Life Kitchen was born of young Ryan Riley's experiences caring and cooking for his dying mum
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 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 (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 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 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, among others, has run free classes for hundreds of people dealing with cancer and been dubbed the creator of "food therapy", he simply considers himself "a very normal working-class boy in a very weird world".
:: Life Kitchen by Ryan Riley, photography by Clare Winfield, is published by Bloomsbury, priced £20. Below are three recipes from the book for you to try at home.
PINEAPPLE TACOS WITH PRAWNS, CHILLI AND LIME
(Makes about 20 tacos)
100g cooked prawns, shelled
1 red or green chilli, finely chopped, plus extra to serve
1 lime, zest and juice, plus extra wedges for squeezing
1 spring onion, sliced into rough matchsticks
1 pineapple, peeled and sliced into wafer-thin circles
A small handful of coriander leaves
In a bowl, mix the cooked prawns with the chilli, lime zest and juice and spring onion. Fold each pineapple round in half to resemble a taco shell. Fill each with an equal amount of the prawn mixture, sprinkle over a few coriander leaves and squeeze over some extra lime. Serve with optional extra chilli on the side.
PARMESAN COD RECIPE WITH SALT AND VINEGAR CUCUMBER
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
Heat the oven to 180C. Line a baking tray with baking paper. 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.
To make the cod, in a bowl first mix the Parmesan, paprika and thyme leaves with the pinches of salt and pepper.
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.
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.
Serve each cod loin with a generous portion of the salt and vinegar cucumber and drizzled with good-quality olive oil.
HOT AND COLD PICKLED TOMATOES WITH CHILLI YOGHURT
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 careful as the oil will be hot. After a few moments, drop in a chilli flake: if the oil is hot enough, the flake will sizzle. 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.
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.
Meanwhile, combine the yoghurt and chilli oil in a bowl. 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.