Life Kitchen offers recipes and cookery classes for people dealing with cancer. Ella Walker meets co-founder Ryan Riley to find out more.
You’ll likely find Sunderland-born Ryan Riley in a bright and brilliantly patterned shirt, being incredibly open and making everyone in the vicinity feel utterly welcome and valued.
He’s got chat and charisma, and at 26 is co-founder of Life Kitchen (lifekitchen.co.uk), a not-for-profit community interest company that runs free cookery classes and creates recipes for people living with, and recovering from, cancer.
Aged 18, Riley became his mother Krista’s carer after she was diagnosed with terminal small cell lung cancer. “That put me in quite a unique position to see everything that was going on with her, from the treatments to the sadness,” he explains. “She used to admit to me on the sofa that she didn’t want to die.
“She was scared to the very last moment,” he continues. “And that was terrifying for me.”
Krista died when Riley was 20 and on holiday. “My dad called me, he said, ‘You need to get back’, and I never made it back home in time. I had this real connection and this real tragedy with my mother.”
Just a few weeks later, Riley won £28,000 pounds at a casino. “Part of me just wanted to just go off the rails,” he recalls. “My mother was dead, I thought, ‘What did it matter? My life is over’.”
Instead, he went home, said to his best friend (and Life Kitchen co-founder) Kimberley Duke, whose own mother died of cancer when she was 15, ‘Come to London’ – “and she needed no persuasion,” says Riley. “We left the next day.”
His winnings went on rent. “That is how I’ve always been,” he says. “I just go for it.”
The pair set up a fashion magazine and started ‘Jamie’s Sundays’, where they’d cook something from a Jamie Oliver cookbook on a Sunday afternoon. One time, while “lovely drunk” and whipping up gyoza (pot sticker dumplings), they said to each other: “Imagine if we did this as a business?” They sent a sample menu to Camden Market and spent the next two years running a street food cart.
Life Kitchen combines the strands of this shifting education – from taking care of and honouring their mothers, to cooking for hungry punters every day. And the new Life Kitchen cookbook means people who can’t make their classes can still access the recipes.
“I want it to sit on the shelf like a Nigella cookbook,” says Riley. “I didn’t want people to think, ‘I’m getting this cookbook because I’m ill’, but, ‘I’m getting it because it’s about reviving flavour, enjoying food’.
“Life Kitchen isn’t medicinal, it isn’t nutritional, it’s about enjoyment,” he adds. “Having cancer treatment, that is always missing. It’s, ‘Get through this’, it’s survivorship.
“I wanted to say, ‘Come have a good time’, because that’s underrated. My mother was always going to die, so if she could have had more good times, I would have given her more good times. And that is the very centre of why I wrote this book.”
Life Kitchen collaborates with Professor Barry Smith, founding director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses, on flavour combinations and ingredients that will offer punch for those whose sense of taste and smell have been altered.
“People who come to us so often have been on treatment, or they’ve finished treatment, and they don’t want to eat because it’s all been bad memories,” says Riley, acknowledging that attending a cookery class on top of that can be daunting.
But then he gets people making pineapple tacos – a slice of pineapple, folded and stuffed with prawns, chilli and lime – all zing, ideal for triggering saliva production: “It’s novel, it’s fun and it gets people back into the idea that cooking and flavour are possible.”
There’s no pressure to make huge feasts or dig out hundreds of ingredients either, with Riley offering easy ‘flavour hits’ at the beginning of each chapter, to be chucked on whatever you’re eating for a little pizzazz.
“If you can’t be bothered to cook the rest of the book because you’ve got no energy, if you’re getting a ready meal, you can throw this gremolata on top, you can boost the flavour, you can add interest,” he buzzes. “If you’re doing a poached egg on toast, that’s not that flavourful, but if you put this on – with garlic, lemon, olive oil and salt – it’ll bring it to life.
“Put it on a shop-bought pasta, on a salad – we’re not trying to make life harder for anyone.”
He’s great at offering little tricks to “amp up” a dish, be it by adding cardamom to lasagne, mixing hot with cold for contrast, creating a ‘library’ of mayonnaise, or just grating fresh ginger into ketchup.
“I want people to know that it doesn’t have to be scary,” he says, adding that the mental boost of making and eating something delicious cannot be overstated. Take his Parmesan crusted cod: “It feels elegant. If you’ve got cancer, you’ve got no energy and you’re making this for yourself at home and you put it on the plate, it feels like an achievement.”
Even better if you pair it with Life Kitchen’s swift salt and vinegar cucumber, inspired by Nigella. “She just got behind Life Kitchen,” says Riley of the beloved food writer. “She lost her mother, her husband, her sister [to cancer]; she had such a connection to it. The day she followed me on Instagram was the best day of my life.”
While he’s corralled the support of Nigella, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Sue Perkins, amongst others, has run free classes for hundreds of people dealing with cancer and been dubbed the creator of “food therapy”, he considers himself “a very normal working-class boy in a very weird world”.
And while he and Duke spearheaded Life Kitchen with real purpose, Riley says “it doesn’t mean it’s easy. I get emails about people saying they loved Life Kitchen, but unfortunately, they’ve died. It can be really relentless. I’m really glad that survivorship is on the up, and that those emails are hopefully few and far between.”
The cookbook he says, is a way to “invoke a spark of joy”, and while it’s for people living with cancer, it’s also for everyone else too.
“And it’s as much for me as it is for everyone,” says Riley. “It has helped me come to terms with a lot of things. It also pushed me to a place where I was very sad in the middle [of writing it]. There was a point where I was just running away from everything because the pressure was huge. And I guess it’s about bringing back the focus; it’s done now. It’s about sharing it.”
