Ryan Riley is backed by a bevvy of big-name supporters including Nigella Lawson, Sue Perkins and Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall. Jessica Laing finds out more…
For some, food is fuel. And eating? Well, that’s just another part of everyday life. A mundane, but necessary, three-times-a-day task in between working, parenting, exercising and sleeping.
For others, food is a source of pure joy. Something that brings people together and forces busybodies to sit down and relax, if only for a few moments. Many believe it has the power to lift a person’s mood, to excite, to satisfy and to comfort, even during the darkest of times.
Ryan Riley is one of them. For him, food has been something of a life-changing thing.
After losing his beloved mother, Krista, to cancer four years ago, the 24-year-old found himself under a cloud of grief, unsure of what to do next and what the future held for him.
“It was truly an awful time – the worst months, years, of my life,” recalls Ryan, who was born and raised in Washington.
“I was only 18 when mum was given the news,” he says. “I was actually away in the countryside, out in the sticks, when I got the news. When I finally found phone reception, I discovered I had tons of missed calls from my family. Turns out, they were ringing to tell me that she’d been diagnosed with small cell lung cancer – and that it was terminal.”
With his dad working and his sister away at university, Ryan stepped in as Krista’s main carer and spent the next two years by her side as she underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy – both of which had a devastating effect on her relationship with food.
“Chemo and radiotherapy take their toll on people in different ways and to different degrees, but in mum’s case, they completely stole her sense of taste – a big thing, you can imagine, for anyone who loves their food.”
A keen cook, Krista, he says, was always in the kitchen – and she loved a glass of wine. However, as she entered into her final months, food and drink began to lose meaning and mealtimes became miserable.
“It was quite a turbulent time – she didn’t like to eat much towards the end,” says Ryan. “The only things she really reached for were ice pops. Their artificial, sugary sweetness provided some kind of taste, I guess. It was the only enjoyment she got out of eating.”
Sadly, despite ongoing treatment, Krista passed away at Christmas when Ryan was just 20-years-old.
“I was on holiday in Malta when I got the call,” says Ryan. “That haunted me for a while – the fact that I didn’t make it back in time to be with her during her last moments.”
“I felt incredibly guilty. But, you have to forgive and be kind to yourself – and I have, finally. After all, grief is never easy. It’s been a real journey getting to a place in my life where I feel can move forward.”
Unbeknown to Ryan, one of the first steps in moving forward with his life would be saying yes to a night out in Newcastle – an evening that would end up changing his path forever.
“It was about a month or so after mum’s death and I was feeling really down, so my best friend Kimberley persuaded me to go out into town with her,” he says. “We were totally broke – we only had a fiver between us – but somehow ended up in a casino,” he says.
“I put a one pound bet on a blackjack table and, long story short, I ended up winning £28,000. Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true!”
Fast-forward a few months and, armed with his winnings, the pair decided to make the move from the flat they shared in Gateshead, to the Big Smoke.
“It felt like fate had stepped in – it was the push I needed to start afresh,” says Ryan. “We packed up our stuff, flew to Barcelona for a holiday, then touched down in London. We found ourselves a flat and the rest is history – we’ve been here ever since.”
Despite hopes of starting a career in fashion or business, Ryan soon found himself in the middle of London’s buzzy food scene, working for some of the country’s biggest food magazines, including Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, and in TV as a food stylist.
“I’m not really sure how it all came about to be honest,” he says. “Moving into the world of food was just a drunken idea – but I’m happy I decided to go for it and that it paid off!”
The future seemed bright, but thoughts of his mother were never far from his mind. Haunted by the memories of her last months, he began thinking of how he could use his new-found love of food, with a little help from his new-found cash, to give back to cancer patients and their families.
“Free cooking classes, focusing on how to tackle flavour-loss through cancer treatment, came to mind. I wanted to help people going through the similar experiences – and it felt like the perfect way to honour
Ryan kept the idea to himself for some time, until one night, he decided to take to Twitter.
“I put my thoughts out there on a whim, thinking nobody would take much notice, or be interested, but boy, how wrong was I!”
Within days, Ryan’s tweet had gone viral, receiving hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets, as well as the attention of one of the world’s most-loved food icons – Nigella Lawson.
“I had already met Nigella’s people through working in the food industry, so I decided to send them my ideas in the hope that they’d make their way to her. Fortunately, they did – and she immediately got behind the idea.
“I was over the moon to have Nigella’s support – she’s one of my biggest inspirations. I was just speaking with her this morning, actually. She’s still a big supporter of our work.”
The more time passed, the more Ryan’s initiative – which he would later call Life Kitchen – tugged on the heartstrings of foodies everywhere – including more celebrities.
Touched by Ryan’s efforts to help cancer patients fall in love with eating again, food-god, Nigel Slater, wrote about Ryan’s story in his Observer Food Monthly column, urging his readers to show their support by donating to his GoFundMe page. Comedienne, Sue Perkins, who’s father lost his sense of taste – and later his life – to cancer, also got behind the initiative, alongside Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who offered to host Ryan’s first ever cookery class at his award-winning River Cottage restaurant in Devon in February this year, after hearing him on the radio.
“That was a real pinch-me moment,” says Ryan. “And very bittersweet, too. My mum was the biggest River Cottage fan.”
“We did two classes, with around 20 guests in each, hosted by myself and Sue Perkins, who is now actually a patron and a trustee of Life Kitchen.
“ITV and the BBC filmed the whole thing, too. Talk about jumping in at the deep end! It was surreal, but amazing.”
