment”, but he enjoyed the experience and made some great friendships with the other contestants.

His experience in performing arts and public speaking helped prepare him for the show, to a degree, he said.

While he was living in Oamaru, he played the role of Mr Mistoffelees in Musical Theatre Oamaru’s 2009 production of Cats, completed his associate diploma in public speaking, and was involved in Stage Challenge and school productions.

“I’m comfortable enough in front of the camera, and you know, to an audience. I tend to back myself 100% in what I do and I guess have less of that performance anxiety than maybe other people might have in that situation.”

While there was some drama in the show, ultimately it was “about celebrating people in baking and the joy that comes with that”, he said.

“It’s about building people up, rather than tearing them down, like a lot of the reality shows around at the moment eem to do.”

Growing up, Dr Hailes excelled at tennis, and was the No. 1 ranked under-17 tennis player in the Southern region in 2011-12. He still enjoys playing, and incorporated his passion for the sport into the first episode of the show, creating a giant tennis ball cake for a “supersize me” challenge.

While his parents now live in Dunedin, Oamaru would always hold a special place in his heart and he appreciated the support people from the North Otago town had given him to pursue his passion for cooking.

“When you’re growing up in Oamaru, you think it’s just a small town,” he said.

“But now when I say that I spent lots of my formative years there … people always like, ‘Oh, I love that town’.

“And it’s really cool to hear that.”