Chef and food writer Ryan Riley says it’s been “incredibly hard” forging a successful career while grieving his mother, who died of cancer when Riley was 20.
The Sunderland-born foodie enrolled on a catering course shortly after his mum passed away but dropped out after one term and decided to pursue food writing instead.
While interning at Sainsbury’s Magazine he had a lightbulb moment inspired by his mother’s experience of losing her sense of taste while going through chemotherapy.
Together with childhood friend Kimberley Duke, he set up Life Kitchen, a not-for-profit cookery school for cancer patients, which opened in their home city in 2019.
“I’ve literally spent the last six years of my life talking about my mother’s death every single day and being around cancer patients, which is incredibly rewarding, but incredibly hard,” says Riley, 30, on a video call from home.
“I don’t think I realised how much it was really getting to me. I ended up becoming friends with some of the people who’ve come to the classes over the years and they’ve sadly died. I’m 30 years old and I’ve been to 50 funerals.”
Motivated to help as many people as possible, he published the Life Kitchen Cook Book in 2020, which became a bestseller, and the following year released a free ebook of recipes for people with taste or smell loss due to Covid.
Even before the cookery school opened its doors, big-name chefs were clamouring to be involved, including Nigella Lawson (she cut the ribbon on opening day and has become a friend) and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (early classes were held at River Cottage).
Riley says it’s been “absolutely wild” to see the business thriving – he’s appeared on high-profile TV news and cooking shows on both sides of the pond – but admits he has struggled at times.
“We often get a lot of emails from families after people have died saying, ‘The time they spent with you was so important to us,’ and it’s a very heavy thing to have on you,” he says.
“Especially the last two years of my life have been really, really difficult. You know, you’ve got to put on that brave face and go and teach those classes, and that’s what I did – it really sent me into a not great place.”
While extolling the virtues of nourishing, flavourful food outwardly, he lost the desire to cook for himself (“I didn’t pick up a pan for about three months”) and decided to seek help from a therapist.
“Nigella said to me once, ‘You can’t keep giving from an empty cup.’ I’d spent so many years giving myself to other people that I fell into this sort of depression in myself,” Riley recalls.
“I really fell out of love with food, which is really difficult when you’re trying to write a cookbook. So the whole idea of this book came to me. I was like, ‘I think I want to teach myself to love food again.'”
The culinary equivalent of ‘physician, heal thyself,’ the result of that dark period is Small Pleasures: Joyful Recipes for Difficult Times.
Split into three chapters – comfort, restoration, pleasure – it’s based on the same science-backed principles of Life Kitchen’s previous offerings.
“Cancer patients quite often lose their sense of taste to chemotherapy or radiotherapy, it’s often that real dulling of flavour,” he explains. “Everything in the book is really strong and really delicious.”
That’s why you’ll find punchier versions of comforting classics like miso scrambled eggs; brie, cheddar and harissa toastie; red onion marmalade cacio e pepe; and sweet-and-sour apple crumble.
In December, Riley marked 10 years since his mum’s passing. What does he think she would say about her son becoming a bestselling author, appearing on telly and hobnobbing with celebrities?
“I think she’d be absolutely baffled for one. She’d say, ‘I don’t understand how you’ve done this, you have to get a real job.’ And she’d be very, very proud,” he says with a smile.
“She’s now been gone a third of my life. That’s a very strange concept to deal with in my head. It doesn’t feel like me in some ways.”
Quick to assert that the praise he and co-founder Duke receive is “absolutely ridiculous,” he says: “It’s just something that we started, it took off, and then we just realised the joy that it could bring to each other. The irony is the joy was kind of taken away from me a little bit, but we’ll get back there.”
Does he have any words of wisdom for anyone who’s recently lost a loved one? “My advice for people is don’t rush into things. Don’t make big decisions.”
And, he concludes, remember that brighter days will come: “Time does heal, but you never are fully healed. People need to accept that life will never be the same – but that doesn’t mean life is always going to be sad.”
Small Pleasures: Joyful Recipes For Difficult Times by Ryan Riley is published by Bloomsbury, priced £22. Photography by Craig Robertson. Available now