Food therapy vs chemotherapy: the cookery classes for people living with cancer

Food therapy vs chemotherapy: the cookery classes for people living with cancer

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For Ryan Riley there was a sense of a circle closing at the February launch of Life Kitchen at River Cottage in Devon. Before she died of lung cancer four years ago, Krista Riley, Ryan’s mother, loved to watch food programmes, and her particular favourite was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. It was a matter of chance that Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage team contacted Ryan to offer to help kick-start his project at their cookery school, after hearing him talk about it on the radio. Like several things about Life Kitchen it felt like the perfect fit straight away.

Riley is a 24-year-old food writer and food stylist originally from Sunderland. Before that first cooking school began he sat down with me at River Cottage and explained how it had come about. He had, he says, never perhaps “properly processed” his grief at his mother’s death, and one of the things that always nagged at him when he went over it in his mind was how his mum had struggled to find anything she wanted to eat in the months before she died. A keen home cook, Krista Riley always made, he says, perfect versions of four or five staple north-east dishes, including panacalty, the mackem hot pot. By the end, however, because of her treatment, the only things she wanted to taste were synthetic ice pops, mainly for their numbing cold. Thinking on that, and wanting to honour his mother’s memory in some way, about a year ago Riley wondered if there might be a way of using his cooking skills to help cancer patients find some flavour.

Life Kitchen - Ryan Riley River Cottage Observer Food Monthly OFM



‘Different chemo creates different problems. I can’t solve all of that, but I can keep people interested in food’: Ryan Riley. Photograph: Harry Borden for the Observer

The idea of Life Kitchen is simple, but enormously persuasive. As anyone who has undergone chemotherapy will tell you, one of the most frequent and demoralising side-effects is a loss or dramatic change in the sense of taste. Life Kitchen is designed to try to help mitigate that loss, to teach cooking skills and recipes that might restore some pleasure in food, and to do so alongside others facing similar challenges.

Riley confides to me that he has never stood up in front of a cooking class before – but with the backdrop of the River Cottage gardens and the sweep of the Devon valley behind him through floor to ceiling windows he immediately proves himself a natural. Of the two dozen people who had signed up for this inaugural event 12 are living with, or have recently survived, cancer that had required chemotherapy; the other 12 are friends or partners who had come along to cook with them.

The first Life Kitchen – which is free – was fully booked in a couple of hours. Talking to some of the people who had travelled here to cook with Riley, you see immediately why that might be the case. Nikki Byrne, who is here with her partner Sally Giles, used to be a home economics teacher. They moved to Cornwall from London for Nikki to take up a job as a deputy head only a few months before she received a breast cancer diagnosis and then discovered she had secondary cancer in her spine. Nikki is on a four-week chemo cycle. “I’ve always liked cooking and baking,” she says, “but my taste goes up and down. Sometimes I can taste nothing at all. Sometimes things are really salty. Sometimes there is a metallic taste.” Of all the changes in her life a loss of the love of food is among the hardest to take. “To lose the flavour you lose a lot of enjoyment out of life. It also becomes a bit pointless going out for meals. That is one of the things I miss.” Others talk of not being able to face food at all; but there is too, a collective enthusiasm in the room to not only find some possible solutions, but also to “escape from cancer-y things and have some fun for an afternoon”.

That enthusiasm was an immediate byproduct of Riley’s idea. He tweeted out the basics of it one night just over a year ago, and Nigella Lawson – who lost her first husband, John Diamond, to cancer – was among those who saw its potential and urged support among her two million followers. Within a week of that first tweet Riley had raised £10,000 through a GoFundMe page to get a pilot together and been featured on the Today programme. Offers of help – including from River Cottage – didn’t stop.

A sense of serendipity has characterised quite a lot of Riley’s life in the years since he lost his mother. He doesn’t necessarily believe in fate, though he could be forgiven for being tempted. The story of Life Kitchen really began a month after his mother died when, miserable and broke, he was persuaded to go out one night with a friend in Newcastle. They only had a fiver between them so the plan was to go to the casino and see if they could turn it into enough for a few drinks. Riley put a one pound side-bet on a blackjack table that was playing six decks of cards, and turned up four aces, each one the same suit. He won £28,000.

It was a life-changing moment. “I could have gambled it away I suppose – I was in quite a self-destructive mood – but it happened I was going to London fashion week with my friend Kimberley that week,” he says. He was planning to write about the event for a little magazine he had just started self-publishing. He and Kimberley, his friend since they were two years old, were sharing a council flat in Gateshead at the time and behind on the rent. With a down-payment on the £28,000 in his pocket and a letter promising the rest, he suggested to her: “Let’s still go to London but not come back.”

They rented a place to live for a year, and used some of the money to open a street-food stall at Camden Lock; from there Riley started styling food for advertising photoshoots and writing bits for Waitrose Food magazine and elsewhere. That in turn brought him some friendships in the food world – he has an irrepressible sense of possibility – and led him to thinking about how he could really repay his slice of Dick Whittington-like fortune.

What he discovered was that “there is hardly anyone who is not touched by cancer in some way”. Another of the people who saw the resonance of Life Kitchen was Sue Perkins, who is with Riley for the launch at River Cottage, acting, she suggests, as his very willing “kitchen bitch”. Perkins explains how Ryan’s idea immediately touched a nerve: “Before he died my dad had three primary cancers over 20 years,” she tells me, “and for four of those years he was having chemo every day. We got used to sitting as a family at the table and him not to be able to taste what we were tasting. The idea that Ryan is going to create food with flavour that can help to cut through the bastard that is chemo is amazing. That is why I wanted to be here – and also to chop onions.”

Life Kitchen - Ryan Riley



Full flavoured: pork with gremolata, mushrooms and lentils. Photograph: Harry Borden for the Observer

Having established his idea Riley had to work out exactly what flavours might perform the particular effect he hoped for. He did as much research as he could, andenlisted the help of Professor Barry Smith, who is the founder of the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London. Other than that though he relied partly on intuition and some trial and error. There is, of course, no magic bullet when it comes to taste. Riley is anxious to stress both to me, and to his volunteer cooks, that what he is proposing is very far from a definitive solution to the problems of chemotherapy and taste, but that some principles of building flavour will help. They will also act as a kind of living experiment in what works – providing feedback and insight for a research project that Smith will collaborate on.

The two dishes Riley proposed to that first group exploit a couple of the key ideas he is exploring. He shows them how to make a carbonara with very intense umami flavours from an aged parmesan sauce and lardons, and sweated down onion and peas, plus some sharpness of lemon and mint. The idea is that the umami lifts all the other four taste receptors, while mint, along with several other herbs and spices, stimulates the trigeminal nerve, which gives us our sense of “hot” and “cold” foods, as well as a delight in texture. The group then makes a pork dish, again with some caramelisation, and a sharp gremolata, and mushrooms and lentils. Both dishes prove heart-warmingly enjoyable to create and get a pretty much universal thumbs up for taste.

“Different chemo creates different problems,” Riley says. “I can’t solve all of that, but what I can do is keep people interested in food. There is no doubt, I think, doing that with a group especially can be mentally boosting.”

In the few months since that event, Riley has done others, immediately over-subscribed, in London and Oxfordshire – with Perkins still as his impromptu sous chef (and now patron of Life Kitchen). At the time of writing, he has plans for Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow, but also to really try to scale his idea. Speaking to me in London where he is organising a charity auction of plates designed and donated by artists, he explains how his life has become all about Life Kitchen. “The great thing about it,” he says, “is that when people get involved, cancer becomes irrelevant for a while, it is immediately about food and people.”

gofundme.com/lifekitchen



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