Having set out initially to only do one class, today, Ryan has more than a dozen Life Kitchen classes under his belt – which have taken place at various locations across the UK, including Jamie Oliver’s esteemed cookery school in London, Dalesford Farm in the Cotswolds, owned by Lady Carole Bamford, and Blackfrairs Restaurant in Newcastle.
The format of the classes change depending on where Ryan and his team are and how big the venue is, but the aim is always the same – to get people touched by cancer cooking and enjoying their food again.
“The classes are fun and super informal,” he explains. “I’ll demo a few recipes, then the guests will have a go, then there are times when we’re all cooking along together. We teach them things like how to caramelise, how to season their food properly and how to layer ingredients to get as much flavour out of them as possible – that’s what it’s all about.”
Life Kitchen classes are open to people from all walks of life, facing all stages of cancer; those who are just about to begin treatment, in the middle of it, or coming to the end. Guests are also welcome to bring along a family member, or friend, to join in on the culinary fun.
“Everybody is welcome,” says Ryan. “For those who are at the beginning of their journey, it’s a chance to get ahead of the game, should their taste be compromised during treatment. For people going through it all, the classes provide a great insight into how they can better their relationship with food right here, right now.
“And for those who’ve finished treatment, there’s still lots to take away. The side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy can stay with people for months, years, sometimes forever, but hopefully the classes give people skills and knowledge that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”
But it isn’t all about frying, melting and sautéing, Ryan tells me. It’s also about the science.
“We also talk about why certain ingredients marry well together, how the body responds to them and what effect they have on a person’s sense of taste.”
To help him delve deeper into the world of biology, Ryan enlisted the help of Professor Barry Smith, founder of the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London. Together, they have developed a handful of evidence-driven recipes for Ryan’s guests to enjoy – recipes that bring together unusual flavour combinations to hit the spot – quite literally – and awaken the tastebuds.
“We focus a lot on umami in our recipes, which scientists consider the fifth taste,” explains Ryan. “Think of the intense savouriness you taste when you eat soy sauce, parmesan or tomatoes – that’s umami. When it hits the palette, it stimulates saliva production and boosts all your other taste receptors – salty, sweet, sour and bitter – bringing out and amplifying the flavour of the food.
“There’s something called synergistic umami, which we look at too. It’s when you mix two umami together – tomatoes and anchovies for example – and you get a huge burst of intense flavour. That’s what we’re after.
“We also look at stimulating the trigeminal nerve, which sits between your eyes, ears and mouth,” says Ryan. “It kicks into gear when you eat too much wasabi, horseradish or mustard – when you feel that burning sensation in your nose.
“We discovered certain ingredients and spices activate it, which is why you’ll find us adding mint, along with umami-rich parmesan, salty lardons and bitter lemon to our carbonara, or cinnamon and sweet masala to our apple crumble.”
Heaps of fun and flavour, a sprinkling of laughter and big pinches of positivity – it appears that’s what you’ll discover at a Life Kitchen class. What you won’t find though, Ryan tells me, are dreary discussions about the dreaded c-word.
“People might be surprised to hear that, actually, cancer is not at the centre of our classes. In fact, I barely talk about it at all,” says Ryan. “Sure, it’s the reason our guests are there in the first place, but the focus is on the food and their enjoyment.
“It’s a chance for them to meet and socialise with people who are going through the same thing – away from the hospital waiting room. They talk about normal things, they bond, they laugh and they learn. They feel less isolated and alone. Food really does have the power to bring people together – anyone who attends a Life Kitchen class will see that.”
As our time together comes to a close, Ryan lets me in on his plans for the future of Life Kitchen – and it’s looking very tasty indeed. Having just secured permanent office space in London, work will soon begin on the first Life Kitchen cookery school – in Ryan’s beloved Sunderland.
The state-of-the-art site, which will open its doors in March 2019, will host regular cooking classes, including low-cost community workshops, and also serve as a mini research centre, allowing Ryan and his growing team to further their knowledge in the study of the senses and the affects of cancer treatment.
“I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be opening our very first bricks and mortar site,” says Ryan. “I could’ve opened it in London, where I’m now based, but it wouldn’t have felt right. I wanted to bring Life Kitchen back home to the North East. It’s where I grew up – it’s where my roots are. And it’s where my mother wanted me to be.”
Making Ryan’s cookery school dreams a reality are leading UK companies Sir Robert McAlpine, Turner Townsend and Ryder Architecture, all of whom are designing, building and kitting out the school for free.
“The build alone is probably around £150,000 and the equipment we’re getting – the ovens, fridges and dishwashers for example – are all top-of-the-range. Some cost thousands of pounds. But these fantastic companies are donating everything – their time, expertise and products – for free, out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s mind-blowing. I couldn’t be more grateful.”
With all of this within his grasp, plus a promise of a cookbook in the pipeline and a BBC documentary and a win at The Observer Food Monthly Awards for Best Ethical Food Project 2018 (presented by his pal Nigella Lawson) in the bag, the future for Mr Life Kitchen looks set to flourish. And yet Ryan still can’t quite believe how far he’s come.
“I’ve had big charities such as Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support contact me, asking how I’ve done it. How, on earth, I’ve managed to get the initiative to this stage in such a short space of time and why big names are getting behind it.
“But I think, rather tragically, it’s because cancer is something that resonates with everyone. It touches us all. It doesn’t discriminate – no matter who you are, how much money you have, or how great your life may seem. It’s a common issue, a common fear, that we all want to conquer.
“I’ve just finished the proposal for my first cookbook and in the dedication, which is to my mother, I write ‘out of tragedy, came light’. And I think that says it all really. Who knew that food would end up taking me down such a positive path. It’s been quite a ride so far and I can’t wait to see what happens next.”