Life Kitchen by Ryan Riley, photography by Clare Winfield, is published by Bloomsbury, priced £20. Available March 5.
HOW TO MAKE PINEAPPLE TACOS WITH PRAWNS, CHILLI AND LIME RECIPE
Pineapple tacos with prawns, chilli and lime are a major hit of flavour.
“My all-time favourite recipe from the Life Kitchen classes, pineapple tacos is the dish that gets the greatest number of emotional reactions from our guests,” says Ryan Riley of Life Kitchen.
“Once, a wonderful man called Mike – who is 75 years old and hadn’t tasted anything in a very long time as a result of his treatment – found this recipe a complete revelation. So many others have said the same thing. Pineapple tacos are a novel idea, but once you’ve made them, you won’t look back.”
Pineapple tacos with prawns, chilli and lime from Life Kitchen by Ryan Riley
(Makes about 20 tacos)
100g cooked prawns, shelled
1 red or green chilli, finely chopped, plus extra to serve (optional)
1 lime, zest and juice, plus extra wedges for squeezing (optional)
1 spring onion, sliced into rough matchsticks
1 pineapple, peeled and sliced into wafer-thin circles
A small handful of coriander leaves
1. In a bowl, mix the cooked prawns with the chilli, the lime zest and juice and the spring onion.
2. Fold each pineapple round in half to resemble a taco shell. Fill each shell with an equal amount of the prawn mixture, sprinkle over a few coriander leaves and squeeze over some extra lime, if you like. Serve immediately with optional extra chilli on the side.
Life Kitchen by Ryan Riley, photography by Clare Winfield, is published by Bloomsbury, priced £20. Available March 5.
HOT AND COLD PICKLED TOMATOES RECIPE WITH CHILLI YOGHURT
Hot and cold pickled tomatoes are super zingy with chilli yoghurt.
“Pickled tomatoes. What a revelation. The sweet tanginess of the vinegar really pairs well with the savouriness of the tomatoes, creating something beautifully balanced,” explains Ryan Riley of Life Kitchen.
“Chilli yoghurt helps the tomatoes to sing, and brings the whole dish a light-handed freshness (there is no end to the list of ingredients you can mix into yoghurt to make it exciting). The pickled tomatoes will keep for two to three days in the fridge in a sealed container.”
Hot and cold pickled tomatoes with chilli yoghurt form Life Kitchen by Ryan Riley
150ml red wine vinegar
1/4tsp fennel seeds
6 coriander seeds
2 bay leaves
12 mixed-colour cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
2tbsp full-fat Greek yoghurt
1tsp Chilli Oil (see below)
Warmed flatbreads or naan breads
A small handful of mint leaves
To make the Chilli Oil:
(makes 200ml so you’ll have plenty left over)
200ml rapeseed oil
40g dried chipotle chilli flakes
20g red chilli flakes
Place a saucepan on a medium heat and add the oil. Bring to a simmer – be very careful as the oil will be extremely hot. After a few moments, drop in a chilli flake: if the oil is hot enough, the flake will sizzle slightly. Remove from the heat and stir in both types of chilli flake. Set aside and allow to cool completely. Once cooled, pour into a sterilised jar and seal with a lid.
1. Stir together the vinegar, both seeds and the bay leaves in a bowl. Place a saucepan on a high heat and pour in half the liquid (with half the aromatics). Bring to the boil, then turn off the heat. Divide the tomatoes between two bowls and pour the hot liquid into one bowl and the cold into the other. Leave for five minutes.
2. Meanwhile, combine the yoghurt and chilli oil in a bowl.
3. To serve, spread the warmed breads with the chilli yoghurt, top with both hot and cold tomatoes (discarding the bay) and scatter over the mint.
PARMESAN COD RECIPE WITH SALT AND VINEGAR CUCUMBER
This Parmesan cod is a fish dish with a difference.
“Think of British fish and chips with lashings of vinegar (with its acidic tang and sweetness), then turn up the flavour a few notches and you get this dish,” explains Ryan Riley of Life Kitchen.
“Salt and vinegar cucumber is refreshing for your palate and the Parmesan-crusted cod brings plenty of umami. Serve this with some crushed new potatoes.”
Parmesan cod with salt and vinegar cucumber from Life Kitchen by Ryan Riley
150g Parmesan, grated
2tsp smoked paprika
1 small handful of thyme, leaves picked
A pinch of salt
A pinch of black pepper
4 small cod loins (about 140g each)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Good-quality olive oil, to serve
For the salt and vinegar cucumber:
1 cucumber, sliced into ribbons
A large pinch of salt
150ml malt vinegar
1. Heat the oven to 180°C. Line a baking tray with baking paper.
2. Start the salt and vinegar cucumber. Place the cucumber ribbons in a bowl and sprinkle liberally with the salt, making sure all of the cucumber is salted – don’t worry, you’re going to wash off most of the salt later. Set aside.
3. To make the cod, in a bowl first mix the parmesan, paprika and thyme leaves with the pinches of salt and pepper.
4. One by one, place the cod loins into the beaten eggs and coat well. Then roll each egg-coated loin in the parmesan mixture until coated and place on the lined baking tray. Bake for about eight to 10 minutes, until the cod gently flakes when pushed with the back of a teaspoon. If you like, give the loins a final minute under a hot grill to get the parmesan coating really crispy.
5. While the cod is in the oven, transfer the cucumber to a sieve and wash off the excess salt under running water. Place the ribbons in a bowl with the malt vinegar and give them a good mix. Leave to lightly pickle until the cod is cooked.
6. Serve each cod loin with a generous portion of the salt and vinegar cucumber and drizzled with good-quality olive oil.