Long road to recovery leads Barrington High School alum to 'Baking Show' tent
During her long recovery from a traumatic brain injury, one of the exercises that helped Nirali Chauhan was pretending to bake.
"Literally, we made a little kitchen for me in the rehab facility and would practice," Chauhan, 29, said of her recovery team at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. "There was a time when I couldn't pivot in the kitchen, bend over to use an oven, let alone bake for hours."
Viewers across the country soon can see Chauhan's baking skills in action as a contestant on the new season of "The Great American Baking Show," which premieres Friday on the Roku Channel.
During her time on the show, her recovery was never far from her mind.
"I'd be doing something and I'd remember practicing it in rehab, and it made me so grateful to everyone who'd helped me," said Chauhan, who graduated from Barrington High School in 2012.
Chauhan was injured 8½ years ago during a visit home to Barrington from college. Her family was getting together to remember her father on the anniversary of his unexpected death. That day, the batteries on one of the family vehicles had died, so a neighbor was asked to come over and give the car a jump.
On his way, he accidentally accelerated his SUV instead of braking. Chauhan was struck and ended up on its hood. When the neighbor hit the brakes, she was abruptly thrown and landed hard on the pavement, first on her sacrum -- a bone at the bottom of the spine -- then her head.
Though she was able to resume her education, Chauhan's lingering medical issues eventually forced her to put school on hold.
"Over time my movements were less coordinated. I would feel sick and have headaches and pain all over my body," Chauhan said. "I was acing all my classes and looked the same on the outside, so it was hard to convince people that something was wrong."
Chauhan said her recovery team at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab worked with her to identify and treat all of her lingering symptoms, including the fatigue she would get from socializing.
"I didn't have the tools to be able to speak, think and talk at the same time," Chauhan said. "I could pick two but couldn't do all three."
Baking became a hobby, creative outlet and kind of meditation over the years, but Chauhan found herself limited in the kitchen.
After the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who died in May 2020 when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck and back, Chauhan raised money for Bakers Against Racism by baking and selling hundreds of cookies.
"It pushed my physical limits for sure," Chauhan said.
When an old Barrington High School friend tagged her in an Instagram post last year seeking applicants for the next season of the American spinoff of "The Great British Baking Show," she decided to give it a try.
Chauhan submitted her application at 12:41 a.m. May 9, 2022. Just over 12 hours later, she got a call from a Los Angeles casting producer.
"Then, it was off to the races," Chauhan said.
That Chauhan -- who is studying at the University of Illinois College of Medicine -- would be chosen for the show wasn't a surprise for Lisa Nardiello, her Spanish teacher at Barrington High.
"It just sort of made me laugh to see that she's still doing it all, in medical school, on a baking competition," she said. "I'm just so proud of her."
Nardiello, who also spent time with Chauhan as the teacher adviser for the Barrington High student council, describes her former student as someone who is able to connect with everybody.
"She really brought everybody together," Mardiello said.
Chauhan is not allowed to say how the season turned out in terms of winners and losers, but she had only nice things to say about the other eight contestants. Longtime fans of the show can expect more of the series' trademark good vibes this season.
"I feel like I walked out with eight new best friends," Chauhan said. "It was as wholesome as I ever imagined."
The first five seasons of "The Great American Baking Show" ran on ABC from 2015 through 2019.
The upcoming season on Roku will be hosted by Ellie Kemper, of the Netflix sitcom "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," and Zach Cherry, of the Apple TV+ series "Severance." Series veterans Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith will serve as judges.