Ryan Riley's entire life changed at the age of 24 after sending one drunk tweet. It said that he'd like to start cooking classes for cancer patients. Ryan had harbored this dream for years after his mother died of cancer when he was just 20, and it was a dream he decided to share with thousands of people on Twitter after he'd had a few drinks. Today, his dream has been more than realized, with Ryan running Life Kitchen classes all over the UK and writing bestselling cookbooks Life Kitchen and Taste & Flavour, aimed at people whose sense of taste has been lost or changed by cancer, Covid-19 or other illnesses.
‘I ended up on BBC Radio Four's Today program talking about Life Kitchen. By the time I came off air, I had a missed call from [chef] Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at River Cottage asking if he could launch it with me. I had [TV presenter] Sue Perkins and [chef] Nigella Lawson contact me, too. It was crazy,’ says Ryan, referring to some of the biggest names in the British food world.
Ryan moved to London with his friend Kimberley Duke after winning £28,000 in a casino. ‘We were kids from Sunderland in London after both of our mothers died and life was intense – it was strange, it was new,’ says Ryan. The pair worked on a few projects together, first launching a fashion blog, then working for a small fashion magazine and then running a street food stall.
Following his interest in food, Ryan interned on supermarket brand Sainsbury's customer magazine, which is where he was working when he got the confidence to send out his fateful tweet. ‘When I was working for Sainsbury's, I felt like I finally had a bit of skill. I knew a little bit about cooking.’
The science of taste
He partnered again with Kimberley to develop the Life Kitchen cooking classes, working alongside sensory scientist Professor Barry Smith of the University of London to create umami-rich recipes that people could enjoy after losing their sense of taste. Together they developed the idea that, by utilizing two different types of umami, they could develop ‘synergistic umami’. ‘The reason ham and cheese work together is because they're both umami-rich and, when they come together, two different types of glutamates [amino acids] form. Most cultures in the world have a ham and cheese sandwich, because it creates a circle of umami,’ says Ryan. Using that idea and balancing salt, acidity, texture and temperature, the team developed recipes that anyone could make.
Life Kitchen classes launched at River Cottage and were an instant hit, so Ryan started doing them across the country. Giving cancer patients a way to enjoy food and connect with their families and friends was incredibly important for Ryan after watching his mum struggle during her illness. ‘When she was losing her sense of taste, it was really traumatic – not because she couldn't enjoy food, but because she couldn't enjoy it with us,’ he says.
‘I just saw her go through this disconnection. Anything that we were doing to make these memories with her – dinners, outings, family parties – we were over here and she was always over there, sitting back, never feeling truly part of it. That's where the sadness came for her and for us as well. There was a time when she was drunk at her wedding vow renewal, and she picked up what she thought was an apple and bit into it – it was an onion. That's how bad it got,’ says Ryan.
Comfort food as connection
Knowing just how families in a similar situation feel, Ryan wanted to include them in Life Kitchen, so he always allows them to attend with their loved ones. ‘Food is the way people comfort you. It isn't always the thing that you want when you're ill, but you appreciate that's how we give and receive love, comfort and happiness. All of the people we've worked with over the years who went through hell, it's about having something that gets you through,’ he says. ‘We really wanted to make sure that people had the option to bring who they wanted and that's been a really big success for us.’
A key part of Life Kitchen's ethos has always been that the classes are free, funded through branding and book deals: ‘I grew up with not very much money, and I want people to know that free doesn't necessarily always mean low quality. We start classes with a glass of champagne.
You cook four dishes and it's a bloody lovely day out. We're a luxury brand at a free price point.’
Life Kitchen was born from Ryan's traumatic experience and he hopes to smooth the journey for other families. This summer, he'll be running cookery classes while touring the UK in a food truck: ‘This is in memory of my mother, and I want to give back to people. A lot of our recipes have changed a lot of lives. We've had people who haven't tasted anything in a long time suddenly taste something and it's a real lightbulb moment for them.’